Stewart M. Patrick

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The Scottish Play: Will Brexit Spell the End of a United Kingdom?

by Stewart M. Patrick
March 2, 2017

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, smiles during a EU referendum Remain event, at Edinburgh airport in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain June 22, 2016. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)


The decision by British voters last June to leave the European Union (EU) has thrown that bloc into turmoil. But its implications for Great Britain could be even more profound, portending the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Theresa May could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty as early as March 15, starting the two-year timetable for negotiating the terms of the UK’s divorce from the EU. The prime minister should beware the Ides of March: It seems all but inevitable that Scotland’s government will respond by calling for a second referendum on Scottish independence. The ultimate result could be the reemergence of a sovereign Scotland, more than three hundred years after the Acts of Union (1706–1707) united the cross of St. Andrew and the cross of St. George.

When Scots rejected independence by a 55-45 percent margin in a September 2014 referendum, most assumed the matter had been put to bed for at least a generation. The shocking Brexit vote upended that expectation. As Scotland’s sovereigntist-minded First Minister Nicola Sturgeon observes, Scots who voted for “union” less than three years ago assumed that the (still) United Kingdom would remain in the EU. And in the more recent “Brexit” vote, they overwhelmingly (62 percent) supported the “Remain” camp. Given the dramatically altered landscape, Scots deserve the opportunity to reconsider their ties with the United Kingdom.

As Sturgeon sees it, the Brexit outcome revealed “a wider democratic deficit within the UK, where decisions about Scotland are too often taken against the wishes of the people who live here.” Her Scottish National Party (SNP) has been cheered by the comments of no less than former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who says Brexit makes the case for Scottish independence much more credible. In October, the Scottish government published a draft bill that would (if approved by the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood) launch consultations to authorize a second referendum.

Wittingly or not, Prime Minister May has bolstered Scotland’s independence movement by insisting on a “hard exit” from the EU. Scottish members of the UK Parliament in Westminster worry about losing access to the EU’s single market. True, trade between the UK and Scotland (worth £49.8 billion in 2015) is four times the value of Scottish exports to the rest of the EU. But the benefits of the single market are substantial—and many Scots are not willing to risk them in return for greater UK restrictions on migration. On February 7, the Scottish Parliament voted 90 to 34 in favor of a motion that the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill should not proceed. Although purely symbolic, it sent a clear message that Scotland opposes a hard Brexit.

In an effort to preserve Scottish access to the continental market, Sturgeon’s SNP government in December released Scotland’s Place in Europe. The paper set out “compromise proposals” designed to allow a post–Brexit Scotland to maintain as many links with the EU as possible. The complex, and probably unworkable, scheme would require the UK Parliament to devolve additional powers to the Scottish Parliament—including control over immigration, business regulations, and international trade negotiations, among others. But the UK government has still not formally responded to the SNP paper, and SNP officials have accused the May government of attempting to hide documents setting out its views.

More generally, Scottish officials are increasingly annoyed that their concerns are being ignored as the UK government proceeds with its Article 50 plans. Disentangling Britain from the EU will have enormous implications for the UK’s devolution settlement with Scotland (as well as with Wales and Northern Ireland), the London-based think tank Chatham House explains. As numerous laws and powers are repatriated from Brussels, UK and Scottish officials will bicker over the division of authorities on matters ranging from immigration to agriculture to trade. Sturgeon complains about the lack of consultation between London and Edinburgh. “Scotland’s voice is simply not being heard or listened to within the UK,” she says.

May is on firm legal ground in deciding to go it alone. On January 24, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the UK Parliament had to approve any Article 50 negotiations. But that same decision also declared that May was under no legal obligation to consult with Scotland on Brexit. The political terrain is trickier, however. The court’s decision angered Scottish politicians, exposed fissures in the UK’s constitutional structure, and renewed momentum for Scottish independence.

To be sure, the outcome of any second referendum is hardly preordained. Support for independence is up several points from a month ago, but, according to a recent BMG poll for The Herald, Scots remain nearly equally divided, with a narrow majority (51 to 49 percent) favoring remaining in the UK. Such numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt, of course. The same polling firm undercounted support for Brexit by four points last June, wrongly forecasting a 52-48 victory for the “Remain” camp. More substantively, the situation is fluid and volatile. Actual Brexit negotiations have yet to begin, and the harder a break that May pushes for, the more ignored and isolated Scots will feel, likely causing opinion to swing toward independence.

Alienation from Westminster and disillusionment are already riding high in Scotland. Following the failed 2014 independence referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government sought to win over Scots by passing the Scotland Act of 2016. Intended as a new and improved devolution settlement, it stated that the UK Parliament would normally legislate certain matters only with the express agreement of elected members from Scotland. Cameron promised that Scotland would have the “strongest devolved parliament in the world.” One of the act’s selling points was the argument that continued membership in the UK was the only way for Scotland to stay in the EU (something it might have trouble doing as an independent state).

The outcome of the Brexit vote turned that logic on its head. Scotland stayed in the United Kingdom but suddenly stands to lose the EU. Brexit has shown devolution to be “worthless,” declares Scotland’s Brexit Minister Michael Russell. It has “exposed statements” by British officials “that the UK government and Scotland are equal partners” to be “empty, diversionary rhetoric.” Prime Minister May has offered to consult Scotland (as well as Wales and Northern Ireland) on the Article 50 negotiations, but has also made clear that the devolved administrations will play no decisive role in Brexit. Given this context, SNP officials argue, Scotland has no choice but to vote again on independence.

Many observers expect a major announcement from the emboldened Sturgeon on March 17, when the SNP holds its Spring conference in Aberdeen. This could include naming a target date for the second independence referendum (which would likely to be held in autumn 2018).

Here is where things could get tricky—and could spark a constitutional crisis. Under the Scotland Act of 1998, which established the devolved Scottish Parliament, the British Parliament must consent to any new Scottish referendum. Sturgeon has declared that it is “inconceivable” that the UK government, in the wake of Brexit, would try to block Scots from exercising their right to self-determination.

This may be wishful thinking. On February 2, Michael Fallon, the UK Defense Secretary predicted that the House of Commons would veto any such a referendum. Other British officials, while avoiding the term “veto,” confirm that May’s government intends to do just that. Although, sources are now suggesting May could agree to a referendum vote as long as it was after Brexit. Meanwhile, Conservative Scottish MPs are accusing the SNP of “weaponizing” the Brexit debate, “cranking up the grievance machine” in Scotland to ensure Britain’s disintegration.

But if Theresa May has plenty to worry about, so does Nicola Sturgeon. Among the many uncertainties in the Brexit/”Scexit” dance is whether an independent, sovereign Scotland would actually be welcomed into the EU—and, if so, how soon and on what terms. Some experts argue that an independent Scotland could be fast-tracked into the EU, potentially by 2023. However, this relies on generous assumptions about the likely reactions of the bloc’s member states. Some EU countries (not least Spain) may be reluctant to ratify Scotland’s EU accession, for fear of emboldening their own restive regions (Catalonia and the Basque country, in this case). Scotland also faces a £15 billion deficit, higher than every EU member state as a percentage of GDP, including Greece, which itself has caused such turmoil for the eurozone.

One thing is clear. March 2017 is shaping up to be a momentous month in the histories of the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Scotland, as leaders try to strike new bargains over how political power and sovereignty should be allocated at the supranational, national, and subnational levels.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Alan Crerar

    An excellent, ballanced opinion piece. Just one point I’d dispute, and that is Scotland’s £15b ‘deficit’. This is Scotland’s ‘structural deficit’ whereupon it ‘spends’ more than it ‘collects’. Simple arithmetic should disabuse any neutral observer of that one. Scotland currently pays for its share of many capital projects that are constructed in England but are deemed of benefit to the whole UK – HS2, Crossrail, London Sewers (!), Trident replacement, 2 aircraft carriers and attendant US aircraft plus many other smaller projects. A newly-independent Scotland would not be contributing to any of those (or any additional wars of which Mrs May might care to partake – don’t doubt it could occur, Blair thought ’twas good idea to boost his electability). When totting that lot up, you conclude quickly pretty quickly this £15b so-called deficit if non-existent.

  • Posted by celt darnell

    Let’s see, the author quotes the one poll showing a vote on independence would be a close run thing, while ignoring the many others which demonstrate there is no increased support for “independence.”

    Indeed, many more Scots — in terms of actual votes rather than percentages — voted to remain part of the UK in 2014 than voted to remain part of the EU in 2016 (the turnout in that second referendum being substantially lower than the first).

    You might also want to mention that the SNP’s ideas for economic success depend upon the price of oil, which happens to be 50% of what it was in 2014. And, despite commentator Alan Crerar’s voodoo economics — typical of an SNP supporter — Scotland does indeed have a 15 billion pound deficit.

    The SNP, founded in 1934, is a single-issue party. It’s purpose is, was and always has been, to break up the United Kingdom. That SNP members have nothing good to say about the UK is unsurprising.

    The fact is, British membership of the EU was always a Godsend to the SNP. As the EU usurped more and more powers of the nation states, Brussels’ power increased at the expense of Westminster’s. It became increasingly obvious that it made no sense for Edinburgh to go through the Westminster middle man when it could get a seat at the Brussels’ top table by making Scotland a separate member of the EU. Being fellow EU members would also cushion the shock of secession.

    The UK’s vote to leave has scuppered this equation. What you’re hearing now is the outraged squealing by the Nats who have recognised this.

    Scotland will leave the UK about the same time Quebec leaves Canada.

    Don’t hold your breath.

  • Posted by Horatio Tremoine

    The comment that Scotland wil not contribute to an array of UK wide projects and thus these spends will be somehow ‘saved’ is disingenuous: after Scoxit there will be additional costs to be borne single handedly such as defence, healthcare, intelligence services, overseas legations and a vast range of infrastructure now disaggregated form the UK and EU such as air traffic control, customs and overcoming the non-contiguous road network that will stop at a hard border. Add to that the unavoidable fact that standalone Scotland is the poorest county in the developed world, has a massive fiscal deficit, is subsidised to the tune of £170 for everyone living there and 80% of its exports go to the rest of the UK. An application to re-join the EU independently will be rejected by Spain due to the Catalan paradigm, possibly Italy and it will not qualify on economic grounds. Project Fear … no need as the horror story needs no elaboration. Now have a referendum in England and it will be <70% in favour of Scoxit which brings us to the ethical dimension – is UK membership existential or a matter of utility, leaving the most effective Union in modern history to revert to the democratically challenged EU is not a strategic move but self flagelation on a massive scale, the protectionist trade barrier fixated EU that has devastated Scottish fisheries, agriculture, steel manufacturing, coal and shipbuilding versus global free trade – you gotta be kidding. But please go and stop your perpetual whinging: go, we're better off without this millstone. ASAP.

  • Posted by Gregory Copley

    An interesting perspective, but anything but balanced. Firstly, the “overwhelming” Scottish vote (62%) against Brexit in the UK-wide referendum only occurred under conditions best described as massive apathy in the Scottish electorate, given that it had the lowest voter turnout for the referendum in the UK. Also note the reality that the SNP no longer holds the same sway it did even in the Scottish Parliament; the Tories have regained a significant influence. Further note the reality that Scottish entry into the EU as a sovereign state would be painful and difficult. Do Scots believe it would be easier for them than for Serbia? Witness the pain there.
    Furthermore, when Scots rejected independence with their earlier referendum, it was based on the dubious contribution to their long-term economics of the oil and gas sector. Since that vote, the price of oil and gas has more than halved, and there are no future prospects foreseeable for a return to the golden age of fossil fuel high prices. On what, then, does the Scottish economy depend?
    No, Nicola Sturgeon’s antique and discredited socialism is only viable as a romantic rallying cry to the Scots who want and deserve the respect they had as the engine of Britain’s rise to industrial greatness. The reality is that the UK would do well to foster a return to that innovative and productive entrepreneurship, but Sturgeon, as a dedicated spender and an opponent of the market forces which made Scotland great, helps ensure that Scotland remains a mendicant state.
    Stuarts ruled the United Kingdom and let slip that ancient victory in and of the Union. They will not regain it by carping, threatening, or running to Brussels. The Auld Alliance is forgotten: the French are too busy extricating themselves from self-inflicted wounds, particularly hamstrung by their membership of the European Union.

  • Posted by Patrick Thompson

    Good article. I’d like to pedantically note that technically speaking the cross of St Andrew and the cross of St George were united upon the Union of the Crowns in 1606, even though it did not become an official state flag until the Acts of Union of 1706-07.

  • Posted by Don Colton

    I would love to see Scotland walk away from the UK and work with the US. The ties with UK & US are cracking…That pute’s Scotland in the scope of the US.Scotland could stand on its own land and make there own choices.this time might never come again.

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