For those of you not following international news, Scotland is beginning the process of nicely asking the UK government to please let it vote on whether it still wants to be part of the UK, again, please and thankyou. While Scotland can’t really hold a binding vote without the UK saying so, the UK also can’t really claim to legitimately represent Scotland if it refuses a well-founded request for a referendum, and there is a lot of evidence that suggests that the tide may now have turned in favour of Scottish independence from the UK, and its re-admittance into the EU. It’s a bold power-move on the day before Theresa May was expected to trigger Arcticle 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, basically pushing the one-year timer on leaving the EU. It has turned Westminster’s vision of a new, global Britain upside down, and arguably into what it already is: a path that risks the very future of the United Kingdom itself, stoking Scottish nationalism and calls for Irish re-unification. Theresa May, of course, has denied that the timing Nicola Sturgeon wants is practical, and will turn down such a referendum proposal. This of course, puts the onus back on the UK government to outline when they would consent to a referendum, which of course has strategically been kept quiet, because it’s more about trying to bully Scotland into staying than actual concerns around the Brexit negotiation. We’ll see how the showdown between the two works out, but so far I’m scoring it to Scotland overall.
For those who are not aware, I am actually a United Kingdom dual national, and have lived (briefly) in England, but the advantage of living in New Zealand for most of my life is that I can have a degree of understanding of the UK while still being seperate enough to see it from the outside. My position has been that the UK is England-centric, and needs to reform its government on a federal basis with a more representative voting system if it wants to hold on to the other three countries-within-its-country, and that if Scotland really want to be independent they should get their wish. (At which point, I would probably never return to the UK to live even briefly, as it would have gone so far downhill as to hold no appeal- nobody will really like a UK where the Tories have a stranglehold on politics once they’ve experienced it, in my opinion)
The Scottish Nationalist Party (which controls the majority of both the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish seats in the UK Parliament) is coming under some arguably unfair criticism that this is part of a “neverendum,” (ie. continuously polling people on independence referendums until one succeeds and then immediately declaring victory) of trying to set up IndyRef2 to lead to a more winnable IndyRef3, (which is not only stupid tactically, but just plain wrong- that timing argument revolves around the misconception that the Referendum is being proposed before relevant details of the Brexit deal are finalised, when in fact the parts Scotland most strongly objects to have already been determined by a Tory UK government, and the First Minister insists on a finalised Brexit position from the UK before a vote happens) and of simply trying to derail Brexit, to which I’d argue you can’t derail something by desperately searching for a pair of rails to get it back onto.
To understand a bit of what’s going on, we need to rewind a little bit before starting on the current situation, and talk about how the EU ended up a little more complicated than an in-or-out relationship. The UK was a lot more “out” already, pre-Brexit talks, than most European nations get to be. It had a special dispensation from the Eurozone, (the name for the area formed by countries which use the Euro as their currency) which Scotland will not get if it rejoins, and an exemption from the Schengen Agreement, which requires abolition of border controls between participating countries, which Scotland would likely also need to agree to in order to re-join the EU. Instead of Schengen, the Republic of Ireland and the UK are in a special exemption that was known as the “Common travel area,” where they’ve agreed to freedom of movement, but still retain the right to check people’s passports and ensure they’re actually EU nationals before admitting them into the UK. This was considered a reasonable compromise for the island nations at the time freedom of movement was proposed, however now that the EU has a formal agreement under the Lisbon Treaty, any new members have to sign up to being 100% in the EU, rather than getting to pick and choose like those who were part of its formation got to. This situation hasn’t differed from the first independence referendum.
The UK is currently part of the European Economic Area, or “single market,” (the EU’s free-trade zone, essentially, which is actually a little bit wider than just EU members) but the Conservative government aims to leave as part of its “hard Brexit” approach, as it’s not possible to opt out of Freedom of Movement, which it wants to do to control immigration, without also leaving the single market. Prior to the Brexit vote and change of Prime Ministers it necessitated, it was considered a ridiculously hard-line position to propose a hard Brexit, as it would essentially be giving away much of London’s financial services industry, either to Ireland or to continental European nations, and none of the leaders of the Leave campaign wanted to commit precisely to a hard Brexit, maintaining that free trade with Europe was possible while still clawing back those immigration powers. (and in the long term, maybe it will be, but not immediately post-exit)
This is as opposed to a “soft Brexit” approach, which is likely what Cameron expected his opposition to advocate, and what was Nicola Sturgeon’s bottom line for Scotland, where the UK would negotiate an exit deal similar to Norway where it retained some degree of free trade and freedom of movement, but could discard roughly 75% of European laws and access/membership of many European institutions in favour of return of sovereignty to the United Kingdom. (which is why a lot of the Remain campaign insisted that Brexit meant either economic shock or inability to claw back control over immigration policy)Now that we’ve covered a bit of EU basics, we can return to Scottish independence. The first independence referendum was an interesting campaign, that largely failed due to two critical campaigns from the No campaign, which was aggressively backed by English MPs:
- That Scotland would be given new powers and the UK would transition to a “near-federal” model.That Scotland would risk its EU membership if it voted for independence, as there was no procedure set up by the EU for secession within member states granting membership to the new nation.
Post-Brexit, many prominent European leaders have made guarantees to Scotland that if they do achieve independence, they will be welcome back in the EU, so let’s dispense with that second argument already. It’s not relevant, everyone knows Scotland has a place in the EU if it can achieve its independence. In retrospect, claims that Scotland risked its EU membership by becoming independent were effective but erroneous scaremongering.
How went the promise of new powers for Scotland? Well, the UK agreed to take less tax away from the local administration… and then promptly went on to kick Scottish MPs out of votes relating solely to England, (making clear that England views the UK Parliament as an English Parliament, belying again that promise of near-federalism) and then in order to secure its Brexit powers in court, sucessfully argued it didn’t need to get permission from Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland to initiate Brexit, even though the law explicitly required it.
Scotland has been agitating since the Brexit vote for a “soft Brexit,” that is, they don’t want England to wreck the entire UK’s economy in its determination to leave the EU. This isn’t an unreasonable position, although it’s unclear whether a compromise between the two positions of the largely-English UK Government and Scottish assembly is even possible, let alone what it would look like. The UK Parliament in Westminster has, essentially, ignored the Scottish Assembly in Holyrood, and proceeded precisely as it wishes thanks to that fundamentally wrong court decision.
So now we’re back to the independence referendum, and Scotland has a legitimate argument that the promises they were made in order to secure a “No” vote have been violated, that their assumption that “No” secured their place in the European Union is clearly incorrect and their attempts to compromise on a soft Brexit have been ignored, and that frankly public opinion may be changing in favour of independence.
This new case for independence is going to pit re-joining the EU against remaining in Brexit Great Britain. And there are disadvantages to both sides- Great Britain means that Scotland’s remaining oil revenue will likely go to collective UK spending, that Scotland will continue to have minimal impact on UK policy, and will be subject to a much more conservative Westminster Parliament controlling much of its law, and even stealing back powers that Scotland currently has.
But rejoining the EU will mean adopting the Euro, which means that Scotland would be vulnerable to potential future crises like the Greek Debt crisis. It also means that Scotland will have difficult financial problems to solve, as current estimates are that it’s a net beneficiary of UK spending compared to its tax take, and under the EU it is likely to be a net taxpayer rather than receive net subsidies. It will have to deal with the realities of joining the Schengen zone. It may be stuck with a UK Northern Ireland to its west and England to its south if calls for an Irish re-unification don’t eventuate, and there will likely need to be some sort of border procedure with England if Scotland does re-enter the EU, as there is no way that England will accept open borders with a country in the Schengen zone. It will also mean a wait for Scotland to rejoin, as it will have to go through the application process, which will mean that Scotland will need to be prepared for life outside of not only the UK if it votes for independence, but also outside of the EU for at least a few months, or even years. It’s also worth noting that the staunchest opposition to Scotland’s re-admittance, from Spain, seems to have softened now that it’s not being compared to the Catalan situation so much.
Scotland is smart to push for IndyRef2 now, while the Article 50 negotiations on the UK leaving the EU are still in the future. If Westminster shows reluctance to allow a Scottish vote on independence, it’s highly likely that as part of their determination to punish the UK for leaving, leaders who are militantly pro-EU will likely push for guarantees for Scotland and Northern Ireland to be able to determine if they want to split and re-enter the EU, as EU members are pretty adamant that the UK will be choosing between what it would call a “bad deal” or “no deal.”
And unlike the first independence referendum, if this one eventuates, it will be much more difficult to find Scottish organisations willing to front another “No” campaign- Scottish Labour has all but collapsed, and all the promises that helped the “No” campaign out last time won’t be credible after Theresa May’s strongarm position on devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.