The shifting landscape: Brexit and the Scottish Question

In the week that Theresa May let it be known that the UK government would be formally notifying the European Union of its decision to leave the bloc, it is worth noting whom the Prime Minister did not inform prior to taking the momentous decision. Step forward one Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, and the new hate figure for Britain’s powerful eurosceptic media.

Ms Sturgeon is now openly labelled a “traitor” to the UK. This follows her announcement last week that the Scottish Government would legislate toward a new Referendum on Scotland’s continued membership of the United Kingdom. The announcement from Edinburgh caught 10 Downing Street completely off guard, and it was a few days before any reply was given. In the event, Mrs May has attempted to appear strong and decisive, if not slightly patronising, in telling Sturgeon, “no, not now” – a response which probably suits both sides. I say both sides, as in UK politics we are really only talking about the Conservative and Scottish National Party these days. The Labour Party is still confused about Brexit, and the Liberal Democrats, who only a few years ago were in government, have been decimated.

But while “no, not now” is a way of connecting with Scottish voters who simply don’t want another referendum of any sort, it would be wrong to assume that the next Scottish Referendum would be anything like the last one. Too much has changed, because Brexit has changed everything. The arguments in the next Scottish vote will differ, as will the political coalitions that engage in them. The result that eventually comes about will largely depend on how well the UK comes out of its EU departure, and where public falls on a straight choice between Mrs May and Ms Sturgeon.

While Theresa May has the power and legal authority to tell Scotland what to do, the weakness of her position with the EU under Article 50 is about to become apparent. Once the Article 50 negotiations begin, which looks set for 29 March, the UK ceases to have any real influence over the outcome. Any delay to the talks must be agreed by the EU 27, what is discussed and when will be decided by the EU’s negotiator, the Frenchman Michel Barnier, and if the final deal is acceptable, again its up to the EU 27 and European Parliament.

So there are a number of reasons to build in the assumption that the talks will fail, and Britain will be ejected from the EU under a nightmare scenario: no transition deal on trade and no Article 50 agreement. That would spell economic and legal chaos, it would mean higher prices for consumers, a falling pound, industrial closures, and years of litigation between the EU and UK. You might argue these would be the right conditions to hold a Scottish Referendum.

Personally I don’t see it that way, as a Scot and pro-European myself, I think it right that Scotland gets to choose and this should come at the end of the Article 50 discussions, which looks like around Autumn 2018. But I do not want to see the calamity of a breakdown in talks. Unfortunately, listening to the words of the UK’s leading Cabinet ministers it is difficult to hope for the best. They appear unprepared and arrogant. That many Conservatives are hoping for Marine Le Pen to win the French Presidency tells you all you need to know about where we might be headed in terms of the UK – EU relationship.

Author: Alisdair Gray, International Analyst for the Global DIY Summit

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