Lesley Riddoch: No clear Brexit path for Sturgeon

SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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So D-Day will occur sometime in March 2017. Theresa May ended speculation this weekend by naming the month she plans to trigger Article 50, thus setting in train two years of negotiations to pull Britain out of the EU. Does that mean indyref2 has effectively been pencilled in too - for 2019? Despite the likely clamour from independence supporters, provocation by the Westminster Government and a powerful political logic - possibly not.

Nicola Sturgeon didn’t sound remotely conciliatory when Theresa May announced no Brexit opt-out would be possible for Scotland yesterday. The First Minister tweeted; “PM going out of her way to say Scotland’s voice and interests don’t matter. Strange approach from someone who wants to keep UK together.”

Minutes later Scotland’s Brexit Minister said Holyrood might block the Great Repeal Bill needed to convert all EU law into English law before Brexit. Sounding like a man squaring up for a fight, Mike Russell told BBC Scotland; “Presently there is a [Scottish Parliament] majority against that repeal bill.”

So will the Scottish Government block progress of Theresa May’s Brexit preparations to place the possibility of a Scottish opt-out back on the table?

It’s possible – partly because a Repeal Bill converting EU law into English law won’t help a reluctantly Brexiting Scotland put its own legislative and legal house in order.

But even if MSPs and Scottish MPs do become obstructive, it’s not clear if they can delay Westminster’s Brexit preparations or if such tactics would strengthen the case for an early indyref2.

Firstly, there are practical difficulties about running an independence referendum in parallel with the UK’s Brexit negotiations.

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As Paddy Bort of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Governance observes; “Uncertainties would mean an [independence] vote based on assumptions, predictions, assurances and claims.” There’s a danger that an independence referendum predicated on unpredictable Brexit negotiations might hand the initiative to the opposition, just as the SNP’s shared currency stance did in 2014.

Secondly, it’s conceivable that the reality of ‘hard Brexit’ might change the perceived desirability of Scotland “going it alone” inside the EU – as a devolved nation or a future independent state.

If the rest of the UK leaves, it might cause such trade and border disruption that it wouldn’t be in the interests of an independent Scotland to remain inside the EU.

Of course, it’s impossible for the SNP leadership to entertain doubts over the benefits of EU membership or to second-guess a Scottish electorate which clearly voted to Remain.

So there will be none of that in public. But privately there may be less desire to turn the absence of a Scottish opt-out into an automatic trigger for indyref2.

Who knows – and that’s an important point too.

Speakers at the annual conference of the Radical Independence Campaign in Glasgow this weekend, called for joint-discussion between pro-independence parties and groups to ensure important strategic decisions about the timing of indyref2 are not the sole preserve of one person or one political party.

Such a collegiate approach doesn’t seem to be in the DNA of the SNP leadership, but a better decision-making process is critical for the months and years ahead.

Talking takes time.

A third factor arguing against an early indyref, are poll results. 60% opinion poll support for independence - sustained over a period of time - is unquestionably the best bet for winning a second referendum.

And whilst it’s true that the very business of holding a referendum will likely increase support for a Yes vote again, it’s unlikely the UK Government will give permission before its current negotiations are finished. And Brexit itself has not played its expected role as a constitutional game changer, increasing Scots’ dissatisfaction with the Union – thus far.

Clearly, it’s a tough call.

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If Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t try and capitalise on the fact Scotland’s distinctive desires have been completely ignored by yet another Conservative Prime Minister, she may miss the moment completely.

Post-Brexit the case for independence may be harder to argue without a proper strategy in place - and doubly hard for the SNP because they’ve repeatedly drawn attention to the reckless plan-free behaviour of the Brexiting Tory Government. Indeed, the party has just published a dossier of “100 unanswered questions” for Theresa May on what leaving the EU will mean.

They’ve asked if the UK will remain part of the single market and a member of the European Union customs union, whether businesses will be able to continue to trade with the EU without customs checks or other administrative costs and whether UK citizens living in the EU will be given the right to remain.

The SNP also wants to know if police in the UK will continue to use the European Arrest Warrant and how changes to freedom of movement will affect the recruitment and retention of NHS staff.

Westminster leader Angus Robertson says; “The Tories are in the process of walking the UK economy off a cliff with a vague promise that they’ll find a parachute on the way down. It’s not good enough.”

That’s true. It may be tempting for the SNP to try and minimize such scrutiny on indyref2 by holding the vote within the busy Brexit window – but also damaging if the SNP is seen to duck similar important procedural questions about independence.

Finally and obviously, if the First Minister goes early, gets an independence referendum before 2019 and loses, the prospects for self determination - and for the First Minister’s own career - might not recover.

Mind you, important players like JPMorgan believe Scotland will hold a second referendum once the reality of life outside the single market means banks and other financial services companies queue up to leave Britain.

The investment bank has just written a note titled “How Brexit Happens”: “Intersecting the UK’s EU exit process is likely to be pressure to hold a new referendum on Scottish independence, which we expect will ultimately generate a vote shortly before the UK leaves the EU in 2019.

Our base case is that Scotland will vote for independence and institute a new currency at that point.”

It would be strange indeed if the courage and confidence of independence campaigners lagged behind that of a merchant bank. It’s a tough decision. Nicola Sturgeon’s best bet is not to take it alone.