Today, Nicola Sturgeon made her announcement that not only does she seek a second independence referendum, but that she intends to hold it at some point between late 2018 or early 2019. The Scottish Government will seek the approval of the Scottish Parliament as soon as next week, and then seek approval from Westminster to hold the referendum, known as a Section 30 Order. This process is similar to the process undertaken for the first independence referendum held in 2014.
Following Brexit, this has been inevitable since it was clear that the SNP’s demands for a “differentiated” exit from the EU (with Scotland retaining access to the internal market) are not going to met. Indeed, such orders were unlikely ever to be delivered as the EU chiefly operates through its Member States rather than internal nations, regions, or any other subdivision. Brexit is the “material change” in circumstances that the SNP requires for a second referendum. What makes Sturgeon’s speech a surprise is that the SNP also stated that there needed to be “clear and sustained evidence” of support for independence before a second referendum. The lack of this evidence suggested that despite Brexit, IndyRef 2 was more of a medium-term probability than a short-term certainty.
Sturgeon’s speech has attempted to convert IndyRef 2 into a short-term certainty. This move is to take advantage of present conditions, of being in a strong position at Holyrood (albeit just short of a majority), a Conservative Government at Westminster and most of all, Brexit. The first of those conditions, the SNP’s position at Holyrood, is doubtful in the long-term. As the saying goes “to govern is to choose”, and the strain of being in office since 2007 means that the SNP’s popularity may have peaked. When reaching the summit, the only direction is down, even if it is a slow descent. The electoral system for the Scottish Parliament makes it difficult for the SNP to retain its hegemony in perpetuity. Only a small reduction in SNP support will close the window of opportunity for a second referendum. Sturgeon has decided to take the opportunity now to maximise the advantages for the independence cause of Brexit and the Conservative Government at Westminster.
The intention is to hold the referendum as early as autumn 2018, in the belief that the shape of UK’s exit from the EU will have emerged by that point. This is also the UK Government’s belief, but this is at best uncertain. Agreements in principle can be reached during the negotiations, but there is no deal until the whole deal is approved. It is entirely possible that negotiations degenerate into last minute compromises (on both sides). It would not be the first (or last!) EU negotiation to do so.
Entangling Scottish independence with Brexit in this way is unwise. Under Article 50, the UK will leave the EU two years after the UK has notified the EU of its intention to do so, which will be March 2019. Should Scotland vote for independence, they will not have left the UK by the time the UK has left the EU. For the first independence referendum, the SNP indicated that negotiations for Scotland to leave the UK would take at least eighteen months. Applying that to IndyRef 2 means that Scotland would leave the UK in 2020. Only then could Scotland begin the process of joining the EU. There is no guarantee that Accession to the EU will take place at all or be on terms acceptable to Scotland. Just like in 2014, the biggest issue is likely to be the currency, and potential adoption of the Euro, and not every EU country will automatically welcome Scotland with open arms (i.e. Spain, concerned about encouraging the Catalonian independence movement). The worst scenario of all would be for Scotland to be outside both the UK and EU. Essentially, Sturgeon has made a choice to leave one union to which 63% of Scotland’s exports go, to seek potential membership of another union that receives 16% of its exports. While the economic arguments for Brexit were more balanced (44% of the UK’s exports go to the EU), this cannot be the case with IndyRef 2.
It’s not clear that Sturgeon will get her way. The breakdown in relations between the Scottish and UK Governments is shown by the unilateral manner of Sturgeon’s actions. There has been no repeat of the Edinburgh Agreement with the two governments agreeing on the basis for the first referendum. By contrast, conflict is now hard-wired into the development of this referendum. Blame for this does not rest exclusively at Bute House, but is shared with the UK Government. A “hard” Brexit will intensify the impact of leaving the EU, intensifying Scottish (and for that matter Northern Irish) dissatisfaction with leaving the EU against their will. Accompanying the intention of a “hard” Brexit should have been a clear commitment to devolving to Holyrood many of the powers returned from the EU. The UK Government’s White Paper on Brexit was, at best, vague on this point. This touches a more fundamental problem. There appears to be a lack of a coherent plan within government linking the emerging federalisation of the UK and devolution to English cities to Brexit.
The critical area for conflict will be the timing for IndyRef 2. Sturgeon indicated that the timing of IndyRef 2 is a matter for Scottish Parliament. This was not the case for the 2014 Referendum. The Section 30 order, (passed by Westminster granting the Scottish Parliament the power to legislate for the referendum) made clear that the referendum had to be held by the end of 2014. The UK Government may view the timetable announced by Sturgeon as unsustainable, and will not want to open a second front with the conclusion of the EU negotiations still pending. A more likely date is later in 2019 or 2020 once the UK has left the EU, with any transitional arrangement in place.
Already Sturgeon’s intervention has had an effect; Article 50 will now be towards the end of the month rather than this week. Compared to the Miller case, this is far greater challenge to Theresa May’s plans for Brexit. It has forced Scottish concerns to become a key part of the UK’s thinking on Brexit, adding an extra dimension to the Brexit negotiations, which were already described as a game of three-dimensional chess. How many more dimensions will be added before March 2019?