Indyref 2: Nation holds its breath for the Brexit bounce

Just a few hours had passed since Britain had woken up to the news it would be leaving the EU. The stock markets had plummeted, David Cameron had resigned and an air of despondency hung over Scotland, whose people '“ unlike their English neighbours '“ had voted so resoundingly to stay.
Nicola Sturgeon tells a press conference at Bute House that another independence referendum is 'highly likely'Nicola Sturgeon tells a press conference at Bute House that another independence referendum is 'highly likely'
Nicola Sturgeon tells a press conference at Bute House that another independence referendum is 'highly likely'

Then, at a press conference at Bute House, Nicola Sturgeon put indyref 2 on the table and the mood began to change. At her home in Glasgow, Kathleen Caskie, national co-ordinator of Women for Independence, noticed a sudden spike in traffic to the organisation’s website. “From then on, there was a steady stream of women signing up for the newsletter and paying to become members,” she says. “One or two emailed to say they had voted No, but wanted to get involved in any new campaign; others offered donations.”

Women for Independence secured more than 100 new members in 24 hours. “It was the busiest we’d been since October 2014,” Caskie says. The post-Leave independence surge had begun.

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It’s an ill wind, as they say. For 21 months, Yes campaigners had insisted a Brexit carried out in defiance of Scotland’s wishes would provide the “substantial and material change” required to trigger a second independence vote. The post-EU referendum map – yellow north of the border and London, blue almost everywhere else – provided visual confirmation of a divided nation. On Friday morning, Alex Salmond called for a second indyref within two years; and shortly afterwards Sturgeon announced the SNP would prepare the legislation required should the Scottish Parliament decide another plebiscite was the only way to stop Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its will. Now not only was the UK facing a split from Europe, but the Union between Scotland and England was once more in jeopardy.

Cynics suggested the two politicians were working a “good cop/bad cop” routine, with Salmond creating internal pressure to which Sturgeon was “forced” to respond. Either way, her direct approach took many by surprise. So, was Sturgeon’s decision shrewd or reckless? Can the bounce caused by Remain’s defeat be sustained long enough to bring a victory this time round? Or will support – fuelled by the xenophobic nature of the campaign – melt away in the face of challenging questions about the economy, currency and future relationship with a potentially weakened EU?

And if a win for Yes is not a safe bet, what then? Will the SNP simply take the referendum off the table and try to fight Scotland’s corner within Brexit? Or will it risk losing a second time, leading independence to fall off the agenda for a generation?

If there’s one thing we have learned in the past few days, it is that the markers by which we used to navigate our way across the political landscape have disappeared. All certainty has evaporated. Even pollsters and financial experts are in the dark; and there are so many variables. What happens in Scotland will be shaped by what happens to the Tory party in the wake of Cameron’s resignation (who will succeed him? Boris Johnson? Theresa May?); by Labour’s fortunes (will Jeremy Corbyn go too and, if so, who will replace him?); and the extent to which Britain’s decision to leave has a domino effect. Is the UK destined to face a general election? And when – if ever – will Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (the mechanism that triggers the two-year Brexit negotiations) be activated?

Even, once negotiations begin, what exactly is it Britain wants to achieve? Last week, it became clear the loose coalition of Leave campaign groups had no coherent vision or strategy for a Britain freed of the “shackles” of the EU. Should it lobby for continued access to the single market – a move that would require it to accept the free movement of labour? Or will it now have to focus on developing alternative markets?

With the dust settling, several disturbing new developments began to emerge. As the pound tumbled and Farage admitted £350 million of EU money would not – in fact – be spent on building new hospitals, many Leave voters were already lamenting their own impetuousness. Some said they hadn’t believed their vote would actually change anything. Meanwhile, one of the most searched for questions on Google after the event was “What is the EU?” suggesting this vote was less about Brussels and more a howl of rage at being ignored and the product of a crisis in English identity.

At the same time, right-wing parties in other countries – the Front National in France, Five Star in Italy, the Dutch Party for Freedom in the Netherlands – were bolstered by the result and started pressing for referendums of their own.

In the UK, the Leave campaign appeared so desultory about its own success people began to wonder if they’d ever wanted victory. At a press conference, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove seemed almost stricken. Nor was there any evidence of a timetable or a plan. Though EU leaders urged them to set the process in motion, Cameron made it clear Article 50 would not be activated until a new leader was in place in October and Johnson appeared equally reluctant to get going. In the absence of any enthusiasm from Leave’s proponents some commentators suspect the button won’t be pushed at all. They believe politicians are holding out for fresh negotiations, a new deal and another EU referendum two years down the line – though it seems unlikely any Tory leader would risk ignoring the will of the people; or that the EU would make concessions that might encourage other member states to follow Britain’s example.

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So where does Scotland fit into all of this? The First Minister has pledged to fight the country’s corner in any Brexit negotiations. But how difficult will it be to disentangle ourselves and what form would our future relationship with the EU take? Could we retain some formal links with the EU while remaining in the UK? Alternatively, were we to vote for independence, would EU membership be granted?

Long before Sturgeon made her speech on Friday morning, some No voters were already acknowledging that the discrepancy between the results in Scotland and England had consequences for the UK as a whole. JK Rowling tweeted: “Scotland will seek independence now. Cameron’s legacy will be breaking up two unions”, and former Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm said the day would be remembered as the moment when independence became inevitable. Labour supporter and anti-poverty campaigner Mike Dailly pledged to campaign for a Yes vote and the front page of the Daily Record – the paper that famously carried The Vow – showed the First Minister beside the message: “EU Go Girl”.

Inside the independence movement however, there was a degree of wariness and an attempt to manage expectations. “I was quite surprised by how bold Sturgeon’s statement was,” says law lecturer and Yes campaigner Andrew Tickell. “She seemed to be saying that unless there was a mechanism by which the democratic vote of the people of Scotland could result in Scotland having some relationship with the EU, even if England does not, then it follows we get into indyref 2 territory.

“Well, there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of the first thing happening – so on that reading, it seems very difficult for Sturgeon to do anything but pursue a second vote now.”

Realistically, however, a second referendum will not be won on the basis of people’s short-term reaction to the EU result.

Once the initial shock wears off, the SNP will – once again – have to try to convince No voters on the issues of the economy, currency and whether or not Scotland would be granted EU membership. Some of these issues have become more fraught since September 2014, and particularly in the light of the Leave vote.

Take the issue of currency. Last time round the SNP’s preferred option was to keep the pound, but the situation becomes more complicated if rUK is outside the EU. “If there is a second independence referendum and if it is to be credible then the question of currency needs to be resolved,” says Tickell.

The fall in the oil prices means the SNP would have to assuage fears on the economy. But some Yes campaigners believe it would be an easier sell this time round because voters were no longer being asked to choose between a leap in the dark and the status quo, but between two separate unknowns. “The key then would be making one unknown more attractive than the other,” said one. “Because of the White Paper, the SNP have already done a lot of thinking about what shape independence would take, whereas the sense I’m getting is that Johnson and Gove haven’t a clue what comes next in this post-Brexit scenario.”

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The most important factor might be to convince voters that our place in the EU would be secure. Just as the last time, it would be impossible to formally negotiate with leaders in advance of the vote, but informal discussions could take place, with reassurances given, and it seems likely our application would be fast-tracked on the back of Brexit.

Though Salmond seems to be pushing for indyref 2 before negotiations on the Britain’s departure from the EU have been completed, all the Yes campaigners I spoke to cautioned Sturgeon against being too hasty .

Some thought she shouldn’t act until there had been six months of opinion polls showing a 60 per cent majority in favour of independence. “We do sense a surge, but there is no rush,” says Caskie. “Everyone is very excited today, but over the next few weeks and months there will be all kinds of things we haven’t factored in. It will be even more complicated this time round because you are talking about a massive constitutional reconstruction of the UK, rather than Scotland just going its own way.”

Quite how difficult it will be to dismantle current structures is something politicians are only just beginning to get their heads round.

“Untangling Britain from the EU and reintegrating it in some other mechanism will be like playing multi-dimensional chess,” says Tickell.

“From a Scottish nationalist perspective, it matters what Britain does – what kind of economic deal it strikes with the Eurozone – because it has implications for what an independent Scotland should do.”

Tickell does not believe the UK can negotiate a deal similar to Norway’s because its access to the single market depends on the free movement of labour – an issue which was at the heart of Leave’s campaign.

“It’s going to be a knotty process and, along the way, there is so much potential for it all to go to hell in a handcart,” he says. “For example, look at agriculture. Under the Scotland Act, agriculture is devolved for the main part. The Common Agricultural Policy is a critical source of income for Scottish farmers. Some of them derive up to 80 per cent of their income from European funding, but those funds are not Barnetted [adjusted according to the Barnett Formula]. So, how much money would people get and what’s the calculation?”

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Andy Maciver, former Scottish Conservatives head of communications and director of PR company Message Matters, says Sturgeon is playing a very risky game.

“I understand it’s difficult for her to withstand the internal pressure, but by saying a second referendum is ‘highly likely’ she has made it very difficult not to hold one and if she holds one and doesn’t win it, she’s in serious trouble.”

Maciver believes changing circumstances have made it more difficult to promote independence to the electorate. “Scotland’s fiscal situation is worse than it was two years ago,” he says. “The currency issue is more problematic. And [because of Brexit], there seems no way of avoiding a physical passport-controlled border between Scotland and England. That is a problem from a perception point of view.”

Yet Tickell and Maciver agree that, despite all the obstacles, there is every chance Sturgeon will succeed. “I think there is an opportunity and a moment which crystallises a pretty basic point. ‘This was the Union you voted for in 2014 and here’s what it looks like now. Do you still want it?’ I think a number of people would answer that profoundly differently today than they did before,” says Tickell.

Maciver too believes the Union is in a more precarious position than it ever has been. “If I had to put money on it, I would say there’s a good chance of Scotland becoming independent,” he says. “It was 55/45 the last time. The dial has not moved back the way – so the only question is where does she get 5 per cent plus one from. It’s risky, but having said that, I think they would go into [a second referendum] as favourites.”