Brexit has become indelibly linked with Scottish independence north of the border. But PETER GEOGHEGAN investigates a delicate political situation.
Time has done little to soften Nicola Sturgeon’s view of Brexit.
The day after the European Union referendum, Scotland’s First Minister declared that a second vote on independence was ‘on the table’ after almost two-thirds of Scots voted Remain.
Earlier this month, the Scottish National Party leader reiterated her opposition to leaving the EU. ‘No Brexit’, Sturgeon said, was better than ‘no deal’, turning the Conservative Party motto on its head.
A new report released this month from the SNP-led Scottish Government suggests the country’s economy would be £12.7bn a year worse off under a hard Brexit. Sturgeon and her team have consistently said if the UK must leave the EU it should at least remain in the single market.
The SNP leader maintains that both a second referendum on Brexit and on Scottish independence are possible. But, so far, Brexit has not had the expected galvanising effect for Scottish nationalists. A slim majority remain in favour of remaining in the UK. At the same time, Brexit is often absent from the Scottish political conversation.
‘It is striking how little active debate there is about Brexit in Scotland,’ said John Edward, who headed the Scotland Stronger in Europe campaign ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Indeed, 18 months on from that vote, Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union has prompted more wringing of hands than public demonstrations. Scotland’s political consensus is firmly against leaving the EU. The news cycle remains dominated by internal Scottish political stories rather than big-ticket Brexit items. While Brexit has consumed England, it has enervated Scotland.
One reason for this is Brexit ‘has become tied up with talking about Scottish independence so you can’t talk about one without the other’ according to Mr Edward.
Last March, Sturgeon called for the power to hold a second independence referendum. But Prime Minister Theresa May refused. In June’s general election, the SNP lost 21 seats. The main beneficiaries – the Scottish Conservatives – tapped into a strong vein of referendum fatigue.
Mr Edward addded: ‘The prospect of a second referendum has receded pretty quickly.’
So far the Scottish Government has struggled to influence a Brexit process that has been very centralised from Westminster. London and Edinburgh have clashed repeatedly over Brexit.
‘I don’t think Brexit is something that should be happening to Scotland. Scotland doesn’t want it,’ the Scottish Government’s Brexit minister Michael Russell said. ‘Opinion polls show that people are increasingly turning against it.’
Initially, the minority SNP Government in Holyrood called for Scotland to have the option of remaining in the EU. Now their position is that Scots should stay in both the single market and the customs union after Brexit.
Many Scottish businesses are equally wary of leaving the EU. At a recent select committee in Westminster, representatives of the food and drink, tourism, health and social care sectors all pointed to difficulties recruiting and training staff to cope with demand for their services, particularly in Scotland’s many rural communities.
The Scottish government’s own forecasters have predicted that the economy will grow more slowly than the rest of the UK over the next five years. With an aging population and lower levels of migration compared with the rest of the UK, Scotland risks being particularly exposed after Brexit, especially if it leaves the single market.
Polls also show Scots remain firmly opposed to leaving the EU. Middle-class Scots – a constituency that largely voted to stay in the United Kingdom in 2014 – voted heavily to remain in the EU.
But while some pro-European Scots have shifted support to independence in the wake of Brexit, an estimated third of Scottish nationalists voted to leave the European Union. Many, including some high-profile figures in the SNP, do not share the first minister’s enthusiasm for the European project.
‘Basically the Brexit debate is stuck,’ says author and political journalist David Torrance. ‘Crucially, Nicola Sturgeon still hasn’t found a way of speaking to Yes-Leavers, without who neither the SNP nor independence can really progress that far.’
The issue of sovereignty – the sine qua non for many Brexiteers – has been the source of tensions between the UK and Scottish Governments. While many Tory Leave supporters see Brexit as an opportunity to reassert Westminster’s singular power, Scottish Government ministers have said that they will refuse to sign any Brexit bill that does not guarantee the powers of Edinburgh’s devolved parliament.
‘There will not be a legislative consent motion without the changes to the bill that we want to see,’ said Russell.
Officially, Edinburgh feeds into the Brexit process via the Joint Ministerial Committee, which includes representatives from London, Cardiff and Belfast. But the committee did not sit between February and November.
Scottish ministers say Westminster is not listening to their concerns. ‘There is a feeling that the devolved administrations – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – are not being listened to,’ Russell said. ‘We have ended 2017 with a sense of frustration at structures that are still not working.
‘Relationships (between Edinburgh and London) are not nearly as good as they need to be.’
Separately, a cross-party group of pro-EU Scottish politicians have crowd-funded a legal challenge to establish whether the UK can unilaterally stop the Brexit process if British voters decide the final deal is unacceptable.
The plaintiffs hope the case – which is being heard in Edinburgh in early February – will eventually be settled in the European Court of Justice.
‘The UK Government is not providing clarity on a number of issues, least of all Article 50,’ long-standing Scottish Labour MEP, Catherine Stihler, one of seven signatures on the petition, said.
Among the plaintiffs are representatives of all the major parties in Scotland – except the Conservatives.
Stihler added: ‘I think Brexit is a disaster. I don’t want Brexit. But the government is pursuing it so the best option for us is the Norway-style arrangement.’
The outcome of the court case is unlikely to derail Brexit but it does represent a rare point of political consensus north of the border. Brexit, however, has not completely broken down Scotland’s tribal barriers.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson – who now commands 13 MPs – previously called for an ‘open Brexit’. But many of her new-found supporters backed Brexit and Davidson has shown little willingness to diverge from May’s Brexit position.
Having finished second in the 2016 Scottish parliament elections, privately Tories talk up the possibility of topping the poll in Holyrood in 2021. But the party is currently lying third in voters’ preferences behind the SNP and Scottish Labour under their latest new leader, Richard Leonard. It is hard to envisage the UK Government’s vision of Brexit will leading to a spike in Conservative support north of the border, especially as the prospect of another independence vote recedes.
On the other side of the political aisle, Sturgeon established a wide-ranging advisory group on Brexit in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, encompassing politicians from a range of parties as well as policy makers and academic experts. But there have been mutterings that the commitment to bipartisan working is more rhetorical than practical and there has been an absence of hard thinking about what Brexit could entail.
Mr Edward said: ‘We all use the same phrases about the single market and the customs union but I don’t think people have put much thought into what this means.’
Brexit has exposed a wider lack of policy making capacity within Scottish nationalism after more than a decade in power in Edinburgh, according to commentator Gerry Hassan. Sturgeon and her team have prioritised optics over substance and specifics, he claimed.
‘Where is the expertise, knowledge and paradiplomacy to come from on Brexit? Even to pose the questions and try to create and mobilise the resources would be a start. There is a chimera at the heart of the Scottish Government – a sort of apparition of pretending to be what we are not and have not got a clue how to get,’ says Hassan, editor of A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On.
Scots are not as stridently Europhilic as the referendum result suggests but there is little enthusiasm for leaving the EU. Opposition to Brexit north of the border could harden, especially in the event of a chaotic departure.
Faced with a choice between the two unions – European and British – most Scots still choose the latter. But support for independence remains high by historical standards. Sturgeon may have been hasty on June 24, 2016, but Brexit has ensured that Scotland’s own constitutional question is still very much on the table.
Peter Geoghegan is an Irish journalist based in Glasgow and author of The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be The Same Again