The Brexit Delusion and the Battle for Scotland

Brexiteers won with impossible promises to "take back control." Will the same magic work for Scottish independence?


Before Britain voted to leave the European Union last year, pro-Brexit campaigners were warned that doing so would almost certainly reopen the question of the future of the United Kingdom itself. Leaving the EU, they were warned, would renew the argument for Scottish independence since, as the polls showed and voters subsequently confirmed, a majority of Scots favored remaining a part of the EU. Brexit would breathe new life into an independence movement that needed a lift, less than three years after it was defeated in what historians will now term the first Scottish independence referendum.

The battle for Scotland was not settled in 2014. It was simply deferred. Scots rejected independence that year, but since 45 percent of those who voted endorsed independence, it was plain then — and is even plainer now — that this original vote was but a provisional, tepid endorsement of the constitutional status quo. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon — the former and current leaders, respectively, of the pro-independence Scottish National Party — had suggested at the time that the referendum was either a once-in-a-lifetime or, at the very least, a once-in-a-generation opportunity, but the votes had scarcely been counted before nationalists started agitating for a second vote. Salmond’s memoir of the referendum campaign was titled, quoting Ted Kennedy, The Dream Shall Never Die.

But if the dream has been resurrected sooner than expected, it is thanks in no small part to Brexit. Without Brexit, there would be no plausible mandate for a second referendum. English Conservatives scoffed at the suggestion that leaving the EU might prompt fresh demands for a second plebiscite. They should know better now: On Monday, Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, announced her intention to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence. This was not, she suggested, her fault but rather something that had been forced upon her by a U.K. government determined to push for a so-called “hard” Brexit, neglecting Scotland’s particular interests. Scotland, she said, was being ignored. The “instinct to do nothing and just hope for the best is understandable,” she said, but, in the end, inadequate. Having spent the last eight months warning that a second referendum was “highly likely,” Sturgeon found herself running out of room for maneuver. So the people must be consulted, again, and given the opportunity to decide Scotland’s constitutional status, again. By doing so, they will also determine the future of the United Kingdom — a future that looks more problematic than ever.

Indeed, the initial response to Sturgeon’s gambit suggests that Downing Street remains ill-equipped to grasp what’s happening in Scotland. Sturgeon has said she would like a referendum to be held once the broad outline of Brexit is known but before the U.K. has formally left the EU. But some in the U.K. government seem tempted to deny Scotland its right to hold a referendum at all, despite having conceded the principle — and having set a precedent — in 2014.

The more reasonable within Parliament are adamant that no referendum should take place until after Brexit has been accomplished. The SNP, they hope to insist, should be forced to wait until after the next round of Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021. Only then would it have a clear and unequivocal mandate for a fresh referendum. Only then would Parliament, which has the legal authority on such matters, allow such a plebiscite to take place. Delaying a poll until then would allow the U.K. government to concentrate on Brexit without having to fight distracting battles on a second constitutional front. At the very least, they say, no referendum should take place until after a Brexit deal has been agreed to at some point in 2019. The danger, however, is that refusing Scotland permission to decide its future risks inflaming opinion there, driving open-minded voters toward independence. Even Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives and thus the standard-bearer for red, white, and blue Unionism, has conceded that the U.K. government cannot rule out a referendum “forever.”

So a second vote is coming, and it is coming in the near future. The SNP will have to tread carefully: The dream may never die, but putting it to a vote a third time in a generation, should it be rejected twice, risks becoming subject to the law of diminishing returns. And a “yes,” even given Brexit, is by no means a given: A poll published last week found Scotland evenly divided, with 50 percent of respondents saying they would vote for independence and 50 percent for the Union. More significantly still, more than 80 percent of voters surveyed claimed their minds were already made up and unlikely to be changed. The referendum — if and when it occurs — will be an attritional campaign to win the hearts, minds, and votes of just 1 in 5 voters. It will be an exercise in political narrowcasting and, as such, one likely to exhaust as many voters as it thrills.

And the case for independence will have to be different from that offered last time, too. Then, on the back of buoyant North Sea oil revenues, the SNP argued independence would leave Scots wealthier than if they remained part of the U.K. Since then, oil prices have collapsed, puncturing the rosy economic forecasts upon which the nationalists relied. At least initially, an independent Scotland would be saddled with a deficit approaching 10 percent of GDP, the worst in Europe. Independence would be a painful, astringent business. Economic self-interest is not what it was, however. If it were, Britain might not have voted for Brexit.

This year’s case for independence, then, is instinctive and intuitive. It would, as Sturgeon says, with a wink at the Brexiteers and their “take back control” mantra, allow Scotland “to be in control of events and not just at the mercy of them.” This, she will argue, is who we are, and as a distinct people and society, it makes sense for Scotland to run its own affairs. The alternative, after all, is a United Kingdom dominated, for the foreseeable future, by a Conservative Party that has few friends in Scotland. Better, surely, to take control and be responsible for our own affairs, even if the early years of the new nation will be hard, and even lean, times.

Whether the Unionist appeal to ancient loyalties will carry as much weight this time around remains to be seen. Unionism needs to offer something more than a cost-benefit analysis of economic interest, but talk of the U.K. as a “partnership of equals” rings hollow when, since England accounts for nearly 85 percent of the population, some partners are evidently more influential and more equal than others.

During the first referendum, the Unionist campaign was dubbed “Project Fear,” playing heavily on economic risk and uncertainty. What currency would an independent Scotland use? Would it really be able to join the EU, or would its application instead be vetoed by Spain or Belgium? Even more significantly, would it really be able to pay its own way, or would it instead be materially poorer than if remained part of the U.K.? All this helped concentrate minds in 2014 and may yet do so again, not least since none of these questions have easy or even attractive answers two years later.

But the Brexit delusion is that you can have everything you like without having to accept anything you don’t. Until now, the case for independence in Scotland has been bedeviled by an awareness that it’s a territory where the U.K. market has four times the worth of the EU and whose status with the latter following emancipation would be by no means certain. But in a post-Brexit world all things now seem possible, and the dream lives on, no more grounded in reality than before.

Photo credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

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