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LONDON — It’s hard to believe now, but British politics hasn’t always been dominated by big constitutional issues.
If the 2014 Scottish independence referendum brought these debates to the fore, Brexit sent them into the stratosphere. Now the two combine in the next big battle for Britain’s future.
Scotland’s EU membership was present (even central) in the 2014 independence campaign, but it didn’t keep people on either side of the debate awake at night.
Undecided voters – mostly educated and upwardly mobile Scots in Glasgow and Edinburgh – have been courted by the anti-independence camp’s warnings about their personal finances should Scotland choose to go it alone. The ‘Yes’ side called it a ‘speak out against Scotland’, setting the terms for the most bitter confrontations of the 2014 campaign.
By contrast, the discussion of what independence would mean for Scotland’s future in the EU – if it had one – quickly devolved into dry legal terminology, with scholars debating whether the Article 48 or Article 49 of the European Union Treaties would apply.
Rejecting independence, meanwhile, was like opting for a double portion of the status quo: staying in the UK and staying in the EU. We all know what happened next.
POTENTIAL REFERENDUM POLL ON SCOTLAND’S INDEPENDENCE
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Post-Brexit Britain casts the question of Scottish independence in a whole new light. This is a situation that should, on the face of it, make independence a harder sell. In particular, the idea of a border with what was once one of your closest neighbors has come to fruition.
Luke Graham is a former Tory MP and until recently was a Downing Street adviser on the union. “The issues that have arisen over the past year have made people think,” he said. “Many cross the border into England quite frequently, to see family or for business reasons, and the mere thought of being stopped for passport or customs checks immediately turns most people off.”
A recent report by think tank Institute for Government predicted that it would take ten years for Scotland to secede from the UK and join the EU, and found that the newly created Anglo-Scottish border would likely become a customs border and regulatory.
Maddy Thimont Jack, one of the report’s authors, highlighted lessons from the post-Brexit trade deal struck last year. “Now we have stories of seed potatoes and chilled meats that can’t come into Northern Ireland – those kinds of issues that used to be much more abstract,” she said.
“The other thing we’ve seen is that the EU really, really cares about the single market. There’s no way the EU will turn around and say ‘it’s okay, don’t worry about border controls’.
“All Kinds of Problems”
Before the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU were finalized, the pro-independence Scottish National Party had been content to give warm assurances. But he is increasingly unable to ignore the workings of separation. Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon conceded in a recent maintenance with the BBC that there are “all sorts of issues raised” on the Anglo-Scottish border.
Mike Russell, the Scottish Government‘s Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, told POLITICO: ‘I think these issues have been well aired [in 2014]. I think the Brexit issue has drawn attention to the benefits of being in the EU.
“There will be no border of people because the common travel area, which applies in Ireland, will apply in Scotland,” he argued. “The UK says it wants a good, productive and barrier-free trading relationship, so provided there is goodwill on both sides this shouldn’t be a problem.”
Russell insisted that any eventual discussion of independence could be conducted differently from the Brexit negotiations, which he described as “a complete mess”.
The border is not the only problem to be solved. Thimont Jack stressed that an independent Scotland would have to “create the infrastructure” for a new state, including joining the World Trade Organization before it could start negotiations on EU membership.
If all this sounds like music to the ears of trade unionists, it is not without interference. Brexit also has the potential to strengthen the SNP and highlight Scottish independence more clearly than ever.
The Conservative Party’s cementing of power in Westminster and the execution of a harder Brexit than many envisaged a few years ago has left some Scots feeling further removed from London than ever.
“A lot of my friends are on this ‘no’ to ‘yes’ journey,” said a former Labor Party MSP. “They just think it’s worth it because they’re so sick of living under Boris and Brexit – it’s the antithesis of what they want and they’re ready to do just about anything to get rid of it.”
It is not lost on pro-union parties that support for the SNP and independence is solidifying among those who voted ‘No’ in the last referendum: Remainers, younger age groups and women.
Those who voted Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum were six points more likely than those who backed Remain to have backed the SNP in the 2016 Holyrood contest, according to the 2016 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. But support for the SNP is now much higher among those who voted to stay (57%) than among those who supported leave (39%).
But if there was one fundamental truth brought to light by Brexit, it was not about fishing, customs or citizenship rules. It was voters’ ability to place their feelings about who should rule them above calculations of what might minimize financial disruption or loss.
This “heart” side of the argument is something that has historically eluded the “No” campaign, just as Remainers failed to properly articulate the positive arguments for EU membership during the fight against Brexit.
Russell rejected this comparison, saying instead that the pro-independence argument would be “fought on its merits”. He said: “The question right now is how does democracy work, if there is a democratic way for the people of Scotland to choose their own future.”
But it’s hard to deny that the SNP has managed to capture Scottish identity and imagination, and that could yet be one of its most formidable assets in any new referendum.
“From a pro-British perspective – and also for the future of Labor – being able to articulate what Scottish identity means and linking that to the pro-British argument is key, and I think that there has been a struggle with this in the past,” admitted Martin McCluskey, former political director of the Scottish Labor Party.
He suggested this could actually be an asset for pro-union parties in the battle ahead, as they have now been forced to examine their own weaknesses more closely than the SNP.
What is clear is that if another referendum is called, the experience of the last one, followed by four years of Brexit, means that all parties approach the maelstrom with eyes wide open.