Scottish Independence: a referendum too far?

Charles Clegg considers the uncertain future of the union in the wake of the referendum result.

The course of politics, Shakespeare may well have said, never did run smooth. The EU referendum was always going to disturb that path in some way. A seed first planted in January 2013 and watered by the unexpected Conservative majority of last year, the referendum, now sprung up but bearing an unexpected flower, sprawls across the course of British politics and national life like an impenetrable overgrowth in whose obfuscating tendrils everyone and everything’s fates seem doomed to be entangled. All now is in doubt: the Conservative and Labour leaderships, Britain’s immediate economic prospects, and even how or if at all the result of this referendum will be enacted.

Nowhere in Britain is such doubt more keenly felt than in Scotland. The surprise loss of the SNP majority at Holyrood and the surge in Conservative support in the elections of earlier this year seemed to point to an interesting coming term. The SNP not only had no clear mandate for their proposed second referendum on independence, but finally, it seemed, they would be grilled by a competent opposition. Meanwhile, Sturgeon would have to placate the large swathes of her party’s membership who wanted a second referendum as soon as possible, while confronting the reality that not only were they unlikely to win an immediate second vote, but that the constitutional question was effectively off the table.

Then the Referendum happened. Any such predictions are in pieces on the floor. Bitter, prolonged, and decisive as the last referendum on Scottish independence was, Scotland was promised continued membership of the EU if it remained in the UK The EU Referendum has result has changed that and, as unpleasant as a second referendum may be, there are now grounds for one.

Nevertheless, a second referendum on Scottish independence oughtn’t to, and I doubt will, happen immediately. Tempting as an SNP government may find it to capitalise upon the immediate shock and disappointment of many Scots and hold a referendum as soon as possible, there is no guarantee the independence case would win one. The EU Referendum showed a clear majority of Scots in favour of remaining in the EU, but subsequent polling, while mostly showing higher support than previously for independence, does not show support for independence to be as high as might be expected and few put it as high as the sixty per cent the SNP claim to want to win a referendum. Many Scots who voted to remain did so chiefly because they wanted to keep the UK together.

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Meanwhile, a number of options must be explored before another Scottish referendum can take place, some of which, if successful, may invalidate the need for such a referendum altogether. The Scottish government ought to wait till Brexit negotiations are finished and there is a clear idea of what Britain’s exit will look like. A referendum should take place only once it is clear whether Scotland could continue in the EU without the arduous process of application and readmission or if the UK could negotiate an advantageous continued relationship with Europe. Without these assurances, any campaign would be fought in a mire of conjecture and dogma. We don’t need another referendum like that.

Scotland, and indeed Northern Ireland, could also push for continued membership of the EU while remaining in the United Kingdom. While it’s easy, and very often right, to be sceptical about the SNP’s approach to anything that may delay the prospect of independence, the recent foundation of a committee of experts aiming to keep Scotland in the EU and Sturgeon’s own apparent lurch towards this stance suggest that the Scottish government could be aiming for such a position. Unusual as it may seem, such an arrangement would not be impossible. The Danish realm contains both Denmark, an EU member, and Greenland, a former EU member. This option has its complexities, but it also has precedent and in an organisation able to make up its own rules, only reciprocation on the part of the EU would be necessary to keep Scotland in the EU if the Scottish Government chose to take this approach. Given that such an outcome may also abrogate the cause for a second independence referendum, the UK government would be wise not to stand in its way.

Alternatively, the Scottish government could attempt to override Brexit. This view is rather dubious as it rests on the untested belief that the Scottish Parliament has the right to veto Westminster on matters regarding the EU It furthermore seems unlikely that the EU would recognise a Scottish attempt to block the whole UK’s exit from Europe given the much-expressed desire of EU officials for this process to be carried out as quickly and as cleanly as possible. Even if it were practicable, the Scottish Parliament would likely earn the justified ire of many for blocking a proposition supported by the majority of the British public.

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The course of politics, European, British, and Scottish, is clouded and overgrown. I offer no predictions, but doubt. While a second independence referendum is not inevitable if some of the outlined options are followed, the continued integrity of the UK cannot be presupposed if Brexit complete and utter occurs. As a country, we have a long yomp before we know if that will be the case. Only once Britain’s future in Europe is known can the Scottish question be posed again and a fair debate be had of it.