This week has once more seen protagonists and antagonists raise the prospect of a second independence referendum in the event of Brexit. The Financial Times based an article on the premise that ‘some SNP opponents suspect its leaders secretly hope the UK will vote to leave’. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former adviser, has asserted, ‘we know that one of the outcomes of a Leave vote would be the immediate demand for a referendum on Scottish independence’. Prime Minister Cameron joined two of his predecessors in warning that Brexit might lead to the break up of Britain. This is, of course, the stuff of political campaigns.
Superficially, this seems plausible but it is far from certain that a second independence referendum would follow fast after a vote for Brexit. There are serious problems ahead that the SNP leadership are well aware of when it comes to a second independence referendum in such circumstances. Brexit may lead to demands for a second referendum, assuming Scotland votes Remain. But the issue may become one of timing and we cannot assume that this means a second independence referendum any time before the end of this Parliament.
Any short-term advantage that might accrue from diverging opinions on such a crucial issue would have to be set alongside the medium term challenges of selling independence after the EU referendum. There are many imponderables, most notably the outcome of negotiations between London and the EU.
One of the best guides as to what might happen and the issues that would need to be addressed by supporters of independence has been provided in a sober assessment of the implications of Brexit produced by the Irish Government. Ireland would face similar – though not identical – challenges to those that an independent Scotland would have to confront and would need to be addressed by supporters of independence in any future referendum. The Irish Government position, outlined in a recent statement from the Taoisigh’s office, broadly conforms with thinking inside the office of Scotland’s First Minister:
Statement from Department of Taoisigh, Republic of Ireland, 10 June 2016
Brexit would alter the terms of debate on Scottish independence. The Scottish Government’s 2013 Independence White paper was based on understandings that might become irrelevant in the event of Brexit. Much would be determined by the outcome of the twin-track negotiations that will take place between the UK Government and the EU. Withdrawal negotiations would be accompanied by negotiations on new relations with the EU. What would emerge from these processes is highly contested. Each side in this EU referendum has asserted different outcomes. Access to the single market and the extent of free moment of people lies at the heart of these negotiations with significant implications for Scotland.
Each of the four main reasons given by the Irish Government for supporting the UK to remain in the UK offer useful headings under which to consider the position of Scotland:
The EU provides a framework allowing for a seamless flow of goods, services, capital and people that would exist between Scotland and rest of the UK (rUK) but only if rUK and Scotland both remained in the EU. Scotland may face a disruption to the seamless flow with either the rest of Europe (rEU) or rUK in the event of Brexit. Scotland can chose to remain part of a smaller UK market with whom it trades most but with barriers to the wider European market or part of a larger European market but have barriers with its main UK trading partner. Much will depend on what kind of deal is done by the UK and EU post-Brexit. That will not be immediately clear.
The Common Travel Area (CTA) existed before the UK and Ireland joined the EEC in 1973 but was unaffected as both states joined simultaneously. The Irish Government fears that the CTA would be disrupted if the UK was outside the EU, especially given that one of the motives for Brexit has been an attempt to close the UK’s borders to outsiders. So long as Ireland remains in the EU, then the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is likely to be seen as a potential point of easy entry to the UK from across the EU. The same might apply if Scotland was independent in the EU while rUK was out. The borders between Ireland and Northern Ireland and an independent Scotland and rUK would likely become ‘harder’ if rUK left the EU. Indeed, given the logic of the current debate on the EU this seems a plausible expectation.
This would be true to some extent for an independent Scotland though part of the argument for independence has always rested on Scotland having distinct and divergent interests, including in negotiations with the EU. The UK Government has not always been on the same side as Scotland in EU negotiations. Being part of a larger more powerful entity is only attractive so long as there are shared preferred destinations. That will remain contested and likely will divide opinion much as at present. It is more likely that Brexit will confirm more supporters of independence in their support for independence in the EU than convert many opponents of independence to the cause.
This has less relevance to Scotland than the other arguments but will be a matter of interest to many Scots, especially given the familial links with Ireland. EU financial subsidy of Northern Ireland has been significant and seems certain to end. Dublin has expressed this carefully, avoiding the hyperbole common in much of the debate on this side of the Irish Sea. The ever fragile peace in Northern Ireland will be a matter of considerable interest to many in Scotland.
One opportunity identified by Irish officials is the possibility of attracting Foreign Direct Investment that might otherwise have gone to a UK that was still a member of the EU or may seek to move from the UK. This applies to Scotland and may be an even more attractive place especially for companies currently in rUK seeking a base in the EU post Brexit. Much again will depend on the outcome of EU-UK negotiations.
The EU referendum will determine whether negotiations begin for the UK’s formal exit from the European Union. What is clear is that future relations with rEU, in the event of a vote for Brexit, are unclear and have been highly contested during this referendum. Leaving aside the usual exaggeration of campaign rhetoric, the future of UK (or rUK) relations with rEU are unknown. Such relations will depend on the outcome of a series of negotiations over a number of years. These in turn will have an impact on the opportunities and challenges that an independent Scotland would face. EU member states will be as keen as the UK Government to ensure a smooth transition. The Scottish Question is intimately linked to the European Question but the former will not be any clearer in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. Polls in the immediate aftermath of a vote for Brexit might initially suggest a significant rise in support for independence. This might be consolidated and enough to win a quick independence referendum. But we would move rapidly into a period when key issues would need to be addressed that would be far from unclear. Scottish public attitudes formed in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum might easily change quickly when people focus on the uncertain outcomes of these negotiations. Bute House should be wary of jumping to a quick conclusion on the basis of a shift in public opinion evident in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum.
Professor James Mitchell holds the Chair in Public Policy, Edinburgh University and Director of the Academy of Government. James Mitchell’s ‘A Tale of two referendums’ was published in Adam Hug (ed), Europe and the people: examining the EU’s democratic legitimacy, The Foreign Policy Centre, June 2016. http://www.fpc.org.uk. He is on an FPC panel at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, June 16.