In the wake of the Brexit vote, the SNP are calling for another referendum on Scottish independence. Inevitably the Tories are saying no, why we had one just two years ago, what’s changed since then to warrant another referendum? Well in short, everything. This referendum will be very different, anything but a re-run of the previous one. The issues have changed, public opinion has changed, the consequences of Independence have changed.
Naturally the fact that the Scottish overwhelmingly voting to stay in the EU and the rUK voting to leave, does drastically change things. We were assured by the Tories at the last vote that Brexit was very unlikely and there was little difference between opinions on the EU north of the border and south of it. Well clearly that was not true. And recall much of the “project fear” arguments related to uncertainty over Scotland’s EU membership if Scotland left the UK. So it is entirely legitimate to want the referendum re-run for these reasons alone (either that or rerun the Brexit vote).
Its worth keeping in mind that in the immediate wake of the last referendum opinion polls narrowed to either a tie, a narrow lead to yes or a 3-5% lead to no. So we have a shift in public opinion of at least 10% (if not more) over this one issue in the space of a few weeks. That is more than sufficient grounds by itself to argue for a 2nd vote. Not least because it changes how a future independence vote will be run.
Last time around the Tories and the no camp opted for so called project fear. Pointing to the economic dangers of Scottish independence. However, now both camps will likely be running their own brand of project fear. The SNP will be able to point out that by remaining in the EU, Scotland will benefit greatly, many companies that trade with the EU in the UK will likely relocate north of the border. So the no camp won’t have everything its own way.
One of my criticisms of the SNP last time around was the fact that they were a bit unrealistic and did not consider the negative consequences of independence. This time around it seems they are planning for a bit of a warts and all approach, acknowledging that post- independence the country will have to make some tough choices, but it will be better off in the long run. While this approach might put some people off, the obvious benefit is that it leaves the no camp with nowhere to go. They can’t run project fear, when the SNP are saying the same thing anyway.
In any event I would argue that one reasons why the Tories lost the Brexit referendum was that they kept playing the project fear card. But after playing the same card in three referendums and a general election people simply didn’t believe them anymore, they’ve developed an immunity to it. In short, I’m doubtful it will work this time, particularly if they are already behind in the polls.
Instead, the Tories will have to play up the positive aspects of being in the UK. However, there’s the problem. The Tories, don’t exactly do positives, not in Scotland anyway. Them trying to be positive is like someone dressed as a creepy clown driving around late at night in a creepy looking van trying to hand out free candy to kids.
Who will lead the no vote?
This is why last time the Tories largely left it up to labour to lead the no vote campaign. But labour are unlikely to make that mistake a 2nd time. In the wake of the indy-ref labour support in Scotland plummeted. They lost all but one of their seats in Scotland. And to add insult to injury, in a typical act of Sith betrayal, the Tories then ran a general election campaign centred on how labour would be beholden to those sneaky scots and in Alex Slamond’s pocket.
So I think the lesson for Scottish labour would be to not take the lead on any campaign. Indeed if you have been listening to Scottish labour leader Kezia Dugdale recently you will see she’s leaving nothing out. She’s even not closing off the option to support an independence campaign. Now I doubt that would actually happen (indeed she’s since back petalled from this a bit). However, the indecision within Scottish labour leadership does reflect the fact that they cannot take the same approach as last time. My guess is Scottish labour will be neutral in the next referendum, some in the party will campaign for a yes vote, others for a no vote. Or the party may just stay out of it altogether.
While I won’t rule out a figure like Gordon Brown stepping in to lead the no vote, I’m not sure how effective he would be, he’s soften his tone somewhat since the 23rd of June. Certainly I doubt we’ll be getting Alastair Darling again (I bumped into him not too long ago, I was careful not to mention the Scottish referendum as I had this fear he’d start foaming at the mouth and banging his head against the wall as he succumbed to paranoid flash backs), the poor guy has suffered enough. And given the lib dem’s ferrero rocher moment, I’m doubting they are in a position to help, nor would they want too.
My guess is that the no camp will have to look outside of politics, find someone like J. K Rowling or that guy from dragon’s den, to lead the no campaign. However, that would be a risky strategy. Basically it will either be spectacularly successful, or they’ll go into a debate against Nicola Sturgeon and she’ll shred them (politicians tend to be good debaters) and the whole thing will fall apart.
One of the major mistake from last time was the failure of the SNP to be able to answer a simple question, what currency will we be using on independence day? Again, minded as I was to support independence, it baffled me how they couldn’t get something this basic right.
And quite frankly the idea that of sharing the pound A) have you run that past Whitehall? cos I think they’ll say no, and B) why would you want to keep the pound? This undermines the whole point of independence! Clearly the SNP policy here was being driven by the results of focus groups, which showed many didn’t want to give up the pound for various reasons.
However with the pound falling in value, the case for retaining the pound is undermined. In some respects you could argue a Scottish pound would have advantages. And to those who say it can’t be a stable currency, ya and you might want to run that by the Danes, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Hungary, the Czech’s, etc. All have their own currency, all are small countries, in many cases with a smaller population and GDP than Scotland. They (with the noted exception of Norway) don’t have Scotland’s oil reserves or high value exports. And many other EU states, such as Ireland, Belgium, or Holland had a stable independent currency for many years prior to joining the Euro. So I have little doubt that a Scottish pound is a realistic possibility.
And the SNP seem to recognising this. It would seem that this time they will be campaigning on the basis of founding their own currency, although its value might at least initially pegged to the UK pound (the Danes have a similar arrangement with the Euro, as do Norway to Sweden) or even joining the euro. This will not be straight forward. It will take time and it might mean some temporary austerity or tax hikes initially, while proving to the world that Scotland can balance its books…..although its worth noting that the Tories have thoroughly failed to do anything of the sort.
But if they can win the argument on currency, then that does change things considerably.
EU citizens and Scottish independence
Last time around the SNP broadened the big tent as wide as they could, gambling that the more they had voting, the more likely independence would become. Of course, they knew that there were large groups who would vote as a block against independence, but they were gambling that the yes votes they gathered in the process would cancel this out (of course they were wrong, in the end the vow meant the numbers just didn’t add up).
EU citizens, who were allowed to vote last time around but denied a vote in the EU referendum, by and large voted against Scottish independence. However, this is unlikely to be the case this time around. With Theresa May threatening to use them as pawns in negotiations with Brussels, we can assume many EU citizens in Scotland will now vote for Scottish independence to preserve their status within the EU. Certainly for me, its all but a given I’ll vote yes, if only for this reason alone.
And similarly there will be large blocks of people who voted no last time who can be expected to now vote yes. Again, this changes the dynamics of the referendum completely. The no camp, last time relied on the fact that a large proportion of voters would be naturally expected to vote no, so they only had to focus those who were on the fence. Now its the other way around. Hence, why a “project fear” approach is unlikely to work.
And if lots of EU citizens are voting for Scottish independence, this naturally changes the position of the EU as regards the question. EU government will have to take into account what’s in the interest of their citizens living in Scotland.
The EU and the Spanish
Another major sticking point from last time was the attitude of the EU. Last time the SNP seemed to assume they were already a member of the EU, the EU pointed out that no, you’ll have to apply for membership like everyone else.
Now the EU seems a bit more open towards the idea of Scottish independence. They will be anxious to avoid setting a precedence by admitting Scotland, but some sort of fast track approach in conjunction with Brexit (or should we say Engexit) is a possibility. There will likely be a transition period, when the country is not in the UK but also not in the EU, but with the right agreements in place this should not effect trade.
The Spanish do represent something of a sticking point. They don’t want Scottish independence to create a case for Catalonian independence (or Basque independence). However the Spanish are also very quick to point out that the Scottish question is a very different matter. However if they were to openly block Scottish EU membership (as its often implied by some in the media they would) naturally this would lead many to question whether the two issues are so different. In short, they would have undermined their own case for blocking Catalonian independence.
And the Spanish will know that there will be countries in the EU which are more favourable Scottish independence, such as Ireland, or many of the Eastern European and Scandinavian countries. The danger for the Spanish is that if they try too hard, they’ll antagonise these nations, which would be a bad idea as it would undermine their own position.
So my guess is, the EU will ask a lot of tough questions, the Spanish will try to drag things out a bit, but otherwise it will probably go ahead. It will take a lot more time than the SNP seem to think, but a lot less time than the naysayers will have us believe.
Bottom line, the EU is not about to vote to make itself smaller. The consequences for Scotland voting to stay in the EU, voting to leave the UK as a consequence and then being given the cold shoulder would fundamentally undermine the whole EU project.
And speaking of Spain, there’s the question of the legality of a second independence referendum. It seems likely that Westminster will not allow another legally binding referendum. In essence their plan is to counter independence the same way the Spanish saw off the Catalonia vote, by denying the referendum credibility.
However if this is the plan, its not going to work. Why? Simple – 37.3%, which you arrive at by multiplying the 51.8% who voted for Brexit times the turn out of 72.2%. The problem for the Tories is that they are pushing ahead with Brexit, on the basis of a non-legally binding referendum, without a vote in parliament, on the basis of a plurality of just 37.3%. By doing so they are setting a precedence. If the SNP can get the vote for independence over this bar, then it becomes very difficult to argue against them. And that isn’t very difficult to do, particularly if many no voters don’t bother showing up to the polls.
Let us suppose the latest opinion polls showing a 47% to 41% split in the vote is correct. Let us suppose that the don’t know‘s and the strong no‘s boycott the next indy-ref, so only those who are weak no‘s (they feel there should be a vote even though they still intend to vote no, e.g. they are married or to a yes voter) and yes voters show up to the polls. Well do the maths and with a turn out of just 48% the SNP could exceed the plurality of the Brexit vote (in this scenario the result would be 77% for and 23% against). And if we assume that the turn out for an Indy ref2 is the same as the EU referendum (67%, again strong no‘s and don’t know’s stay away, leaving the poll to be fought between the weak no‘s and the yes voters). The likely result will be about 67% yes, 33% no with a plurality of 45%.
So I’m afraid the “Spanish option” would likely be a total disaster for the Tories, not least because after 6-12 months of a one sided campaign from the SNP, public opinion won’t be split 47/41, probably the margin will be much higher and therefore the SNP’s margin of victory will be a lot higher. Its not too difficult to see them exceeding a plurality of 50%.
All the Tories will do with such a tactic is guarantee a very wide margin of victory to the SNP. And then what are they going to do? They can’t veto Scotland’s EU membership like they threatened to do last time. They can’t deny the Scot’s the pound if they set up their own currency (actually Whitehall will now be more worried about the Scot’s refusing to take on their share of the UK’s national debt). Armed with a democratic mandate that exceeds that of the Tories, it will be very difficult for them to stop Scottish independence.
And while the EU will be reluctant to recognise Scottish independence, they will not ignore the result and will likely insist that post-Brexit negotiations only consider the rUK, opening separate talks directly with Edinburgh.
The vow mark II
Last time, Scottish independence was partially thwarted thanks to a last minute intervention by Gordon Brown, culminating in the infamous vow. Could the same happen again?
There is already a post-brexit proposal for a federal UK in which all powers, excluding defence and foreign policy are devolved to the regions and a new English parliament. There would be either a shared currency with the pound becoming essentially like a mini-eurozone, or each nation would develop its own currency pegged to a fixed exchange rate.
This could well be sufficient to allow Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar to stay in the UK and also in the EU. While the Spanish (again) will deny this, there is a precedence here. Greenland is part of Denmark, but not in the EU, even though the rest of Denmark is in the EU. So its not beyond the scope of legal argument for this to work.
However, the rest of the UK would have to agree to this. And Theresa May isn’t exactly the sort of PM we could see signing up for it (she’s a bit authoritarian). Without a clear mandate prior to a vote, you’d be asking Scot’s to choose between a possibly maybe and the certainty of independence. That doesn’t sound like it will work.
And also, there’s the issue of credibility. There are many Scot’s who feel that the vow was never delivered on. While the Tories would argue no we did deliver on the vow, but this is a bit like paying a kid to cut your lawn, and he sets it on fire. Okay, he did reduce the height of the grass, but its not quite what you were expecting.
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.
The uncertainty principle
So all in all, a second independence referendum will be a very different affair. The SNP won’t have everything their own way. They’ve got some difficult questions to answer. The stakes are higher now, post-brexit. But equally, the Tories now face some serious challenges. Trying to fight an independence referendum while negotiating Brexit, with all of their broken promises dug up by the SNP and spat back at them, its not going to be easy. And ignoring the problem and hoping that it goes away, will all but guarantee that Scottish independence happens.
So in the absence of a reversal of the Brexit referendum, I don’t see how a 2nd independence referendum can be stopped. But will independence happen? Last time my assumption was probably not, but I could just about see Cameron screwing things up enough to make it a possibility. Now however, I’d call the odds 50/50, perhaps higher. But that’s what’s really changed, I don’t see how anyone could predict the outcome this time.