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Why Brexit Means Scottish Independence Is Off The Table—For Now

9 minute read
Alex Massie is Scotland editor of the Spectator magazine

David Cameron’s place in history is now secure. He is the man who presided over a calamitous referendum that led to Britain leaving the European Union. Little else in Cameron’s record now matters very much at all. This is all people need to know and remember about him. The consequences of so-called Brexit are still only dimly appreciated, however, and the aftershocks of Cameron’s earthquake-sized humiliation will continue to be felt for years to come.

Chief among those shocks is the increased possibility Brexit will also lead to the break-up of Britain. Scotland, which voted 62-38 in favour of E.U. membership, may be edging towards independence. Certainly Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Nationalist Party leader of Scotland’s devolved government, now argues a second referendum on Scottish independence is “highly likely.” Though defeated in 2014, the cause remains alive. Besides, she now says, the Union for which Scots voted just two years ago, is not the Union that now exists. There has been a “material change in circumstance” that justifies another tilt at independence. Scotland has been taken out of the E.U. against her clearly expressed will and this, she says, is a democratic outrage.

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s vote a flurry of opinion polls seemed to suggest support for independence was on the rise. If a referendum were held tomorrow 53% of Scots would endorse independence. Many former No voters allowed that they were at least open to the idea of thinking about independence again. JK Rowling, for instance, tweeted that Cameron’s reckless referendum gambit had endangered the U.K. and made Scottish independence more, not less, likely. Since Rowling, in addition to writing a number of successful books, donated £1m to the Unionist Better Together campaign in 2014, her words had some impact. Her support for the Union, like that of many other Scots, was never absolute or unquestioning. It was provisional and subject to circumstances. Like other Unionists on the centre-left, she could envisage a time when those circumstances could change.

Scotland, in other words, no longer stands where she once did. The country is restless again, wondering whether its future lies in remaining part of the U.K. or leaving and striking out on its own. The national question, which was not settled in 2014, is no nearer being settled now.

Even so, there are reasons to treat this apparent enthusiasm for separatism with a measure of caution. In the first place, the polls may show an uptick in support for independence but there has been no increase in the percentage of Scots who actually want or look forward to another referendum. That remains a minority enthusiasm. In other words, the national sentiment is essentially this: “I might vote for independence if I was forced to think about it but I don’t want to have to think about it right now.”

Moreover, the complexities of unravelling the United Kingdom at the same time as the U.K. is negotiating its withdrawal from the E.U. are such that it would be a brave politician who thought the two could be done concurrently. It would require Scottish voters to endorse independence without any clear idea what that would mean in practical terms. This is theoretically possible but also, in more practical terms, implausible.

So too is the suggestion, leapt upon with enthusiasm by some nationalists that a Scotland moving towards independence could even bypass the E.U. admission process by claiming “successor status” to the U.K. Scotland would never have left and so would not need to apply for membership. This too seems improbable. Scotland, whether she likes it or not, is heading for the exit door alongside the rest of the U.K. If, at some putative point in the future, Scotland wants back in she will have to apply for EU membership like anyone else.

Which helps explain Ms Sturgeon’s euro-diplomacy this week. She understands that Scotland is a special case but not sufficiently special it can be treated exceptionally. The E.U. deals with member states, not parts of member states and will no more grant Scotland continuing membership than it would Catalonia if Spain were – however improbably – intent on leaving the E.U. against the wishes of Catalonia. But what Ms Sturgeon can do is lay the groundwork for a potential future bid for Scottish E.U. admission, ensuring that such an application is fast-tracked and looked upon favourably.

That’s some way in the future, however. All of which leaves Scots to contemplate this hard and stubborn truth: their future is intimately tied to the future of England and the rest of the U.K. This can neither be wished away nor avoided. The relationship between London and Edinburgh will always be of paramount importance and London will continue to cast a long shadow northwards.

For all that E.U. countries are an important export market for Scottish business, Scotland sells four times as much to the U.K. as it does to the E.U. Sixty five percent of Scottish trade is with the U.K. and just 15% with the E.U. Scotland’s financial services industry, which directly employs 100,000 people and indirectly supports 100,000 more, is especially dependent upon the English market. It is not inconceivable that some of these jobs would flee south in the event of an independence settlement that also included customs barriers at the Anglo-Scottish border.

In other words, Scotland’s interests most likely lie in being in the same club as England. At the very least, Scotland needs to be in a position whereby it can enjoy free trade with its nearest neighbour and largest customer. If an independent Scotland were to rejoin the E.U. it would need, as a matter of the acutest urgency, a trade deal with the rump U.K.

If that’s something to concentrate Scottish minds so too is the unavoidable fact that the independence “offer” will have to be very different from that presented to the people in 2014. Forty five percent of Scottish voters endorsed a heroically optimistic prospectus for independence that promised every household in Scotland would be better off out of the U.K. Not only that, but an independent Scotland would somehow be able to spend more and borrow less without having to raise taxes at all. Scots could have it all.

That was based, in part, on projections of an oil price of more than $110 a barrel. Since then the value of North Sea oil has plummeted to the extent that U.K. oil revenues this year will be essentially zero. At a stroke, or at current prices, Scottish independence became a very expensive business. Oil is more than just a “bonus” to Scotland; it is the commodity which fuels the independence dream. No wonder SNP ministers suggested, in 2014, that Scotland was on the verge of a “second oil boom”. No such boom has yet materialised.

Without buoyant oil prices, Scotland is left with a structural deficit that amounts to nearly 10% of GDP. That would complicate E.U. membership, to say nothing of the impact it would have on a newly independent nation’s finances. If Scots dislike George Osborne’s “austerity” politics, they should brace themselves for a much more punishing dose of sado-economics in the event they ever vote for independence.

In other words, a new independence prospectus will have to level with the people. Scotland’s long-term prospects might be encouraging but the initial years of independent life would be hard. There is no longer any way of avoiding that tough truth. A gloomy case for independence—one that says it’s not ideal but it’s still better than the alternatives—may prove harder to sell.

Of course numbers and economic self-interest do not always prevail. The practical case for Scottish independence is harder—or weaker —than it was even if the political argument for it is stronger than it was just two years ago. The SNP narrative that Scotland and England are such fundamentally distinct entities that it no longer makes sense for them to be part of the same nation state has been bolstered by the E.U. referendum result. One consequence of that is a palpable sense of psychological drift amongst Unionists. An Ipsos-MORI poll last autumn found that 55% of Scots expect that independence will happen at some point in the next 25 years. Recent events have likely reinforced that notion even if they have also complicated the picture.

But Sturgeon also knows that she cannot afford to call and lose a second referendum. That concentrates minds. A second defeat, it is universally agreed, would terminate dreams of independence. Whereas the 2014 plebiscite left the door ajar for a rerun, a second defeat puts an end to the matter. That in turn means that Sturgeon is in no rush to hold another referendum and will not do so until polls show, over a period of time, consistent majority support for independence. That means there is much more work to be done to persuade Scots to embrace the known uncertainties of independence.

And so, despite the confidence felt in nationalist circles that the tide of history is on their side, there remain plenty of obstacles in their way. The route to independence is easier to map than to navigate. Which is why Sturgeon will wait to see how events she cannot control unfold. Like everyone else in Britain right now, she is a prisoner of uncertainty too.

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