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Ignore Sturgeon’s bluster, Brexit has weakened the case for Scottish independence

This picture was originally published by the Daily Express 29 June 2016

In the four weeks since Nicola Sturgeon called an urgent Monday morning press conference at Bute House to sound the latest salvo in her perpetual drive to partition the United Kingdom the most notable consequences have been to see support for Scottish independence sink to minus 12 points and to see Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s approval ratings soar above the SNP First Minister’s among voters in Scotland.

On 28th March, the Scottish parliament voted to request a Section 30 order from Westminster to invest it with the authority to hold another referendum on Scottish independence.

With support from the Scottish Greens, the SNP have acted on their manifesto pledge to give Scots the chance to vote to secede from the UK because of the “material change in circumstances” that the UK’s exit from the European Union has brought, where Scotland voted 62%-38% in favour of remaining while the UK voted to leave by a margin of 52%-48%.

However, while Brexit has provided the SNP with what they believe is the constitutional crisis necessary to turn Unionist Scots over to their cause it has also presented numerous disadvantages to any attempt by them to win a second Scottish referendum.

There are three main ways in which this happened:

  1. Only the hardest of separations is now possible

In 2014 the SNP offered a prospectus for Scottish independence that involved remaining in the same currency union and EU single market as the UK. With an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK both members of the European Union there would be no need for a hard border and trade flows could continue relatively unimpeded.

This was the essence of the SNP’s ‘Independence in Europe’ strategy and allowed the SNP to offer Scots a vision of soft independence that involved a great deal of continuity and minimized cost and disruption.

With the interceding of Brexit, any possibility of a soft independence has come to an end. Brexit has magnified the costs, risks and downsides of separating from the UK.

Leaving the UK now means being outside the same single market as the UK and having to establish an independent Scottish currency before legally committing to joining the Euro and subjecting Scotland to Eurozone austerity conditions. A Sterling currency union is a legal and political impossibility if Scotland joins the EU.

An independent Scottish currency would require £50 billion in central bank reserves and because it is starting life new, untested and with the Scottish government lacking creditworthiness could well start life at a devaluation to Sterling, causing potentially massive problems for people with Sterling denominated mortgages and debts.

The costs and difficulties of all this would leave Scots facing massive fiscal cuts and tax rises. Further, recent polling showed only 10% of voters want Scotland to join the Euro.

Joining the EU Schengen zone will guarantee a hard border between Scotland and England and an end to the ability of Scots to freely live, work and use the NHS throughout the UK.

The harder the Brexit, the harder the separation of Scotland from the UK, making it less likely to happen. Take note Brexit negotiators.

         2.The independence debate has been reframed as the UK vs the EU

The SNP have wholeheartedly attached the cause of Scottish secessionism to the European Union. This has reframed the debate around independence as a question of “Which political union should Scotland be a part of – the United Kingdom or the European Union”.

In nearly every conceivable way the UK is more important to Scotland than the EU. Scots share a common language and culture with their fellow Brits and have benefitted immensely from being part of what is perhaps the most successful union in the history of nation states and has historical, political and  economic links with the rest of the UK that invite no comparison from the EU.

Scotland’s trade with the UK, worth 26% of Scottish GDP, is worth over four times as much as it is with the EU, meaning it is four times more important to the incomes, pensions and public services of people in Scotland.

Scotland has 59 MP’s in a UK parliament of 650 (9%) compared with 6 MEP’s in an EU parliament of 766 (0.7%) meaning Scotland’s voice and influence will never be stronger within the EU than it is within the UK.

Further, during the 2014 referendum the single greatest factor that influenced the decisions of voters was identity. Those who identified more as Scottish tended to vote Yes and those who felt more British were more likely to vote No.

A recent survey found that 52% of Scots identified as more British than European compared with only 30% who felt more European than British. In short, if Scots are asked to choose between the UK and the EU, the EU stands a distant second in every sense.

          3.Brexit has split the independence vote

It is estimated that one third of those who voted Yes in 2014 went on to vote Leave in 2016, numbering approx. 500,000, many of whom were motivated to vent their opposition at an EU establishment considered even more distant, unaccountable and undemocratic than Westminster.

The central conundrum now faced by SNP strategists is in convincing their supporters who have already voted to leave the EU to rejoin on much worse terms than the UK enjoyed.

A vision of life outside the UK involving Schengen, the Euro and Jean Claude Juncker is hardly going to appeal to Yes-Leavers and the SNP face an insurmountable task to keep them on side.

………

The SNP are canny political operators and should not be underestimated. Why then have they so fervently attached Scottish independence to membership of the European Union?

Because like many ardent Europhiles they overestimate the significance of the EU – politically, economically and in terms of people’s emotional connection to it.

On 24th June 2016, when over 1.6 million Scots voted in support of the EU, the SNP saw a deep reservoir of European belonging and dived in only to find themselves with water up to their ankles.

Scottish support for the EU is wide but shallow. Less than 15% of Scots considered the EU to be an important issue when they cast their vote in 2014 and Scotland’s attitudes toward the EU have hardened further since Brexit, with 67% of Scots believing the UK should either leave the EU or see its powers reduced.

But Nicola Sturgeon cannot row back from her post-Brexit threats without losing all credibility. Her best option is to have her demands for a referendum dismissed by a Tory Prime Minister so she can claim Scotland is being insulted and revert to whipping up grievance until another opportunity to push for a referendum arises.

In making Scottish independence synonymous with membership of the EU, the SNP have made a strategic error and no-one is happier that they are now being denied a referendum than Nicola Sturgeon.

About Joe Ray

Profile photo of Joe Ray
Joe Ray lives in Edinburgh and works in the social investment sector. He writes about Scottish and British politics and in particular how Brexit has changed the dynamic of the Scottish constitutional debate.

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