‘A Short Time After It’: Sturgeon shows wariness of the Brexit spirit

Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement today about moving towards a second independence referendum was not a surprise. But one aspect was. On the grounds that Scotland can only make an informed choice after the terms of Brexit are known, she set a time-frame of autumn 2018 to spring 2019 but conceded that this would not necessarily be before the date of Brexit; it might be ‘a short time after it’. In other words, there might be a period when Scotland had not made known its views on its future but the UK would have left the EU and would presumably be moving steadily away from the compatibility with EU arrangements that would be necessary for Scotland to re-enter.

The reason for this approach may be what looks like the impossibility of Scotland’s inheriting part of the UK’s membership and so seamlessly becoming independent as a full EU member. The UK’s membership and all its concessions and opt-outs will be extinguished and – whether this happens after a minute, a day or a year – Scotland’s EU membership will be new. There would be a transitional period in which Scotland would have attained neither independence nor EU membership, an uncomfortable time to hold a referendum.

Alex Salmond announced on 21 March 2013 that the first referendum would be held on 18 September 2014. Even if the campaigning period could be truncated this time it would have to be many months. Could notice of the poll date realistically be delayed until there is a Brexit deal ready for ratification? It is hard to schedule in advance a sufficient period of campaigning before the vote but after the point when details of the Brexit future would be known. It might be better for the SNP to set the date 18 months or so into the two-year notice period and work back from there, taking a chance on the precise state of Brexit negotiations on referendum day and keeping the Scottish pot boiling.  

The fact that they have not done so may indicate a search for negotiating room on the section 30 order. But it also reflects some contamination of the whole of the UK political system by Brexit. No European flag was on display today. Sturgeon’s pitch was of a Scotland choosing its destiny, not necessarily of becoming independent in order to remain in EU membership. European Economic Area membership alongside Norway, suggested as a compromise to avoid IndyRef2 and possibly necessary as an interim stage for an independent Scotland, might have longer-term attractions as a mechanism for pursuing bilateral deals with the rest of the UK.

Sturgeon’s caution probably reflects a more pessimistic evaluation than last June of the volume of Europhilia available to her in the electorate. The risk is that she now jeopardises the basis of her reputation in Europe, the presumption that if forced to choose the majority of Scots might prefer the EU to the UK and that she can persuade them to do it.

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post by Richard Parry
University of Edinburgh
13th March 2017
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