Brexit And Scottish Independence
If the United Kingdom does go through with Brexit, it could lead to an existential crisis for the United Kingdom itself.
As the British Elections on December 12th, and the Brexit deadline on January 31st, draw closer, it is becoming clearer and clearer that the future of the “United” Kingdom is on the line:
GLASGOW — Pushing purposefully through the crowd, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, stops abruptly, her path blocked by a well-wisher cradling a photogenic 5-month-old. Without hesitation, Ms. Sturgeon gathers the baby smoothly in her arms and slowly plants a kiss on his forehead, as the cameras click in unison.
Seen by many as Britain’s most effective party leader, Ms. Sturgeon is not even running in the Dec. 12 general election because she sits in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, not the British one at Westminster.
But as leader of the buoyant pro-independence and anti-Brexit Scottish National Party, she is the face of its campaign for Scotland’s 59 parliamentary seats in Westminster. The success of that campaign could determine whether Britain leaves the European Union in January — and, if it does, whether the United Kingdom survives the rupture.
At a recent and well orchestrated visit to a charity in a gritty part of Glasgow, Ms. Sturgeon was everywhere, helping out at a numeracy class, performing a gym workout and, in the kitchen, ladling out bowls of thick lentil soup.
“This is definitely the most important general election we have had in Scotland in my lifetime because the future of our country is on the line,” she said once the food was served. “We are at a crossroads, and the outcome of this election will decide which path we go down and who decides our future.”
According to opinion polls, the Scottish National Party, which already holds 35 of Scotland’s British parliamentary seats, is poised to gain even more. If it takes enough votes from the Conservative Party, which holds 13 seats there, it could deprive Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the majority he needs to pursue Brexit.
If that were to happen, it could make Ms. Sturgeon a kingmaker, and her price for supporting a minority Labour government could be permission from that government to allow Scotland to hold another independence referendum. Scotland rejected independence in 2014, but Brexit has scrambled its politics since then.
In the final analysis, independence seems likely to rise on the Scottish agenda no matter who wins the election. If Labour deprives Mr. Johnson of a majority and needs the support of the Scottish National Party, that could open the way to a quick second independence referendum, while a Conservative sweep would lead to a Brexit that most Scots oppose.
“If Johnson and the Tories at Westminster continue to behave as they are,” said Mr. McLeish, “there’s not going to be any great day when we wake up with 60 percent in favor of independence, but we are going to drift slowly towards that outcome.”
While the United Kingdom as a whole voted narrowly in favor of leaving the European Union, there rather stark depart in support for the idea among the various constituent parts of the nation. England, the largest part of the U.K., voted in favor of ‘Leave” by a majority of some 2,000,000 votes and Wales voted in favor of ‘Leave” by roughly 120,000 votes. Scottish voters, by contrast, voted in favor of remaining in the E.U. by more than 600,000 votes, representing a twenty percentage point difference between ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave.’ Similarly, Northern Ireland voted in favor of ‘Remain’ by more than 100,000 votes, representing a more than eleven percentage point difference between the two options.(Source).
There has already been talk in Northern Ireland of independence or joining the Irish Republic has become far more common in Northern Ireland as the reality of Brexit gets closer. The issue is being driven there largely by the fact that Brexit without some sort of deal that creates a carve-out for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that allows for the free passage of goods and people between the two areas, something that has gone a long way toward alleviating the tensions that existed during the time known as the “troubles” when terrorism was commonplace.
However, while Northern Ireland remains an important issue when it comes to a final Brexit deal, the biggest issue when it comes to the unity of the United Kingdom in the wake of a departure from the European Union is the fate of the 300-year-old union between Scotland and England.
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Sturgeon hinted that the outcome of the referendum and the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union could lead her to call for a new independence referendum. This was consistent with what Sturgeon and others in her party had been saying in advance of the vote, and was largely rooted in the fact that skepticism about the advantages of membership in the E.U. never had the kind of support that it did in England and Wales. In the intervening time, though, she and her party have largely backed away from such talk as the Brexit process has moved forward. In part, that’s because the path of the Brexit process itself still isn’t entirely clear even though it’s technically on a timetable that would require formal withdrawal by some time in 2019. This softer tone was also due to the fact that Sturgeon’s party did suffer setbacks in 2017’s snap election, although that was to be anticipated after the massive victories it had amassed in the 2015 General Election, largely at the expense of Labour. After it became clear that the government in London under Theresa May was committed to Brexit that includes leaving the single market that existed prior to the E.U. itself, though, it appears that Sturgeon began to resurrect the idea of another independence vote, and she appears to be doing so again. Of course, in the meantime it’s been far harder to pull off a Brexit deal of any kind and it took May handing over power to Johnson to bring us to the point where, assuming the election turns out as expected, the United Kingdom will mostly like be out of the E.U. in no more than two months.
Notwithstanding this rhetoric, it’s far from clear that there would actually ever be a second Scottish independence vote, and the process of how to get there is far from clear. First of all, any such vote would have to be authorized by Parliament in London, and the Conservative Party has ta0ken the same position that David Cameron did both before and after the Brexit vote that the issue of Scottish independence was closed with the outcome of the last referendum in 2014. Any second referendum would have to be approved by Parliament in order for it to have any legal force and effect and seems clear that such consent will not be forthcoming as long as the Conservatives remain in power, which could be the case until 2024 if the Tories win a majority in the December 12th election as most analysts seem to be anticipating at this point. Additionally, the official position of the Labour Party also opposes another Scottish independence vote, making it even less likely that Parliament would make any moves to authorize a second vote or that it would be approved if they did.
Even if there was a second independence referendum in Scotland, there’s no guarantee that the outcome would be any different than the outcome in September 2014. In that referendum, of course, Scottish voters chose to remain part of the United Kingdom by a margin of 55.30% to 45.70%. This occurred notwithstanding aggressive campaign by the Scottish National Party and other pro-independence forces. Currently, the issue is almost equally divided with the latest poll-tracker results at Politico Europe showing 48% opposed to independence and 45% saying they are favor it. The remaining 7% or so make up people who undecided on the issue. Whether that would change significantly if Brexit were to become a reality is unknown, but without a guarantee of a second referendum, which certainly won’t happen under a Conservative government, it’s all essentially an academic question. At the same time, it’s worth noting that a recent poll in Scotland showed a majority supporting another independence referendum in the event Brexit becomes a reality
Finally, as was the case in 2014 when Scotland’s future hung in the balance. there is no guarantee that the European Union would accept Scottish membership, at least not initially. If it did become independent of the rest of the United Kingdom, Scotland would quickly become a much poorer nation with a smaller tax base and a large welfare state that it could no longer depend on the rest of Great Britain to help pay for. This would place it among the poorer of the members of the E.U. and could arguably constitute the kind of risk for E.U. membership that other members would rather avoid at this time, especially with the other crises occupying the E.U.’s attention. Without E.U. membership, Scotland would quickly find itself in quite the bind and quickly forced to make a choice between continuing its welfare state and adjusting to life on its own in a sustainable fashion. Sturgeon is no doubt aware of all of this, and aware of the risk she’s taking in backing independence at this rather precarious time. More likely than not, the call for another vote is a bid to get a larger voice in the Brexit process for Scotland, but if she isn’t careful, she could end up shooting herself, and the region of the U.K. that she leads, in the foot.