Brexit Reflections - Who is the captain of the ship now?

Malcolm Harvey discusses issues around a referendum that was supposed to resolve the UK’s position in Europe but appears to have muddied it further.

A week might be a long time in politics, but a long weekend gave us enough headlines for a lifetime. So, what’s next?

At the moment, no one can really say with any certainty. The Leave campaign did not expect to win, and thus do not have a clear plan outlined for Brexit. The UK Government, similarly, had not made contingency plans. At any rate, a political vacuum exists in the UK in which the sands are constantly shifting. The Prime Minister’s resignation leaves him in a caretaker role, his authority temporary at best.  Across the House of Commons, the Opposition also lack leadership – and their chaotic attempts to topple Jeremy Corbyn emphasise in stark terms just how divided the party is. How ironic that the EU – an issue which for decades has divided the Conservatives – looks like it might be the catalyst for a permanent split in the Labour party.

In these chaotic circumstances, uncertainty reigns, and opportunities abound. 

The SNP appear to have grasped this opportunity with both hands. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has underlined the lack of leadership at Westminster by acting swiftly and decisively in the days after the referendum vote. Removing Scotland from the EU against its clearly stated will would be “democratically unacceptable” she told the media in her post-referendum address, and that everything was “on the table” as options going forward, including a second independence referendum.

SNP MEP Alyn Smith was afforded a standing ovation in the European Parliament when he told MEPs “Scotland did not let you down… do not let Scotland down now”. In the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister sought and was granted the authority to negotiate with EU representatives on behalf of the parliament. As a result, she met with the President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, and several other representatives from various member states to present Scotland’s position. 

There have been no end of articles in the past week suggesting a variety of options for both Scotland and the UK as we progress through the negotiations which should lead to “Brexit”, and each option has advantages and disadvantages. One thing is clear though – in the past week, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament have, for the first time, declared their intention to pursue a decidedly different foreign policy from Westminster. This is a significant development, and emphasises the profound differences that exist at the different levels of government.

A referendum that was supposed to resolve the UK’s position in Europe appears to have muddied it further, and created internal constitutional and party political leadership crises to boot. Whoever takes on the leadership of the UK will face two fundamental issues – how the UK will position itself internationally post-Brexit, and just how United that Kingdom will be.

Leaders lead – and Nicola Sturgeon has done just that. As Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron have found out in the last week, a leader without followers is just a guy taking a walk.

Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to

Latest blogs

  • 18th December 2018

    Aileen McHarg looks at last week’s decision by the Supreme Court in the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill reference which demonstrates both the strength and the weakness of Holyrood as a legislature.

  • 17th December 2018

    The Supreme Court's ruling on the Scottish Continuity Bill gave both sides something but acknowledged that the vast bulk of the Bill was within Holyrood's competence at the time it was passed however, suggests Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, the strong feeling that devolved interests are not taken seriously highlights underlying fractures within the Union.

  • 14th December 2018

    Disagreements about the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland are about more than practical considerations of where customs checks should be performed, says Michael Keating.

  • 14th December 2018

    Derek MacKay’s third budget of this parliamentary session was doomed to be overshadowed by events at Westminster.

  • 12th December 2018

    Although the N-VA has insisted it left the Belgian government to pursue ’principled opposition’ those principle are, says Coree Brown Swan, at the very least informed by a strategy that allows it to maintain policy influence from outside government while countering the electoral threat posed by a resurgent Vlaams Belang.

Read More Posts