13 June 2019

While Westminster is distracted, the SNP once more threatens the Union

By Dr Azeem Ibrahim

The 2014 Scottish independence referendum should have settled the status of the Union for a generation. And it would have done – were it not for Brexit, and for the strongly divergent Brexit results on either side of Hadrian’s Wall.

After some sabre-rattling in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote, the SNP opted to lay low. Somewhat unexpectedly, the stark divergence between the strong Remain vote in Scotland and the Leave vote in England and Wales did not translate into an immediate surge in favour of Scottish independence.

So the SNP backed off, and instead opted to pursue a tactic of advocating the Scottish majority position in favour of Remain on the national political stage at Westminster.

But if the Brexit referendum result was not enough to shock the Scottish electorate into demanding their own independence, then the repeated rejection by Westminster of a sound Brexit deal has been steadily shifting the dial.

Nicola Sturgeon’s gun-ho independence demands in late 2016 fell on deaf ears – and made for a temporary embarrassment for the SNP. But since then, Scotland has been slowly shifting towards that position. Not because of the SNP, but mostly thanks to a disunited Westminster Parliament.

Right now, however, this slow but momentous dynamic is flying under the radar. Westminster is transfixed by a Conservative leadership contest, and the dire threat that a general election now may well return the Brexit party as the largest party in Parliament. And no doubt, these are significant developments. But something much more profound, and much more historical is happening right under our noses: the Union itself is dissolving under our eyes – with or without the Brexit party.

In the European Parliament elections last month, the SNP registered their best ever result. That was on an unapologetic platform for a second Brexit referendum in which the party would campaign to revoke Article 50. The SNP has not been mincing words on Brexit. They have always said that they would rather a unilateral revocation of Brexit to a no-deal Brexit.

In aggregate, Remain parties with a pledge to pursue a ‘People’s Vote’ – the SNP, LibDems, the Greens and Change UK – got 61.89 per cent of the vote in Scotland. That is compared to a combined Brexit Party plus UKIP total of just 16.64 per cent.

As the winner of the Remain vote, and of the overall vote at 37.84 per cent, and as a party which has made no secret about its ambition to at least eventually pursue another independence referendum for Scotland, the SNP is not outside of bounds when it proposes that the Scottish people should have a direct choice between the Union with England and the Union with Europe. And if the British government, whoever ends up leading it, does go for a no-deal Brexit in the end, the SNP’s case will have been made for them.

This need not mean the British Union will be automatically dead upon no-deal. The Scottish people have so far been much more sober and measured than the English when it comes to the unravelling of essential political arrangements. That is why Scotland voted to remain the British Union in 2014.

But if the choice is between two bad outcomes, ending of essential ties with England and ending of essential ties with Europe, there will be little left for the people of Scotland to be sober and measured about. Why should Scotland simply accept this choice that England is imposing on it against its will?

Now if Westminster hadn’t spent the last three years presenting a masterclass in political paralysis and accepted the Prime Minister’s respectable deal, there would still be the argument that Scottish interests are more closely tied to the rest of the UK than to Europe. And that may very well be true for now. But would the people of Scotland want that to continue to be the case under a Prime Minister pursuing a hard Brexit?

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Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the founder and Chair of the Scotland Institute.