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.

FILED UNDER: Brexit, United Kingdom, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Slugger says:

    It’s a no brainer. England has 55 million people and a GDP of 1.5 trillion. The EU has 500 million people and a GDP of 20 trillion. Which bureaucrats are likely to be more meddlesome, the twits in London or the poutine eaters in Brussels? With an EU passport you will travel unimpeded to Paris, Berlin, etc. No one would choose an insular economic and political existence unless your political unit was big enough to be an autarky (or nearly so). The USA is big enough; England isn’t.

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  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    I suspect the EU would take Scotland in out of spite, if nothing else. Scotland’s GDP is roughly the same as Oregon’s, 240 billion. I don’t think the German bankers running an 18 trillion dollar EU would have too much trouble coping with so small a dependency.

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  3. drj says:

    @Slugger:

    The USA is big enough; England isn’t.

    That’s what at least some of the English simply refuse to acknowledge. The upper class twits in particular (Johnson, Rees-Mogg, etc.)

    There is this wonderful line in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, when one of the characters tries to come to terms with, and explain the betrayals committed by another (all the main characters are public school/Oxbridge/upper class, by the way): “Trained to empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.”

    Brexit is grasping at a bygone past when the UK could manage on its own.

    The really sad thing is that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is from 1974.

    45 years later, the Rees-Moggs of this world still haven’t come to terms what was already readily apparent in 1945.

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  4. drj says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I suspect the EU would take Scotland in out of spite, if nothing else.

    I don’t think “spite” is entirely the right term. Most EU bureaucrats and even government leaders are genuine idealists when it comes to the EU. They believe in the “ever closer union” in order to prevent, cost what may, another ugly war.

    Keeping a former (sort-of) member out which has just opted to break away from the isolationists in order to rejoin this big, idealistic political project, would go against everything they believe in.

    There may be a couple of EU member states (Spain in particular) that perhaps wouldn’t be too happy with Scottish membership, but the political price for blocking Scottish accession would be too big to make it worthwhile, I’m pretty sure.

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  5. Kathy says:

    Want to bet if Remain had won or if Scotland had voted for independence, the Tories would not be claiming such decisions were “closed” after one vote?

    it seems to escape people that such momentous decisions, making great changes in economic and international affairs, should not be decided on simple majority votes, especially if they’re not well-conceived. You either should require a super majority of no less than 2/3, or hold several votes over the course of one or two years.

    A Brexit partisan might point out, fairly, there’s no way to get 66% support or to win a referendum 3 or four times. and they’d be right. but that’s just the point. Such major changes require a great deal of support. If it’s not forthcoming, then they should be thought through better, or made incrementally, or not made at all.

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  6. drj says:

    @Kathy:

    Want to bet if Remain had won or if Scotland had voted for independence, the Tories would not be claiming such decisions were “closed” after one vote?

    With the Brexit referendum, the Tories caught the tiger by its tail. And they knew it the moment it happened.

    Still, your larger point holds true.

    Farage in May 2016:

    In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it.

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  7. JohnSF says:

    The thing is, lot of English Leavers are in fact English Nationalists; they value the Unions only as symbol of “English greatness”.
    Others are just mulishly unwilling to concede their bright idea might have a downside.
    Say the Scots are likely to leave and they’ll just go “no they won’t, they need England”, or “good riddance, they sponge off England”, or each within a few moments of the other.

    @Kathy:
    I suspect Cameron and Osborne and their supporters would have been only too happy to close down the Brexiteers; but I also think they would have lacked both the ruthlessness and the willingness to accept short term political cost to pitilessly purge them from the Party.

    Perhaps too difficult anyway; Conservative Leaver sentiment among the activists is so interwoven with the hallowed memory of Margaret Thatcher and the (false) narrative of her “betrayal” by the pro-Europe “wets”.

    @drj:
    This. THIS. THIS

    Though with caveats.
    Nostalgia for Britain as a superpower is most powerful among a fairly small section of the Tory elite (and IMHO has a couple of “ghost images” among the “liberal” sections of the upper classes)
    But among the general populace, most couldn’t give a stuff.
    (I’ve a vague idea for an essay on the lines of “Hobbits vs Numenoreans: the political divide in English Social Psychology”) 🙂

    And another massive influence on the “intellectual” Tory/quasi-libertarian Right is the influence of a common language plus certain commonality of the financial/media elite between the Conservative Right and the Republican Right.
    See overlap of think tanks and their funders re. “The Tufton Street Mob”, Kochs, Mercers etc.

    And there’s some interesting intellectual/political history mileage IMHO in how the US Right suddenly discovered a new foe in the “EUSSR” around the turn of the millennium when the US rejected the Kyoto accords and the EU had the sheer effrontery to ignore the will of the USA and continue to pursue them.

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  8. drj says:

    @JohnSF:

    I’ve a vague idea for an essay on the lines of “Hobbits vs Numenoreans: the political divide in English Social Psychology”

    Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

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  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Slugger:
    @drj:

    The EU would likely admit an independent Scotland, except, an independent Scotland does not meet the minimum qualifications for EU admittance. There is a pending membership status that several countries of the former Yugoslavia are in that Scotland could join or a status similar to Norway.

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  10. de stijl says:

    England could rule some waves.

    Not many, but some.

    The ones that wash up in Sussex. Totally owned.

    Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland can sod the flip off. We never liked you that much anyway. We were pretending to like you. Northumbria, stop being so Northern! Your accent is grating.

    We want to be an economic backwater.

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  11. de stijl says:

    I played as Cornwall in one Crusader Kings 2 playthrough. I went from a small duchy to ruling all of western Europe, Scandinavia, and Britain.

    Inheritance laws kept mucking it up, but got there eventually. Gavelkind and derivatives are total c*ck blockers. France I just conquered / “liberated” you with my armies. Thanks!

    Wait! What? Brittany is now a kingdom? Belonging to dude I just beat down? I had a claim my Steward fabricated.

    Marriage alliances do half the work.

    National dish – pasties. Crown made from proper tin. It was glorious!

    The sun never sets on the Cornish empire!

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  12. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Bad suspicion based mostly on American superficial understanding. The internal EU risks and politics at Members States level make Scotland a dicey subject.

    While Brussels bureaucrats might well be so inclined, the Members States are very far from being so inclined and it is them, not Brussels bureaucrats, that are in the drivers seat.

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  13. Lounsbury says:

    @drj: This is 100%… superficial and wrong.

    Most EU bureaucrats and even government leaders are genuine idealists when it comes to the EU. They believe in the “ever closer union” in order to prevent, cost what may, another ugly war.

    Brussels yes, but this stopped being true with EU expansion indigestion a decade ago in the national capitals. The East Europeans in particular in no way support Ever Closer Union visions, and in the West there’s no longer reflexive Magical EU Pixy Dust believe prevailing as Macron’s recent demarche on expansion highlights publicly.

    Keeping a former (sort-of) member out which has just opted to break away from the isolationists in order to rejoin this big, idealistic political project, would go against everything they believe in.

    Bollocks.

    There may be a couple of EU member states (Spain in particular) that perhaps wouldn’t be too happy with Scottish membership, but the political price for blocking Scottish accession would be too big to make it worthwhile, I’m pretty sure.

    Not may be – are a number of EU members states that are hostile to the idea due to internal political separatism problems.

    There’s little political price to pay except among Brussels bureaucrats. Your analysis is sans foundation.

    The EU might, might find a way to look at Scotland (and to be clear it is not a personal hostility to the idea) but your understanding of the political equation is completely ill informed and misunderstanding the EU dynamics at present. This is not 1998.

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  14. drj says:

    @Lounsbury:

    This is 100%… superficial and wrong.

    Your analysis is sans foundation.

    your understanding of the political equation is completely ill informed and misunderstanding the EU dynamics at present.

    These are… interesting accusation as you so wrong it’s almost funny.

    Former President of the European Council, Van Rompuy as recently as last September:

    In a BBC interview, Herman Van Rompuy said there was now [compared to 2014] “much more sympathy” for European regions seeking EU membership. […]

    Mr Van Rompuy said that the UK’s decision to leave the EU had certainly altered European attitudes to Scottish independence.

    He said: “I think there is a change, yes, because for a lot of people they are looking at what Scottish people are in favour of.

    “They want to stay in the European Union and at the same time they are prevented to stay in the European Union.”

    The East Europeans in particular in no way support Ever Closer Union visions

    Doesn’t mean that they would oppose Scotland rejoining.

    Macron’s recent demarche on expansion

    Except that Macron stands quite isolated – even with regard to Albania and North Macedonia:

    But a European diplomat, speaking after the talks, warned: “France’s isolation, in particular over North Macedonia, remains obvious.”

    “A crushing majority of member states remains in favour of a rapid opening for membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

    Imagine what would happen with a French “non” to Scotland.

    I could go on and on. The one who doesn’t get it is you.

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  15. Lounsbury says:

    @drj: The opposite of wrong, rather you cite a Belgian Eurocrat and ignore the reality of national considerations. More sympathetic, certainly, in favour, not at all. National interests trump.

    Macron has been isolated as to his unilateral declarations, not to the substance contra again Eurocrat statements, the resistance to ever expansion and Eurocrat driven agenda on every closer union in contrast to the rather more measured approach favoured in real terms by the member states outside of the Brussels based fonctionnariate. Macron isolated himself by stating too bluntly and openly what others favour by foot dragging and indirection.

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