Richard Parry discusses how the vote has important lessons for politics and even betting, but its resolution for Scotland will get caught up in wider issues.
Many political events have automatic policy and legal consequences, but not the EU referendum. The course needs to be charted and many surprising twists may await us. Contrary to what David Cameron promised, article 50 will not be activated any time soon. Already in his speech on Friday and Daily Telegraph article on Monday Boris Johnson seems to be reverting to an underlying pro-Europe sentiment and may dream of an ingenious contrivance that allows the UK to both remain and leave. Perhaps he should consult theologians who know about the Holy Trinity – three in one and one in three. But it’s probably futile. The European Economic Area is too clear an institutional template for countries that want to be outside the EU but retain access to it, and the outcome is likely to be a kinder variation around EEA modalities.
The referendum should be a lesson to bookmakers and journalists – a runner that is only a couple of pounds higher in the handicap should never be a 1/7 favourite. It is also a useful lesson about plebiscitary democracy. Three times David Cameron promoted referendums on a proposition with which he disagreed in order to knock it off the political agenda. With AV electoral reform he succeeded triumphantly. With Scottish independence (where he facilitated a rapid, single-question poll) his victory was equivocal and the issue did not go away. And with Brexit it blew up in his face, leaving him keeping company in the political graveyard with two other well-intentioned and well-liked Conservative leaders, Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden.
The Leave vote was not much higher than the futile Yes vote in the 1979 devolution referendum (51.9% against 51.6%) but it seems to have crossed that indefinable psychological threshold of perceived sufficiency. This makes Scottish distinctiveness even more stark. By a lucky 122 votes in Moray the SNP gained a clean geographical sweep, leaving Nicola Sturgeon in a powerful position, freed from two difficult constraints in her independence strategy. ‘Once in a generation’ has surely been superseded, especially by the presciently explicit wording of the SNP Holyrood manifesto. The Scottish Greens seem to be on board for the referendum legislation. And ‘won’t call it unless we’re sure of winning’ is not going to dictate standing by EU exit without attempting an independence referendum. The SNP would have to give it a go and could not be blamed for trying.
Brexit will require the UK Government to legislate an embarrassing override of the legislative consent procedures it has written into the Scotland Act 2016 but as it stands Scotland is going to be dragged out of the EU. There will be only limited European sentiment in favour of letting Scotland inherit seamlessly the existing UK status. The most promising route for the SNP may lie through Dublin. There will be enormous pressure to maintain the present near-invisible Irish border across the island and at UK seaports and airports, and English fears about back-door immigration may not override it. What is conceded to Ireland would be hard to deny to an independent Scotland, if only to protect the position of Northern Ireland. Playing it long and letting the Irish do the heavy lifting may now be the order of the day.
Richard Parry is Honorary Fellow in the University of Edinburgh at the Centre on Constitutional Change.