The Union is currently hanging by a thread. After Brexit, few would argue that the constitutional link that has endured between Scotland and England for over 300 is now at its weakest. But is it ready to snap?
Indyref2 was always a certainty. Even before Brexit the talk was of when the SNP would call a second independence referendum, not if. The result of the EU referendum has merely narrowed the window. An indyref2 will probably happen at some point between now and the summer of 2018.
The prospect of Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its will has prompted some former No voters to switch to Yes. Henry McLeish is playing a kind of constitutional hokey-cokey – but does appear to be heading for a Yestination.
The situation with the EU looks to be the game changer the independence movement was waiting for. It has also provided Nicola Sturgeon with a very clear mandate that no UK Government can resist. Even Ruth Davidson was forced to concede that indyref2 cannot be blocked.
A win for Yes looks the likely outcome. In 2014 the scare campaign waged against Scotland’s electorate was so intense that Unionists must have privately reeled when the Yes campaign emerged from the mushroom cloud still intact and only five points short of victory.
The 45 per cent are now immune to anything the Unionist propaganda machine can throw at them which means the second battle will be fought for a small group of soft No voters. The prospect of Brexit has already witnessed enough No voters switch – and that’s before campaigning gets underway.
But will Brexit happen?
This indyref2 mandate is conditional. If the prospect of Scotland being dragged out of the European Union disappears, so does the current mandate. It’s difficult to see how a clear lead for Yes in the polls [another option for indyref2] can be maintained given that the EU referendum result prompted the shift from No to Yes.
The Brexit vote wasn’t legally binding. This gives the UK government wriggle room that it might just utilise. Arch manipulator Tony Blair has suggested delaying triggering Article 50 “for as long as it takes to get an idea of how the other side looks”. Former Tory Minister Michael Heseltine has argued that a second EU referendum should be held.
There’s a logic to this if you’re a British Nationalist. Think about it for a moment. If indyref2 is called and Yes prevails, then Westminster stands to lose control of a considerable part of its existing landmass. It loses control of North Sea reserves, whisky revenue and the UK’s nuclear deterrent amongst other things. It also loses influence in Europe.
There’s also the prospect of major financial institutions and other companies uprooting from England and moving north. Research and investment – even people – will flow into Scotland. The UK is very significantly diminished if it leaves the EU and loses Scotland.
There would of course be a backlash if the UK government rescinded on the pledge to respect the EU referendum vote. There would be anger across most of England. Social unrest could not be ruled out as ordinary people who voted to leave the EU saw politicians trampling all over democracy. Far Right groups would benefit as would UKIP. They may even become a significant political force in Westminster.
There’s also the problem of how the UK would be viewed abroad. Could it really boast London housed the ‘mother of parliaments’ if it couldn’t even respect the democratic wishes of its own people? The UK’s reputation as a respected western democracy would be badly damaged.
There is of course an arguably more elegant solution that would weaken the SNP’s indyref2 mandate. The UK government could, as part of its exit negotiations with the EU, seek to transfer the UK’s membership over to Scotland. There are practical difficulties to be overcome, but these will be nothing compared to the difficulties of a Brexit, or any attempt to completely ignore the EU referendum result.
Such an arrangement would of course still result in some gain for Scotland at England’s expense as institutions moved north in order to take advantage of our EU status. However the Union would remain intact – at least for the time being.
It would though be temporary as Scots slowly realised they were already living in a de-facto independent nation with a parliament that set its own taxes and politicians who engaged with other European leaders on equal terms. There would be no going back. The Union would eventually dissolve.
British Nationalist politicians and their civil servants are underhand and will do whatever is deemed necessary in order to maintain the integrity of the UK and ‘The Realm’. We saw that in the last independence referendum when the Treasury broke its own rules in order to undermine the Yes campaign.
What if the UK government did, as Tony Blair suggests, delay the triggering of Article 50? The delay would run in parallel with a media campaign aimed at persuading just enough ‘Leave’ voters that they made a terrible mistake. A second EU referendum, disguised as ratification of any ‘deal’, may follow.
A refusal on the part of the UK electorate to accept the deal would provide some justification for complete abandonment of Brexit – or further non-specified delay. How the Markets would view these machinations is another ‘unknown’.
This is of course all speculation, perhaps even far-fetched, but we are dealing with the British establishment here. There are no rules.
The Scottish government will have considered all possible options and the above will have been factored in. Nicola Sturgeon‘s behaviour and body language is suggestive of someone who knows she holds all the cards. Unionists in Scotland know that the UK that existed before last Thursday has gone forever.
As the Brexit situation develops it’s going to be fascinating to see how Westminster handles the dual challenge presented by Edinburgh and Brussels.
Can the Union be saved? I think most people know the answer already … except Ruth.
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[Notice – There is currently an appeal aimed at raising funds in order to produce 10,000 Yes flags in anticipation of a new indyref campaign. You can make a donation to the appeal here.]