Disunited Kingdom: Will Brexit spark the disintegration of the UK?

The vote to leave the European Union has ignited the debate about the future of the United Kingdom. Could Scotland be on the verge of independence? Nicola McEwen investigates.This article appeared originally in the September 2016 edition of Political Insight.

For some time now, it has been difficult to discuss UK politics as if it was one political phenomenon. Northern Ireland has always had a distinctive political and party system and recent Westminster and devolved elections in Scotland have underlined the extent of political fragmentation on the British ‘mainland’. These divisions were exposed dramatically in the EU referendum, provoking an existential threat to the very idea of a United Kingdom.

In every English region outside London, a clear majority voted Leave. While the vote in Wales resembled the UK-wide vote, both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted Remain by comfortable majorities. Brexit poses serious challenges to relations on the island of Ireland. In Scotland, it has catapulted the issue of Scottish independence back to the centre of political debate.

Sixty-two per cent of Scots voted Remain, with a majority vote for staying in the EU in every one of the 32 local authorities across Scotland. Taken collectively, Scotland delivered the biggest endorsement of the EU in any nation or region of the UK, leaving Gibraltar aside. This helped the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to highlight Scotland’s status as a distinctive, European, nation. It also bolstered her determination, declared the morning after the poll, ‘to take all possible steps and explore all options to give effect to how people in Scotland voted – in other words, to secure our continuing place in the EU and in the single market in particular’.

Before exploring what that may mean for Scotland, the UK and the EU, it’s worth reflecting on why Scots appear more pro-European in outlook. After all, this is the reverse of the situation in 1975 when the UK last held a referendum on its EU membership. Then, the Scottish National Party campaigned for a No vote, and Scotland recorded a lower vote share for the UK to retain its membership than England and Wales. The Shetland Islands and the Western Isles were the only two No-voting counting areas in the country.

Understanding the transformation requires a long lens. The Euroscepticism that has gripped the UK Conservative Party for at least the past three decades never took hold of the party in Scotland, in part because this period coincided with a steep decline in its electoral significance north of the border. While a few, mainly newly elected, Conservative members of the Scottish Parliament advocated a Leave vote in the June referendum, no senior elected Scottish Tory supported Leave.

Both the SNP and the Scottish Labour Party came to embrace European integration in the 1980s, with the former committing itself to the goal of ‘independence in Europe’ from 1988. In part, this was a response to developments in the EU, where the European social model and the ‘Europe of the Regions’ promoted by Commission President Jacques Delors contrasted favourably with the neo-liberal and centralist thrust of the Thatcher governments. For nationalists, the EU also provided a secure external framework and market that could facilitate a transition to independence and minimise the economic and security risks it might otherwise encounter.

That vision of a social Europe and a regional Europe seems long gone, and there are the seeds of dissatisfaction in Scotland with a European project which seems to give primacy to the market over everything else. But Messrs Johnson, Gove and Farage, and their obsession with immigration, were hardly likely to find resonance here, while Scottish-based Leave campaigners were mainly an assortment of retired or defeated politicians with limited influence. In contrast to the deep divisions within the UK Conservatives and the apathy of the UK Labour leadership, Scotland’s political class was united in its support for Remain. Against that backdrop, it is perhaps surprising that over a million Scots voted Leave.

In the aftermath of the result, the Scottish Parliament gave its backing to the First Minister to negotiate with the UK Government, EU institutions and member states ‘to explore options for protecting Scotland’s relationship with the EU, Scotland’s place in the single market and the social, employment and economic benefits that come from that’. Quite how this could be achieved is dependent on the Brexit objectives of the new Conservative Prime Minister, and the outcomes of her negotiations with the EU.

Were the UK to leave the EU but remain within the European Economic Area, Scotland’s access to the single market would be secure, albeit that other aspects of the relationship, including citizenship rights, would be lost. (Paradoxically, this could make a transition to independence more feasible, as it would remove some of the complexities around borders and free movement that would otherwise arise.) However, the dominance of migration control among Brexiteers juxtaposed with the EU’s insistence that single market access must uphold the four freedoms, including free movement, cast doubt on such an outcome.

The First Minister has set up a Standing Council on Europe to offer expert advice on how Scotland’s relationship with the EU can be maintained, and there are wider debates taking shape to explore possible options. The Labour Party is exploring what it describes as a ‘federalist solution’ which could allow each devolved territory to negotiate its own relationship with the EU, and would imply an overhaul of the territorial and constitutional structure of the UK and the EU. But there are likely to be numerous legal, political and constitutional challenges to any bespoke solution for Scotland from within and beyond the UK.

If the UK leaves both the EU and the single market, taking Scotland with it, the Scottish Parliament could continue to look to Europe, to shadow European policy and conform to EU directives. This would only apply to devolved competences, of course. It could offer little protection from unfavourable policy changes that the UK government may feel liberated to undertake in relation to immigration, employment law, energy or other areas reserved to Westminster under the current devolution settlement. Nonetheless, continuing to conform to EU law – and avoiding the temptation to cherry-pick – may be especially important if a consensus were to emerge to suggest that the European Union, rather than the Anglo-Scottish Union, was where Scotland’s future lay.

While never hiding from the fact that she remains committed to independence, the First Minister has insisted that a second referendum is not her starting point in these deliberations. However, the outcome of negotiations may lead us there. If it does, it is not certain that the independence option would win.

Brexit forces the would-be architects of independence to confront some complex and difficult issues over the kind of independent Scotland they could deliver. This would be subject to multiple sets of negotiations between the Scottish and UK Governments and the EU, but it is unlikely that the independence vision presented in 2014 would be a viable option. Then, the Scottish Government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, set out a form of independence that maintained institutional, economic, cultural and inter-governmental connections with the rest of the UK. The proposed currency union received most attention, but the plan also included a common British Isles travel area, a strategic energy partnership, defence and security co-operation, a common research area and cross-border public bodies. It is unlikely that this depth of partnership would be compatible with Scottish EU membership once the rest of the UK leaves.

Scotland’s likely position within the EU would also come under scrutiny. A future Scottish Government seeking to negotiate EU membership within the context of ongoing or recent negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal could face stricter terms, for example, in relation to the single currency, the budget or compliance with fiscal rules. The weakening of the economy in the wake of Brexit, as well as the collapse of the price of oil, also makes the economic outlook even less favourable than it was in 2014.

These challenges and complexities can be expected to emerge within any independence referendum campaign, and may dampen the enthusiasm of some Remainers. It’s worth noting that those voting Remain in 2016, also disproportionately voted for Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom. It’s not clear from this vantage point which union is most important to them. Conversely, some demographic characteristics (excluding age) of those who voted Yes to Scottish independence in 2014, conform more closely to Leave voters than Remain voters. Their continued commitment to independence can’t be taken for granted.

And yet, Brexit does represent – in the First Minister’s words – a material change of circumstances, not just in its effect but also in the manner of the victory and the direction of travel it seems to chart for the future of British politics. The mood shift within Scotland is tangible. Brexit has given rise to a period of sober reflection where only Conservatives seem unwilling to consider all constitutional options for keeping Scotland in the EU, even if the SNP and the Greens remain the only parties to champion independence. A second referendum would be a high-stakes venture and remains unlikely until there is sufficient evidence of a consistent majority in favour of independence. Expect Nicola Sturgeon to proceed cautiously. But recognise, too, that she carries more political capital than her predecessor. The leadership she has demonstrated since the Brexit vote is likely to have seen her stock rise.

 

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Nicola McEwen's picture
post by Nicola McEwen
University of Edinburgh
31st August 2016

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