With Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May taking apparently incompatible positions over a second independence referendum, Michael Keating considers whether the constitution is now at breaking point.
The UK Government’s decision appears to be final. A Scottish independence referendum is not ruled out in principle but it is off the table until after Brexit. This is understandable from the UK perspective. The Government has no desire to conduct a war on two fronts or to weaken the UK position in negotiations with the EU.
From the Scottish Government’s perspective, a referendum after Brexit is too late. Scotland will have left the EU along with England, Wales and (presumably) Northern Ireland, and bedded into whatever new trading arrangements the UK has made. Unpicking these and negotiating back into the European single market and EU institutions would then be a massive undertaking.
Politically, however, this may play to the advantage of the SNP. It can argue that the UK Government has successively ruled out all of the proposals it presented in December: that the UK stay in the single market; that Scotland alone stay in the single market; and independence. Instead of calling the SNP’s bluff and allowing a referendum they might well have lost, the UK Government has left a grievance to rankle
If this development represents a breach in relations between the two governments, it will affect the negotiations on detailed but important matters that need to be resolved. These include the powers and funds coming back from Brussels and whether they will come to London or Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Northern Ireland is largely out of the game because of its own political crisis and divisions over Brexit. We do not know whether or when they will manage to form a new administration following the recent elections. So Brexit may effectively be negotiated by England, with whatever input Wales (which voted Leave) might make.
Politically, though, that too could redound to the advantage of the SNP. Brexit negotiations will be difficult and it is no secret that UK ministers are divided on whether they need a deal with Europe at all or can just fall back on the World Trade Organization rules. Either way, there will be problems and costs. The Government in Edinburgh will be free to criticize, especially given the weakness of the opposition at Westminster.
In the long run, this could all affect the broad pattern of political relationships across these islands. Theresa May insists that Brexit was a democratic decision of the British people. Others might argue that majorities in England and Wales pushed through Brexit and the UK Government unilaterally decided what it meant.
A crisis, strictly, speaking, is a situation that cannot hold and must break out one way or another. Yet political crises can last a long time. One thinks about the Irish standoff from the 1880s until the 1920s, further prolonged in Northern Ireland. At present, the governments of Spain and Catalonia are deadlocked over whether an independence referendum is possible. Such stand-offs in the long run serve to undermine trust in the state and its capacity to accommodate the diverse communities within it.