The Brexiters’ plans were never the best made, but Robert Burns is surely apt to describe Brexit plans as having “lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, for promis’d joy!”. In Scotland, the chaotic and damaging politics of Brexit is having a range of impacts.
As viewed from London, the impact of Brexit often reduces to the single question of whether Scotland may choose independence. But there are wider effects.
Parties and public views
Scotland voted 62% Remain in 2016, and polls suggest remain support has only strengthened since then, with some putting it at over two-thirds.
Unlike in England and Wales, three of Scotland’s five main parties are opposed to Brexit and support a People’s Vote – the governing Scottish National Party, the pro-independence Greens, and the LibDems.
So Scottish Remain supporters have a strong political voice within Scotland – and to some extent at Westminster, given the SNP’s 35 MPs make it the third largest party in the Commons.
Labour and the Tories in Scotland follow their Westminster party lines, supporting Brexit and not supporting another EU referendum. And, as in England and Wales, Scottish Labour are disconnected from Labour voters – who strongly back Remain.
Public support for Remain crosses the independence-unionist divide, and only among Tory voters is there a majority in favour of Brexit. Yet, the two big pro-union parties, Tory and Labour, are both pro-Brexit, and so, with the exception of the LibDems, at party level there is indeed an independence-Remain, Unionist-Leave divide.
Devolution has taken a big knock across the UK as a result of Brexit. The devolution settlement no longer looks fits for purpose: witness Holyrood’s refusal to give legislative consent for the EU withdrawal bill – a constitutional challenge that created barely a ripple at Westminster.
In the face of the UK government wanting to centralise, in part, returning EU powers in devolved areas, the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly passed their own ‘continuity’ bills. The Welsh one was finally repealed after Theresa May offered some compromises.
The UK-Scotland clash came before the Supreme Court last December – most of the Scottish parliament bill was ruled to be within its competence but changes made later to UK legislation meant much of the Scottish continuity bill no longer applied.
Consultation on Brexit – through the so-called Joint Ministerial Committee – has been largely deemed inadequate. But at least both Wales and Scotland have governments and ministers who can attend, not so Remain-voting Northern Ireland, represented by civil servants. Meanwhile, the DUP wields its disproportionate power at Westminster, quite out of line with majority public opinion on Brexit and on the backstop in Northern Ireland.
It’s clear, that while every twist and turn of Westminster battles over Brexit are followed intensely, Brexit’s devolved impacts have received much less attention in London. There is a sense of alienation in Scotland as the chaotic, damaging, irrational politics of Brexit continues.
‘Soft’ Brexit, a People’s Vote and independence
After the Brexit vote, the Scottish government backed a ‘soft’ Brexit of either Scotland at least staying in the EU’s single market or the whole UK staying in the customs union and single market. Nicola Sturgeon’s preferred option was to stay in the EU, but attention focused on a ‘soft’ Brexit until the SNP finally backed a People’s Vote last October.
Since then, especially recently, the SNP’s MPs at Westminster have notably hardened their support for halting Brexit through another vote and have backed away from the ‘Norway plus’ option.
Nicola Sturgeon has been cautious on the timing of any announcement of another independence vote but has now promised she will clarify this in weeks. The growing Brexit chaos suggests a call for independence might now come sooner than some expected – despite tensions within the SNP in the context of the charges against Alex Salmond. But with May likely to repeat her March 2017 ‘no, not now’ refusal of a vote, how the SNP will respond to that strategically or tactically is unclear.
Brexit has already impacted in many ways on arguments around independence. There has been a strong strand within the independence movement that favoured an independent Scotland joining the European Economic Area – avoiding joining the euro and ensuring control over Scotland’s fishing waters – even while Scottish government policy is for independence in the EU.
But the EU’s solidarity with Ireland has been well noted in Scotland, and highlights the benefits of being at the table, not just a rule-taker like Norway. The EU’s tough stance on access to waters – with fish products outside the backstop’s temporary customs union – also gives pause for thought.
Meanwhile, the prolonged debates over the backstop and the future UK-EU relationship – and how frictionless borders can be – show that, if Brexit goes ahead, those arguing for independence will face some tough issues about a Scotland-England land border.
An independent Scotland in the EU would be part of any future UK-EU relationship, determining much of the future Scotland-UK relationship. But unless Brexit is halted, there will be a harder EU-UK border than now. Even if the UK pivoted to a Norway plus deal, there would be checks on agricultural and fisheries products.
Moreover, if the UK is outside the EU’s single market, it will have much worse services access to the EU market. All this will impact on an independent Scotland’s borders and future economic relations with the rest of the UK.
When and if Brexit is certain, political dynamics in Scotland are likely to change – the ‘wait and see’ moment will be truly over. But whether and how strong a shift there may be towards supporting independence will depend both on the political lead from the SNP and on the degree of continuing political chaos and economic harm from Brexit across the UK.
Overall, Brexit has had a negative impact on Scotland. Scotland’s Remain vote, and its alienation from Brexit-voting England and Wales, has been of little concern at Westminster or to the UK government. The undermining of the devolution settlement has been dismissed or denied. If Brexit goes ahead, it will surely impact more onto the independence debate. And it already has impacted on the debate around an independent Scotland’s future European choices and challenges.
By Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. A researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, she has worked at a number of leading European think tanks, including as Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe, Brussels; and as Director, European Programme, Chatham House.