The Road to Scotland: Sturgeon’s choice

The two ladies overseeing what could be the most tumultuous period in recent British history. Image:ITV

With the recent high court decision on Brexit, and its upholding in the Supreme Court, three paths now face the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in her quest to achieve independence.

The ruling Scottish Nationalist Party’s (SNP) dream of achieving the full independence of modern Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom (RUK) was given a huge fillip by the successful ‘Brexit’ referendum for the UK to leave the European Union (EU). Scotland was the only region of Britain to vote to remain in the EU (though turnout in Scotland, 67%, was lower than in the UK as a whole, at 72%), and this  initially seemed to give First Minister Nicola Sturgeon a large amount of political and rhetorical wiggle-room to demand a second referendum on Scotland’s constitutional status, after a marginally failed attempt in September 2014.

The High Court’s 3 November decision that the Brexit deal will be subject to parliamentary approval, and not directly actionable by the government, will again give further space for Sturgeon to make her case. The likely upholding of the decision by the UK Supreme Court, as it was argued that leaving the EU would require major changes in UK laws over which parliament has exclusive authority, gives  the SNP, who have 54 seats, a degree more leverage in the coming years of negotiation. However, while independence is the dream of the SNP, its implications make many of the Scottish public and business community wary, if not actively hostile to the prospect, despite the SNP’s assertions that an independent Scotland might  be able to retain, or reapply for, EU membership, something that a majority would welcome as evidenced by the Brexit result. As such, Sturgeon faces three broad paths, delineated below.

  • Status Quo

Doing nothing, remaining a part of a Brexited UK. While this is inimical to  the principles of the SNP  it might be the most prudent political course, but it must be noted that the order of principles in the SNP constitution is independence first and welfare for the Scottish people second. The Scottish public rejected independence at the last referendum, and polls suggest that Brexit has done little to change overall sentiment towards independence, despite a brief surge following the Brexit vote. In short, the iron might have gone cold, and it will take some serious missteps by the Conservative party in Westminster to reignite the fires of indignation  in Scotland, stoked by old and new grievances with the Westminster government, that would carry a second independence referendum. While we cannot rule out the Tories doing something incredibly stupid, or belittling the position of Scotland, Prime Minister Theresa May is likely to use kid gloves with the Scotland issue, not wanting to be known as the PM who both had to oversee Brexit and the breakup of the UK.

Another factor motivating the SNP must be the understanding that a fair few of their base is also the same anti-establishment, anti-Westminster base from which the Brexit campaign in scotland drew its votes. While it wouldn’t be difficult to make the political case that these votes were tactical, using Brexit to force independence, and also that the anti-Westminster wing of the SNP was the die-hard core of the independence campaign, the likelihood of these voters deserting the SNP, even if they make no moves toward independence, is minimal. However, Sturgeon presides over what is in reality quite a fractious coalition of interests in the SNP: to a degree these views must be pandered to, while also attempting to maintain business confidence in Scotland.

This option, doing nothing, is probably the best for the Scottish economy in the short-run (something of which Sturgeon is acutely aware), as it will maintain business confidence in a febrile environment, and go someway to ensuring that the slightly footloose  financial industries on which the economy of Edinburgh (Scotland’s capital) relies, do not relocate either south of the border, or more likely, to financial centres in France and Germany. What must be understood is that Scotland currently has four times as much trade with RUK as with the EU. However, in the long run, the rewards of Scotland retaining any right of access to EU markets or reapplying for membership, would potentially be much greater  than attaching to the London-dominated sinking ship of the UK. As such option 2:

  • Go For It

Another independence referendum would require the passage of a bill through Westminster, for which Sturgeon has said her party already has a draft. This was a pointed message to the Conservative government that the SNP is willing to do anything to achieve its goal; the tabling of this bill would throw a further grenade into the already incredibly painful and damaging constitutional and political mess of Westminster in the wake of the Brexit vote. The argument is that opposition Labour would be in no place to oppose the bill, and the Corbyn faction  might even support it, knowing that Scotland is a lost cause for their party for the next several general elections. Further, it will be claimed by the SNP that the same rubric, self-determination, under which the Brexit vote was held, cannot be denied by the Tories to the Scottish at the risk of the government being charged with gross hypocrisy and angering an SNP more than willing to use its seats and influence to throw as many spanners into the works of the Government’s Brexit negotiations as possible . This legislative strategy has only been given a boost by the election of Donald Trump in the US, as the SNP can leverage chaos and disorganisation and an inevitably pandering Westminster to its rhetorical advantage.

The numbers in Westminster may still not work out, but the threat of the non-passage of the bill might be enough for May to whip the government into its passage. From the Tory side, an independent Scotland, while very damaging to the UK, would pretty much guarantee a Tory majority at the next two general elections, if not in perpetuity. Perhaps, the threat of a resurgent United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) would also drive this line of thinking.

Further, and this will be explored in a further post, the position of the EU in Brussels might be lenient towards the Scottish . This is dependent on complex politics in Madrid, Berlin and Brussels, but suffice it to say that part of the EU’s punishment to a ‘hard Brexiting’ UK, might be to encourage the Scottish in their membership bid; the benefits of harshly punishing the English and maintaining the integrity of the EU, outweigh the negatives of encouraging sub-nationalist movements across the continent, but most notably in Catalonia.

Finally, we must acknowledge that Sturgeon is a canny political operator, and personally highly ambitious. This might be the last chance of her political lifetime to achieve something she has worked for decades to make happen. Consequences for the party, the country and the world be damned, she may just want to go down in the history books.

However, for Sturgeon, there is a third option: 

  • Wait And See

With the Court’s decision, it is likely that Brexit negotiations are going to be far more public than the government wanted. This gives the SNP the chance to capitalise on likely future missteps by the government, and strategically table the independence bill, rather than using it as a blunt instrument.

The other avenue that the court decision might force is a general election: Westminster MPs now have to decide whether to vote with their constituencies, who mostly voted for Brexit, or their rationality and consciousnesses which would advocate for a ‘soft-Brexit’ if not a block on the whole process; most MPs backed remain. This dichotomy can only really be solved with a general election, which would likely only strengthen the SNP , convince Labour of the lost-cause nature of Scotland, and the Tories of the near-permanent electoral advantage of an independent Scotland.

In conclusion, there is an incredible febrility to the situation in the UK right now; the SNP, if they so wish, and see in their Scottish constituents a desire to do so, could heartily leverage the Government’s disarray, constitutional and political, to achieve independence. Though the risks, not getting back into the EU, killing Scotland’s fragile economic recovery, uncertainty over currency and constitution, a continued low-oil price, a potential funding gap of £15bn, might  outweigh the benefits. Uncertainty reigns, but Sturgeon is one of the most talented politicians in the UK right now , and her positions and manoeuvres should be rightly watched diligently.

It must be remembered that she is the head of a party with one goal, and a single mission: achieve independence. Brexit has handed them a golden opportunity to achieve this goal, but whether they can capitalise on it remains to be seen.

Christopher Cannell

Christopher Cannell

Christopher Cannell is an independent political, historical and cultural researcher. He formally worked with the Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis company, covering South Asia. He has a Masters Degree in South Asian Area Studies from SOAS, University of London, and a Master of Arts (Honours) Degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews. While his focus remains on Asian politics and Asian relations, particularly India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the current situation in his home continent of Europe and home country of Scotland has led to a broadening of his research and analysis to the Western world.
Christopher Cannell

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