Ruth Davidson’s move this week to establish an expert panel aimed at ensuring a post-Brexit Scotland remains part of the UK only served to up the ante in the current phoney war over Scotland’s constitutional future. The main protagonists in the country’s political landscape have been jockeying for position in the battle lines for indyref2 since the political earthquake which saw the UK vote to leave the EU in June. It signalled the green light for the SNP to re-ignite the push for independence as the vote saw a majority of Scots backing our place in Europe, yet facing the prospect of being “dragged out against our will”. Or so the Nationalist narrative goes.
As nominal leader of the opposition in Scotland, Ms Davidson’s star was born during the last independence campaign, in the years building up to the 2014 vote. The Lothians MSP came through a tough baptism, and some often awkward clashes with then First Minister Alex Salmond in the Holyrood chamber. But that generation of Scottish political leaders were forced to master the big ticket issues which had simply never been on the agenda before. In essence, how to create a nation state from scratch. Both the possibilities and pitfalls. She grew into a politician of substance and this was all too clear in the Brexit campaign. Perhaps that is why Ms Davidson has taken such a steadfast approach to tackling the SNP’s push for another referendum.
While other leaders in Scotland make noises about “moving on” from the constitution and turning instead to the bread and butter issues, Ms Davidson knows this issue ain’t going away. Not with the domination of the SNP in Scotland’s political scene and polls showing Scots remain split down in the middle on independence. The Tory leader’s expert group, tasked with finding opportunities for a post-Brexit Scotland, is as much a statement of intent as it is about charting a way forward for Scotland in the new political reality. She wants to ensure that the groundwork for a future pro-union campaign is in place without the First Minister getting a head start.
Nicola Sturgeon’s renewed independence drive, couched in the guise of a “listening exercise”, was launched earlier this month. It crystallises the recasting of the political dynamic we have seen in Scotland this year. This now sees the Tory chief leading the opposition to the Nationalist bandwagon after the Holyrood election where the party returned from the wilderness years to beat Labour into third place.
The widespread divisions and infighting at UK level are likely to ensure it is a long way back for Kezia Dugdale’s party north of the border. The problem for Ms Davidson in trying to persuade Scots to make Brexit work for them stems from her prominent involvement in the Remain campaign. The Tory leader herself set out dire warnings about how bad Brexit would be. It leaves her starting off on the backfoot against Ms Sturgeon when it comes to making the case for following the wider UK out of the European exit door.
Ms Sturgeon is understood to be cagey about pushing for a second referendum as the oil price crash continues to debilitate Scotland’s economy. The launch of her own initiative was significantly accompanied by the creation of an economic policy group which will look into tackling the £15 billion black hole in Scotland’s public finances as a result of the oil price crash, as well as addressing the thorny issue of currency which proved the Achilles heel for the Yes campaign in 2014.
But the Brexit scenario had been identified by Ms Sturgeon as one which could trigger another quickfire vote on the constitution. It was set out clearly in the SNP’s manifesto which saw the Nationalists sweep to an emphatic victory in the recent Holyrood election, albeit they fell narrowly short of securing a majority.
The SNP leader will again lay out her case in front of MSPs today when she seeks to portray a future wedded to the UK outside the EU as the “dangerous unknown” for Scotland.
A list of “red line” issues have already been drawn up by the First Minister which are unlikely to be met, including full access to single market and the retention of freedom of movement. This would undermine the very reason why many voted for Brexit in the first place – to gain some control over the numbers of economic migrants coming to the UK from elsewhere in the EU. The more awkward question for the SNP leader is the prospect of an independent Scotland gaining automatic membership of the EU. Without some kind of prior undertaking from Brussels that such a scenario would get the green light, it’s hard to see Scots voting for the prospect of a pseudo independence “max” option where the country is left outside both the UK as well as the EU.
But there can be no question that the Brexit vote has changed everything. Even Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister last time round and one of the signatories-in-chief to the infamous Vow, made it clear yesterday it will be “hard to argue against” Scotland’s right to go it alone when Brexit finally happens. Perhaps the great obstacle facing the pro-union indyref2 camp will be their own proclamations from 2014 about the uncertainty which would surround Scotland’s EU future in the event of independence.
The only way to secure Scotland’s EU status we were warned, in repeated and stark terms, was to stay with the UK. So we did. Fast-forward two years and exactly the opposite has transpired. Perhaps that is why, despite the economics telling us that an independent Scotland today would face a record black hole of £15bn in its public finances, the appetite for leaving the UK is undiminished. The Kandar TNS poll this week found 47 per cent of Scots were ready to vote Yes – two points higher than 2014.
If nothing else, it shows the constitutional debate is going nowhere in Scotland. And when last time it was Salmond and Darling, the next independence campaign seems certain to be spearheaded by Ms Davidson and Ms Sturgeon, fast emerging as the two dominant political rivals of their generation.