Where will the Brexit event fit in the Scottish process?

Published: 30 January 2020
Author: Richard Parry

Richard Parry suggests a new source for a famous description of devolution, and discusses the interaction between Brexit and Scottish constitutional change. Brexit Day leads to a new context for the debate, but securing independence from outside the EU poses difficulties that the SNP did not face in 2014

‘It was not an event but a process spread over 300 years’ – not a comment on Scotland’s road to self-government but the prologue to the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire, part of the epics-and-football television diet that diverted weary UK electors over the holidays following the 2019 election. Was this the origin of the much-quoted phrase about devolution, usually attributed to Labour’s Welsh Secretary in 1997 Ron Davies? The main screenwriter was Philip Yordan.

But where will Brexit fit into any longer-term Scottish process? Two perspectives are on offer, both with some difficulties for the SNP.  A political one suggests that Brexit will further collapse the Union into an explicitly English political system. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would move faster along their long-term direction of travel away from unionism – an independent Scotland, Wales with a full government and parliament equivalent to Scotland’s, and a united Ireland.

On this view, Brexit will facilitate independence as an EU member state as Scotland would not now be seceding from an EU member and requesting one membership be divided into two, a fraught issue for Spain and its allies on the matter. Scotland’s recent conformity with EU rules would help. But from 2021 there will presumably be UK-led divergence, and Scotland will also run into the present de facto bar on new members and candidacies promoted by France.

Before Brexit, a newly-independent Scotland could have maintained its full alignment with EU practices while waiting for the political issues around its membership to be resolved. After it, Scotland may look like one of many aspirants for membership, with the EU angle a matter of delay and uncertainty, working against not for the SNP. 

The other perspective is more practical, and relates to technical issues resolved by EU membership and now requiring different treatment.  The SNP encountered an unexpected salience of the currency of an independent Scotland as an issue in the 2014 referendum. The SNP would not embrace the euro, in a spillover of the toxicity of the Brexit debate, but were then vulnerable over how their preferred policy might obtain UK consent.  

Outside common Scottish and rest-of-UK membership of the EU, these issues multiply. Disputes over Scottish trade access to England (and its Empire) in the 1690s led to the Union of 1707 and would have to be revisited in the contemporary economy. The association between independence and ‘separation’ in all its aspects could be made much more forcibly than in 2014.

Despite a further vote in the Scottish Parliament on 29 January, indyref2 is coming closer by the week to being timed out before the 2021 Scottish elections.  After them, Labour’s policy is likely to become detached from the Conservatives’, promoting some kind of federal third way bur crucially not denying the legitimacy of a pro-independence majority in Holyrood should one emerge. This appeared to be Keir Starmer’s position when he visited Scotland on 28 January.

Meanwhile there is the strange ‘lights are going out’ feeling about Brexit week. In a symbolic moment, the UK government has embraced in its advertisements and website the word ‘transition’ to describe the period until the end of 2020. It is no longer ‘implementation’, although that word is used alongside it in the Withdrawal Agreement (article 126). There is nothing yet to implement.

Faced with a big beast defending the interests of the EU and all its members (the ‘Brussels effect’), the UK faces a tough search for negotiating leverage. The ‘buyer’s remorse’ that gave the SNP its stunning UK electoral success months after its supposedly definitive referendum defeat might displace Conservative credit for ‘getting Brexit done’. Once EU membership can no longer be blamed for assorted failures and disappointments in the public household, but non-membership can be, a lot will change – but not necessarily to the benefit of the SNP’s cause.