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Opinion: Is Brexit advancing the cause of Scottish independence from the UK?

‘Scottish Independence in the context of Brexit is like Schrödinger’s Cat – it’s both alive and dead depending on who you ask’, writes Gareth Brown.

Gareth Brown

GIVEN THE CALAMITOUS state of the UK’s negotiation of its withdrawal from the European Union, the fairly comprehensive Brexit referendum result in Scotland, and the relatively small gap in the opinion polling evidence on Scottish independence, you could be forgiven for wondering – ‘what are the Scots waiting for’?

However, closer inspection of the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) handling of Brexit, considered alongside some of the tensions on ‘home turf’ exposes a real strategic paradox for the SNP.

The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon regularly says that she will announce plans for a second independence referendum, but has yet to do so.

During the independence referendum in 2014, Scots were warned that by voting in favour of independence they would be putting at risk their membership of the EU and the SNP won the Scottish Parliament election on a manifesto commitment that said that if Brexit were to go ahead they would push for another independence referendum. 

That is if Scotland were to be ‘dragged’ out of the EU against its will (which it will be), and the views of the Scottish Government or Scottish Parliament are ignored, they would have grounds to demand a re-run of the independence referendum.

But the problem is that support for independence has not really increased beyond its 2014 level of 45% – and the appetite for another vote is fairly low.

Much to the disbelief and angst of many in the SNP’s, they do not appear to be any closer to winning such a vote, even in the extraordinary political times we’re living in.

The reality for the SNP, since 24 June 2016, has been far from straightforward and rife with strategic indecisiveness.

To make sense of this, it’s important to consider the parallel universe the SNP was hoping for as opposed to the one in which it now finds itself.

Challenges

When Nicola Sturgeon succeeded Alex Salmond as leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland in 2014, there was supposed to be a well-deserved break from the previous two years of independence-mania.

Her focus was to be on governing Scotland and taking the time (a long time) to examine the detailed reasons for their narrow defeat.

The problem with this strategy was that the membership of the SNP doubled as a result of the independence referendum and many of those members are itching for another ballot.

Nicola Sturgeon shares this woe with any nationalist leader in power – the need to reconcile the two, often mutually exclusive imperatives of governing domestically but advancing constitutional nationalism for your base.

Fast forward to the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, just two months before the EU referendum, and just a year after the unprecedented whitewash result for the SNP in the 2015 General Election.

Nicola Sturgeon is returned as First Minister with a greater share of the vote, albeit with fewer seats, on a manifesto which neatly dealt with the issue of independence.

Whilst the time was not yet right for another vote, if the situation were to materially change, for example by Scotland voting to remain in the EU but the rest of the UK voting to leave, then it would be a different story.

Of course, the problem arose when that material change, well, materialised.

The maths

Rushed into making a political decision in a matter of hours that would ultimately define her career, Nicola Sturgeon fired the starting gun on independence in the hope that the national sense of outrage and injustice would see a surge in the polls for a ‘Yes’ vote on Scottish independence.

But other than a brief increase to 59% the Sunday immediately after the vote, such a surge has not transpired.

Since then the SNP has found itself navigating a set of tricky currents in the ‘Yes’ movement.

There are some within the party who believe the chaos of a ‘no deal’ Brexit could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for many soft Scottish Unionists who voted Remain.

But then there are others who believe that the movement has not learned the lessons from the previous effort, and isn’t prepared for another vote.

The voter arithmetic is very complex. 

One of the main problems is that one in three SNP voters actually voted to leave the European Union, and almost a quarter of those voters, knowing the SNP’s policy is for an Independent Scotland to immediately rejoin the EU have now switched their allegiance to a UK outside the EU.

Contrary to initial expectations, the so-called “Yes Leavers”  (those who voted in favour of independence from both the UK and the EU) have offset the soft Remain ‘No’ voters who now favour independence in order to stay in the EU.

Those two cohorts have effectively replaced each other, meaning there has been little or no overall swing in favour of independence. 

This dilemma explains the same constructive ambiguity on independence that the SNP has used to batter the Labour leadership on its Brexit position – although this ambiguity caused the SNP significant losses in the 2017 snap General Election.

As such, the SNP position on Brexit has evolved alongside its thinking on independence.

At one point, the First Minister travelled to London to make the case for what effectively formed the basis of Tory backbencher, Nick Boles’ Norway Plus model, which envisaged that Britain could leave the EU but remain in the single market. 

But when that proposal eventually got to the House of Commons some Scottish National Party MPs refused to back it. 

Now the SNP’s favoured Brexit route is another referendum or People’s Vote.

Many in the party are deeply uncomfortable with this position given that it’s a slippier slope than Ben Nevis on a cold day because of the likely difficulties in successfully negotiating a Scottish withdrawal agreement from the UK.

Scottish Independence in the context of Brexit is Nicola Sturgeon’s Schrödinger’s Cat – it’s both alive and dead depending on who you ask.

Gareth Brown is a political commentator, former Stormont adviser and a political consultant with Edinburgh-based communications firm, Message Matters.

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