Yesterday morning was one extended bit of deja vu for members of the ConservativeHome team. A night spent in an office, a gradual and unexpected swing towards a surprise result, and high-profile resignations once the sun came up.
This time, of course, the resignation was David Cameron’s. But another of yesterday morning’s announcements may prove to be more important: flanked by the Scottish and EU flags, Nicola Sturgeon put a re-run of 2014′s referendum back on the table.
Remainers were not slow to cite the break-up of the UK as a reason to vote for the EU. According to those who believe the separatists will win a new poll, be they optimistic Nats or conflicted unionists like Chris Deerin and Alex Massie, the thesis is simple enough.
Scots voted In, ‘England’ (by which both men mean ‘England, Wales, and most Unionist bits of Northern Ireland’) voted Out, and Scots will not have it.
Indeed some ‘No’ voters, including Deerin and the author JK Rowling, are willing to consider a vote for independence next time. The UK, by that analysis, is doomed.
But debilitating pessimism is one of unionism’s worst and most crippling vices, so let’s put away the shroud for a moment and consider just some of the contrary evidence. As James Forsyth notes, Sturgeon isn’t as bullish as she might be about a re-match.
Why, other than the SNP not having the majority even to pass a demand for one without Green support, might this be?
First, Scotland is not nearly as enthusiastic about the EU as its political class (a very British trait, that). Even if a slice were SNP backers, almost four in ten Scots who voted backed Leave.
The homogenous map masks important subtleties: in four big northern counting areas (Highlands, Angus, Aberdeenshire, and Moray) the Out vote got between 44 and 49.9 per cent. The two borders areas returned 46.5 and 41.5 per cent Leave.
And that “who voted” is important: one auger of disaster for Remain on the night was that Scottish turnout wasn’t anything special (Glagow saw only 56.2 per cent). That scarcely speaks to a nation ready to embrace risks it shied from in 2014 – in much rosier circumstances – to stay in the EU.
Even if the bulk of Scottish voters back EU membership, the proposition that they support it over UK membership was not on the ballot last night and has not been tested.
Whatever settlement Britain gets will pose its own problems, too. If it’s generous, how many EU perks will Scotland be losing to justify a ‘Yes’ vote? If it’s harsh, on the other hand, Scots will be faced with some very acute choices.
Do they want freedom of movement with the EU, or the United Kingdom? Do they want tariffs on the 15 per cent of their foreign trade that goes to Europe, or the 64 per cent that goes to Britain? Do they want the pound, or the Euro?
In 2014, whether or not there would need to be any substance to the Anglo-Scottish border if the UK split was an abstract debate about the EU. Now, if Scotland were in the EU, it is simply a fact.
The rosy, oil-lubricated utopia posited in the 2014 White Paper has also been shot to ribbons. Alex Bell, the SNP’s former head of policy, explains that Brexit makes sharing the pound impossible, leaving Scotland little option but the Euro. That entails strict borrowing limits and, given Scotland’s spending-to-earnings gap, sharp tax rises.
Whilst the First Minister undoubtedly wants to call the referendum which would break up Britain, that doesn’t mean this is what she wanted. As Kenny Farquharson notes in The Times (£), the SNP leadership have been clear that Brexit isn’t their preferred ‘trigger’.
Rather than calling a vote purely because she thinks we can win, looked at another way we see Sturgeon trapped by circumstances.
Just as their unexpected 2011 majority forced Alex Salmond to call a referendum he hadn’t been counting on, the SNP’s 2016 election manifesto explicitly listed “being taken out of the EU against our will” as the only defined example of circumstances in which the party would seek a rematch.
A vote to leave the EU, like the overall majority before it, was judged an impossible outcome by the SNP leadership as much as the rest of the political class.
So the First Minister is hedging. The prospect of a second poll is certainly there, but she wants to see what comes out of Britain’s negotiations first – and use the threat of a rematch to extract better terms from them.
This is sensible: as in 2014, member states with their own separatists, especially Spain, may block the EU from offering Scotland either generous terms or an accelerated timescale for continued membership. It may also be that the eventual shape of Brexit takes some form that vitiates the case for independence.
Andrew Tickell, who in the guise of Lallands Peat Worrier is one of Scottish nationalism’s most prominent writers (and abhors Brexit), writes that:
“If Britain does choose to depart from the European Union, the version of Scottish nationalism which has sustained the SNP these last decades takes a fundamental knock. Make no bones about it. It will necessarily prompt a reappraisal of a vision of Scotland in Europe which has been fundamental to the party’s mature thinking… Where does the social and economic interests of an independent Scotland lie, if its key trading partner sits outside the confines of the European Union?”
For all that it has been taken up by unionists, the EU offers a version of “the best of both worlds” that suits separatists very nicely by taking a big chunk of the risk out of their proposition.
The prospect – illusionary or no – of inheriting our membership offers a second source of funds once the UK tap turns off, and a comfortable floor on ongoing relations, including no border controls.
With Brexit, that’s gone, and the hill that separatists need to climb will be much steeper once we’re out. Sturgeon may decide that stoking up and riding a post-referendum fit of pique is her last, best chance at the prize. That doesn’t mean it’s a good one.