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Scottish independence: Lessons from the Brexit process?

Published: 22 April 2021

Scottish independence: Lessons from the Brexit process?

Benjamin Martill

University of Edinburgh

Brexit and Scottish independence

Scottish independence is back on the agenda, largely thanks to Brexit, which has provided the ‘material change in circumstances’ necessary for a further challenge to the status quo.

But whether you are a unionist or you are pro-independence, the Brexit process also offers lessons on how not to go about seceding from a broader union. In other words, Brexit can tell us how the politics of secession are likely to play out, and offer lessons about avoiding the most obvious pitfalls.

And this can be a genuinely non-partisan exercise, since independence supporters have just as much to lose from the process being hijacked, poorly implemented, or losing public legitimacy as do unionists.

Drawing on my research into the Brexit negotiations, two issues in particular stick out: Confusion surrounding the mandate for Brexit, and difficulties introduced by the conduct of the negotiations.

Let’s consider each of these in turn.

The hardening Brexit mandate

While the Leave vote in 2016 was itself a shock, what characterised the Brexit process in the months after was a hardening of positions among Leave supporters, such that more moderate options, avenues for reasonable compromise (with Remainers or with Brussels), and even options initially touted by the Leave campaign (like remaining in the Single Market) became politically untenable.

Part of the problem lay also in the lack of clarity of the Leave mandate. What Brexit meant, in practice, was hard to discern, a result of the explicit lack of government planning, the vague and unspecific rhetoric of the Leave campaign, and the multiplicity of non-EU models of association on offer. As a result, the true meaning of Brexit, and the ‘will of the people’ manifest in the result, was left up to interpretation by political entrepreneurs who had a clear incentive to outflank their more moderate compatriots.

The lack of clarity about the meaning of the Brexit mandate, and the recourse to the popular will - rather than to elected institutions - made it difficult to establish meaningful ways for subsequent decisions to be made. This left very few options for making crucial decisions post-Brexit about what the process did, or should, entail, and what kind of outcome would be acceptable to the majority of EU citizens.

The mandate for independence

The squabbling over the meaning of Brexit highlights the importance of adequate preparation for a second independence referendum vote alongside a clear specification from Yes-supporting parties of their prospectus for an independent Scotland.

A political process will also be needed to implement any independence mandate and to make decisions on behalf of Scottish citizens on what independence should look like. Big decisions will emerge quickly, especially regarding EU membership, the terms of withdrawal from the UK, the nature of any Scotland/rest of UK (RUK) border, and currency questions.

This problem needs to be taken seriously now, before it is too late. The Brexit hardliners were not in evidence prior to the 2016 referendum, not least because they wanted to obtain broad enough support to triumph in the public poll. But as the Brexit process became more about internal Conservative politicking, radicals crept out of the woodwork with powerful (and dangerous) interpretations of the true mandate.

Negotiating Brexit

Negotiating British withdrawal from the EU proved far more difficult than had been expected.  The UK adopted an ill-suited ‘hard bargaining’ strategy which irked the Europeans, undermined trust in the relationship, set impossibly high expectations at the domestic level, and failed to obtain any meaningful concessions.

Moreover, London fundamentally mis-read the interests of the EU27, assuming that the preferences of goods exporters keen to retain access to the UK market (like German car manufacturers) would ensure the maintenance of close economic ties and underestimating the incentive of the EU27 to hold the line and make an example of the UK.

Time was also against the UK, both as a consequence of the Article 50 process which saw London edged ever-closer to the ‘no deal’ cliff-edge after notification, but also driven by domestic impatience at the lack of a deal, leaving precious little time for scrutiny of the resulting agreement.

And the domestic consequences of the negotiations had a deleterious effect on British politics. Not only did May’s initial posturing and seeming embrace of ‘no deal’ embolden her critics on the right, who would eventually unseat her, but the failure to reach out to opposition groupings practically ensured May’s defeat once the Conservative right refused to play ball.

How to negotiate independence

Managing negotiations on the terms of independence requires being clear in advance about what the ‘ask’ is and what, precisely, is being negotiated. These initial positions may not remain long on the table and can be altered easily over the course of the talks, but they will help establish a constructive tone and a clear baseline.

An honest appraisal of Westminster’s interests is also paramount, both in any referendum campaign and in approaching any subsequent talks. London may indeed have an incentive to maintain the economic and monetary status quo even after independence, but it will also have a clear incentive to demonstrate to other regions in the UK that independence doesn’t pay.

Holyrood should also be at pains to manage domestic expectations of the talks, and to establish the reality that not every ask may be granted, and that the negotiations themselves may take time. A lack of patience, especially in the face of inevitable exhortations to ‘get independence done’, would empower the RUK in future talks.

Finally, a process for accepting a final deal should be set in stone prior to the negotiations beginning, one that allows for adequate scrutiny by a host of political actors (MSPs, judges, civil society representatives) but which is able to confer a clear mandate on the final agreement such that it is accepted as legitimate by the vast majority of citizens.


Brexit and Scottish independence are now closely interwoven. British withdrawal from the EU has placed the independence question back on the table, but Brexit also provides valuable lessons in how not to go about the process of seceding from a larger union, helping us to think about how independence may be realised without the levels of contention associated with the Brexit imbroglio.

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