Will Brexit-lite erode the recent rise in support for Scottish independence?
Reports suggest European diplomats are discussing an ‘emergency brake’ on EU migration for up to seven years as a way to keep Britain in Europe. The UK would pay a smaller sum into the EU budget for access to the single market but would have no say in formation of its rules. High-ranking British officials say this plan is in its “very early days,” but is “certainly one of the ideas now on the table”.
Indeed, comments by prominent Tories suggest voters are being softened up for something less than total Brexit. Anti-EU MEP Daniel Hannan said that a vote to leave the EU would not necessarily end free movement of labour, while new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says the UK could remain in the single market whilst securing curbs to freedom of movement; “I’ve absolutely no doubt that balance can be struck, and over the next few weeks we’ll be discussing it in the Government and with our European friends and partners.”
This whiff of compromise has been fuelled by the first wave of bad Brexit-related economic news. Data from IHS Markit’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) last week showed a fall to 47.7 in July -- a “dramatic deterioration” in economic activity not seen since the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2009.
Of course a partial “about turn,” wouldn’t be easy to deliver. Newspapers predict a Eurosceptic group of 25 Tory MPs will submit a ‘No Surrender’ Brexit blueprint to Downing Street this week calling for Theresa May to sever links with the single market immediately and completely. That group represents just a tiny fraction of Tory MPs but the Prime Minister knows any Brexit-lite deal would need the validation of a second referendum or another general election to survive. Since pollsters, spin doctors and politicians misread the mood of the English electorate so badly a month ago, she might not be eager to return to the ballot box any time soon. But what alternative does the Prime Minister have? Endless prevarication – as unsettling as triggering Article 50 now – or full Brexit which might not pass the Commons.
By contrast the Scottish First Minister appears to be sitting pretty. Some constitutional experts now support her contention that Scotland could remain a full member of the EU even if rUK opts to leave. She didn’t have to propose a veto at the recent British-Irish summit. The Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones did it for her, suggesting the Brexit deal should be required to pass through all four national parliaments. But every leader at that summit was in an odd position on EU membership.
The Welsh First Minister and his capital city voted to stay in the EU but Carwyn Jones leads a nation that voted to leave. Likewise Theresa May. The Northern Ireland First Minister voted to leave the EU while the province did not. Only Nicola Sturgeon personally backs the same position on EU membership as her electorate – and even then, her negotiating stance is slightly counter-intuitive. If the Scottish Parliament blocks Brexit for the whole UK, or negotiates some halfway house while rUK exits, the SNP will lose one of the best recruiting sergeants for Scottish independence it has ever possessed.
Since the 23 June vote, support for independence has breached the 50 per cent mark, the Scottish Secretary and Scottish Labour’s deputy leader have accepted that a second independence referendum is on the table and prominent No voters seem resigned to the inevitability if not yet the desirability of independence. For writer JK Rowling, the Brexit vote was a game-changer. The Harry Potter author donated £1million to Better Together in 2014, so her volte-face straight after the result had a huge impact. But Ms Rowling’s full statement makes clear that her support for the Union was never absolute or unquestioning. I think we can assume her resigned acceptance of independence will be just as provisional. Like other instinctive unionists, she could easily revert to being a No voter if circumstances change.
Would a Brexit-lite compromise constitute just such a rechanged circumstance? Perhaps that’s why SNP deputy leadership contender Alyn Smith has warned Brexit alone will not deliver independence. The MEP, who won a standing ovation in Brussels after a speech defending Scotland’s continuing membership, says Brexit changed the political weather, but was only “one factor among many” for voters.
Meanwhile the civil servant who advised George Osborne against a shared currency option in 2014 – Sir Nicholas McPherson – seems to have gone the other way. He now thinks there’s a “golden opportunity” for the SNP to “reappraise their economic prospectus” so that iScotland within the EU can hoover up financial services companies and investment. But although Scotland’s long-term prospects might be encouraging, initial years of independence would clearly be hard, especially with the collapse in oil prices.
Might a deal that allows Britain to stay in the EU offer swithering Scots the “best of both worlds”? During the 2014 referendum, EU membership ranked only seventh in voter priorities. But just as the English Brexit vote was also a howl of despair from the disenfranchised, the Scots Remain majority was a proxy for other issues too.
The 62 per cent Remain vote here reflected such despair about the naked self-interest of elites, and the enduring concentration of economic power in the south of England, that few Scots voters could be convinced Brexit cash saved would ever leave Whitehall coffers again. With no start date for construction of Navy frigates promised to Clyde shipyards, a near-permanent mistrust of Westminster still looks entirely justified.
Remain represented a vote for cooperation as a means of national defence instead of a unilateral rush to Trident. It was an expression of Scotland’s own distinctive outlook as a northern social democracy –roundly and predictably ignored.
The arrogance, the back-stabbing and the ministerial rewards to those who scarpered in the face of a Brexit vote they encouraged – all of this has been noted by Scots voters who once expected much better from UK politics.
Admittedly, that’s still not enough to guarantee a different result in a second independence referendum. But it’s a very different place to start.