The Scottish Play: Will Brexit Spell the End of a United Kingdom?
By Stewart M. Patrick*
From The Internationalist – March 02, 2017
The decision by British voters last June to leave the European Union (EU) has thrown that bloc into turmoil. But its implications for Great Britain could be even more profound, portending the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Theresa May could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty as early as March 15, starting the two-year timetable for negotiating the terms of the UK’s divorce from the EU. The prime minister should beware the Ides of March: It seems all but inevitable that Scotland’s government will respond by calling for a second referendum on Scottish independence. The ultimate result could be the reemergence of a sovereign Scotland, more than three hundred years after the Acts of Union (1706–1707) united the cross of St. Andrew and the cross of St. George.
When Scots rejected independence by a 55-45 percent margin in a September 2014 referendum, most assumed the matter had been put to bed for at least a generation. The shocking Brexit vote upended that expectation. As Scotland’s sovereigntist-minded First Minister Nicola Sturgeon observes, Scots who voted for “union” less than three years ago assumed that the (still) United Kingdom would remain in the EU. And in the more recent “Brexit” vote, they overwhelmingly (62 percent) supported the “Remain” camp. Given the dramatically altered landscape, Scots deserve the opportunity to reconsider their ties with the United Kingdom.
As Sturgeon sees it, the Brexit outcome revealed “a wider democratic deficit within the UK, where decisions about Scotland are too often taken against the wishes of the people who live here.” Her Scottish National Party (SNP) has been cheered by the comments of no less than former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who says Brexit makes the case for Scottish independence much more credible. In October, the Scottish government published a draft bill that would (if approved by the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood) launch consultations to authorize a second referendum.
Wittingly or not, Prime Minister May has bolstered Scotland’s independence movement by insisting on a “hard exit” from the EU. Scottish members of the UK Parliament in Westminster worry about losing access to the EU’s single market. True, trade between the UK and Scotland (worth £49.8 billion in 2015) is four times the value of Scottish exports to the rest of the EU. But the benefits of the single market are substantial—and many Scots are not willing to risk them in return for greater UK restrictions on migration. On February 7, the Scottish Parliament voted 90 to 34 in favor of a motion that the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill should not proceed. Although purely symbolic, it sent a clear message that Scotland opposes a hard Brexit.
In an effort to preserve Scottish access to the continental market, Sturgeon’s SNP government in December released Scotland’s Place in Europe. The paper set out “compromise proposals” designed to allow a post–Brexit Scotland to maintain as many links with the EU as possible. The complex, and probably unworkable, scheme would require the UK Parliament to devolve additional powers to the Scottish Parliament—including control over immigration, business regulations, and international trade negotiations, among others. But the UK government has still not formally responded to the SNP paper, and SNP officials have accused the May government of attempting to hide documents setting out its views.
More generally, Scottish officials are increasingly annoyed that their concerns are being ignored as the UK government proceeds with its Article 50 plans. Disentangling Britain from the EU will have enormous implications for the UK’s devolution settlement with Scotland (as well as with Wales and Northern Ireland), the London-based think tank Chatham House explains. As numerous laws and powers are repatriated from Brussels, UK and Scottish officials will bicker over the division of authorities on matters ranging from immigration to agriculture to trade. Sturgeon complains about the lack of consultation between London and Edinburgh. “Scotland’s voice is simply not being heard or listened to within the UK,” she says.
May is on firm legal ground in deciding to go it alone. On January 24, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the UK Parliament had to approve any Article 50 negotiations. But that same decision also declared that May was under no legal obligation to consult with Scotland on Brexit. The political terrain is trickier, however. The court’s decision angered Scottish politicians, exposed fissures in the UK’s constitutional structure, and renewed momentum for Scottish independence.
To be sure, the outcome of any second referendum is hardly preordained. Support for independence is up several points from a month ago, but, according to a recent BMG poll for The Herald, Scots remain nearly equally divided, with a narrow majority (51 to 49 percent) favoring remaining in the UK. Such numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt, of course. The same polling firm undercounted support for Brexit by four points last June, wrongly forecasting a 52-48 victory for the “Remain” camp. More substantively, the situation is fluid and volatile. Actual Brexit negotiations have yet to begin, and the harder a break that May pushes for, the more ignored and isolated Scots will feel, likely causing opinion to swing toward independence.
Full article available at: http://blogs.cfr.org/patrick/2017/03/02/the-scottish-play-will-brexit-spell-the-end-of-a-united-kingdom/
*Stewart Patrick – GG10 member, senior fellow and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program (IIGG) at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The updated work of the IIGG’s Global Governance Monitor shows how the international community is doing in addressing the most daunting threats that it faces.