14 March 2017

Can May see off Sturgeon’s secessionist schemes?


Until the Treaty of Edinburgh was signed in 1560, the primary goal of Scottish foreign policy was to combine with the French to torment the English.

Swap “French” for “Europeans”, and you have the likely shape of the Brexit debate over the next two years. Any deviation from the status quo, as Britain and Europe chisel out a deal, will outrage the Scottish Nationalists. Any adherence to it will outrage the hardline Brexiteers.

True, Nicola Sturgeon may not get her second independence referendum – or at least not precisely when she wants it, namely at the point of maximum uncertainty and instability during the Brexit negotiations.

But whatever happens, she has succeeded in turning Brexit into an even more complex process. You will have the negotiations between the different European nations, in terms of what they could and should offer; between Britain and Europe over how much market access we should have, and how much money we should pay, and all the other nagging issues; between Theresa May and her own backbenchers; between the Government and the media; and between the Government and the markets.

And all of this will be taking place according to a timetable which, to put it delicately, does not favour lengthy and high-minded deliberation.

In the wake of last night’s parliamentary vote, Theresa May is now finally in a position to invoke Article 50. We have been promised she will do so before the end of March – though there is a certain sensitivity around avoiding March 25th, the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding treaty, which would be the equivalent of turning up at your anniversary party with divorce papers.

But from that moment, the initiative passes from Britain to Brussels. Almost uniquely among the reams of verbiage and legalese in the EU’s manifold treaties and regulations, Article 50 is brutally clear:

“The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.”

In other words, when Theresa May pushes the button – whether today, tomorrow, or at the very moment of the 60th anniversary – that’s it. We’re Brexiting. And the power to stop that happening is in Europe’s hands – not Theresa May’s, not Nicola Sturgeon’s, and certainly not Nicky Morgan’s, whose band of Tory rebels voted with the Government on one Lords amendment and abstained on the other, because it was obvious the Government would not grant the “meaningful vote” they sought.

This fits into a broader power dynamic. The Article 50 deal itself will be approved by a qualified majority of member states, “after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament”.

But while that deal will, according to the treaty-ese, “take account of the framework for [the leaving country’s] future relationship with the Union”, it won’t set it out. What we’re negotiating is the fact of the divorce, not who gets access to the children. That’s for the free trade deal, which needs to be negotiated with and agreed by a far wider cast of characters, many of whom (most of whom) will have their own domestic politics to contend with.

Once Article 50 is invoked, in other words, Britain is no longer steering the vehicle. We’re at the start of a rollercoaster ride, of fixed duration and direction, at the end of which we will be tipped out either giddy with excitement or emptying the contents of our stomachs.

All this, of course, is what Sturgeon is counting on. Among all but the most optimistic Brexiteers, it was always recognised that Brexit would inevitably have at least some short-term costs, even if the long-term arrangements that would result would make the pain worthwhile. And conversely, as I argued before the referendum, if you were going to go for Brexit, you had to make it a transformative enough prospect to justify the trauma.

But Sturgeon can flip that script. The first Scottish referendum was won because, ultimately, the status quo was more attractive than a leap in the dark. Her new recipe is to make Brexit Britain seem like the risky option – to offer Scots the choice of life in warm, cuddly Nicolaland or mean, nasty Theresaworld. No wonder, as Alex Massie notes, she has been stealing the Leave slogan of “take back control”– because it will be deployed at the point when the justification for Brexit may well look shakiest.

Given the challenges of agreeing any deal at all, getting a deal that somehow satisfies the Scots and the English and the Europeans seems like a very tall order indeed.

This is why the Government had already been doing its best to prepare the public for the hardest of all Brexits – no deal in place, Britain trading on WTO terms not only with the European Union but with all the other nations whose trade deals with the EU we hoped to inherit.

This is not – contrary to the Treasury’s advice– the end of the world. But it is certainly a problem in the short term, not least because it will take time to get new trade deals in place, especially those covering the services which are at the heart of the UK economy.

Sturgeon’s gambit disrupts that strategy. Because it allows her to portray hard Brexit as a callous Brexit, an English Brexit, a Tory Brexit. Perhaps there will even be parallel, informal Scottish negotiations alongside the British ones? The idea, in other words, is to combine the rollercoaster ride with a custard pie fight.

Of course, the irony is that the harder the Brexit, the tougher the choice the Scots will actually have to make. As the EU is to Britain, so England is to Scotland, but even more so – its most important export destination.

To face tariff and currency and border barriers to that market would be devastating – especially given the precarious state of the Scottish finances. I’ve heard it mischievously suggested that the EU would not want Scotland to join not because of worries about separatism, but because its cavernous budget deficit positions it nicely to be the next Greece.

As Chris Deerin wrote on CapX yesterday, the prospect of another Scottish referendum is a grim thing indeed. And the added irony is that the whole situation derives, in part, from the way that the first independence referendum convinced David Cameron et al that they were brilliant at winning them.

So what should Theresa May do? To be honest, she should do what she is best at: get her head down and get to work.

She knows she will never deliver a Brexit that pleases everyone. But she knows that the better the deal she can deliver – the more access Britain has to the EU’s markets, the easier it is for Britons and Europeans to maintain and even build on their social, emotional and economic ties – the less cause there will be for the Scots to buy into Sturgeon’s narrative of grievance.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX