Scottish independence back in play after Brexit shock – with a note of caution

Craig McAngus

Bring it on? YouTube

One question that was omnipresent in the EU referendum debate referred to Scotland: what would happen if it voted to remain in the EU but was pulled out on the back of votes from elsewhere in the UK? Would it lead to a second independence referendum and then a vote for independence?

In the aftermath of the result, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has given the clearest indication of what the answer will be. She told a press conference it is now “highly likely” a second independence referendum will be held.

It comes after a clean sweep of Scottish local authorities voted to remain in the EU but faces being forced out by the Anglo-Welsh Brexit vote. She said the Scottish government would begin drafting legislation to make such a referendum possible.

It was a bold move by the SNP leader, implicitly daring Westminster to suggest such a vote will have no legal basis. Yet she was cautious, too. She cleverly hasn’t committed to a timescale and said the Scottish government will look to open channels of communication with the EU and other member states. This will buy her time while the UK gets its Brexit negotiations underway, allowing her to showcase to Scottish unionists her competency in standing up for the nation’s interests in this fraught period.

The debate about Scottish self-government intensified from Margaret Thatcher’s time in office in the 1980s, when Scottish support for the ruling Conservatives fell away sharply. Much was made of the complaint that what the electorate in the south of England voted for was imposed in Scotland against the people’s democratic will. It was one of the driving forces in the creation of the Scottish parliament in 1999 and a key argument for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum.

The EU referendum result has brought this issue to the fore in perhaps the most acute manner yet. This result represents what was described in the SNP’s manifesto for the Scottish election in May as the kind of “material change in circumstances” in Scotland’s status as a constituent part of the UK that would justify a second referendum. As such, Sturgeon referred to it in her press conference.

One reason why EU membership has long been given this status by Sturgeon and her senior colleagues is that during the 2014 referendum campaign, the pro-UK Better Together campaign argued Scotland was more likely to stay a member of the EU as part of the UK. Far from being allowed to continue, Better Together claimed the EU would make Scotland apply for membership from scratch and be denied some of the UK’s favourable conditions – how ironic this looks now.

Sturgeon votes in Glasgow. Jane Barlow / PA Wire

Treading lightly

So now that the unionists have played right into the SNP’s hand, why the need for caution? First, the party will want to wait and see how the post-Brexit negotiations play out. The deal that the UK is able to secure with the EU, whether it is some sort of continued membership of the single market or something much looser, will be crucial for the Scottish electorate when it comes to making a cost-benefit analysis of what Brexit actually means.

A number of devolved policy areas such as fisheries and farming are in actual fact Europeanised in the sense that the major decisions are taken at an EU level. Taking the Common Fisheries Policy as an example, Marine Scotland would take sole responsibility for the management of fish stocks in Scottish territorial waters, with its operations under more direct scrutiny from the Scottish parliament as a result.

Mackerel: important to Scottish economy. Thiradech

Brexit therefore actually enhances some of the powers and competencies of the Scottish parliament, something that those who back devolution over independence may well take into consideration. Having said that, there are questions for the Scottish government and Scottish parliament regarding the oversight and scrutiny of these policy areas in future.

Secondly, if Scotland was to vote for independence and was able to remain a member state of the EU, it would share its land border with a non-member. The last independence referendum campaign threw up a number of difficult questions about a shared currency and cross-border trade that will be even more tricky to answer in a post-Brexit contest.

The mechanics of the possible relationship between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK are therefore significantly altered to what they were in 2014. This requires a rethink from the Scottish government and the wider pro-independence movement on what shape and form Scottish independence ought to take.

The Quebec precedent

The third and probably most crucial reason for holding off from the point of view of the SNP is that there is little evidence to suggest that support for independence would receive a significant boost as a result of Brexit. The SNP’s leadership is keen to avoid Scotland “doing a Quebec” where a second referendum on independence took place and was defeated, and over 20 years later the prospects of it holding another are all but dead.

The fiscal and economic conditions that an independent Scotland would be subjected to are significantly worse than they were in 2014, with the North Sea struggling due to the low price of oil. This would leave Scotland with an estimated fiscal deficit of £11.9bn (7.8% of GDP) compared to the UK’s fiscal deficit of £59.8bn (3.3% of GDP). It is also unclear how important Scottish voters feel membership of the EU is and whether or not it is more important than economic risk – one of the most important factors that led to a No vote.

That the SNP had not yet persuaded the Scottish electorate to choose independence in spite of these problems is highlighted by a paradox in the party’s 2016 election manifesto: while the “material change of circumstances” clause has clearly been triggered, another SNP referendum test has not. The manifesto talks about requiring clear and sustained support amongst the Scottish electorate for independence before a second referendum would go on the table. A source within the SNP has previously stated that support for independence would have to consistently remain at about 60% for this to be satisfied.

Salmond: hints at indyref2. EPA

Clearly the SNP felt such a clear Scottish mandate to stay in the EU could only be met with a strong signal that the second referendum is now all but irresistible. Yet Nicola Sturgeon’s caution, preceded by a round of interviews by former leader Alex Salmond, shows that victory is far from in the bag – even in the face of such a difference of opinion with the English and Welsh.

In the timeframe available, she will hope that the pro-independence movement can awaken again and mobilise with the same vigour as last time – and that Brexit really does tip enough Scottish unionists towards supporting independence. The SNP will then have to win the argument or potentially face the same fate as their counterparts in Quebec.

This article was updated post-publication to reflect rapidly moving news events

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Craig McAngus does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Aberdeen provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.