10 February 2022

How Brexit blew up Indyref2

By Andrew Hunt

The possibility of an independent Scotland is often framed as a ‘divorce’ but I think of it more like being on bad date. Having ordered the most expensive items on the menu, your love interest spends the entire evening berating you before demanding you foot the bill, the tip, and their taxi home.

That’s the implication of Ian Blackford’s claim that after Independence, the UK would carry on paying Scottish pensions. With a straight face, Nicola Sturgeon affirmed this view. This unconditional generosity would come on top of the ‘full fiscal transfer’ – the nationalists’ belief that Scotland can walk away from its share of UK debt, including the vast sums it has run up since devolution.

What Blackford’s comment exposes is that Scottish Independence affects all partners, including the 92% of voters and the 91% of elected MPs from the rest of the UK (RUK). It is those MPs who would rightfully set the terms of any departure, and their duty would be to their constituents and the future UK, not to Scotland. And thanks to Brexit, we’ll never again have a referendum without precisely defining the terms before the vote. Back in 2014, David Cameron was so confident of winning that he was happy to indulge the SNP’s fantasy manifesto. But times have changed, and RUK has every incentive to make the terms of any future independence referendum as onerous as possible.

Moreover, most Conservatives have a visceral dislike for both the SNP and any breakup of the Union. To make matters worse, Ms Sturgeon has spent a decade doing everything possible to antagonise them.

So why wouldn’t they make demands as outrageous as Scotland’s? Why not require Scotland to, for example, take its national debt obligations and its share of UK government obligations in proportion to its bloated public sector, impose tariffs on Scottish goods or seek continued contributions to the defence budget.

This would just be hoisting the SNP by their own petard. As part of the Remain campaign, SNP MPs argued the Brexit vote was invalid because the terms were not known by voters when the referendum took place. By the same token, the SNP must negotiate the full terms before any Independence Referendum.

If Nicola Sturgeon shouts too loudly, it may only be a matter of time before an opportunistic RUK MP adopts the Twitter handle, #WeAreThe92%, and begins making pledges around the ‘Independence Dividend’. Both Labour and the Conservatives are keen to seduce the North of England with new promises. Then, more conditions and costs will mount up for Scotland.

Strategically, Boris Johnson might benefit from letting this debate rip, and then portraying himself as a protector of Scotland by vetoing any referendum.

A bold Prime Minister could go even further and push for an ‘up-or-out’ referendum. Gain independence on horrific terms, or stay in the UK under a new settlement that resets the failures of devolution.

Once RUK sets its side of the bargain, many Scots will lose interest. All the fantasy benefits will be replaced by piles of new obligations. For many ardent nationalists, the idea of actually helping the English and the Tories would be too much to swallow.

For Ms Sturgeon herself, the prospect of to-ing and fro-ing to London to plead with the likes Jacob Rees-Mogg and Theresa May must seem particularly unappealing. Having spent years enduring her tartan truculence, they would surely relish the prospect of humiliating her.

The ultimate irony here is that Brexit, the weapon Sturgeon is using to call for a second independence referendum, is the very reason it will fail.

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Andrew Hunt is a writer, investor and policy creative. His latest ideas can be found at www.brainfartpolicy.com

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.