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Brexit has made independence all but inevitable. But not yet.

THE pugilistic former Labour MP, Eric Joyce, may not exactly be totally welcome yet in nationalist circles, any more than he is in Labour ones. But his new blog “From No to Yes”, is certainly worth a look. His argument that he has had to fundamentally review his attitudes to independence since Brexit, is one I have heard from a number of former No voters recently. He’s angry and as we know from his form in Westminster hostelries, Mr Joyce is not to be trifled with when riled.

The former army major says that one of his most important reasons for voting No was to remain in the European Union. He didn’t buy Alex Salmond’s airy assurance that there’d be an open door to Europe after a Yes vote. Nor did he see independence as a risk worth taking in a hostile world. But what he never expected was that a No vote would leave Scotland being taken for a ride into the unknown, hitched to a narrow-minded, xenophobic, little Britain. He sees no prospect of a Labour government winning back power in Westminster and reversing Brexit, which has left him doing a 180 degree turn to independence.

It is impossible to know how many voters share his sense of having been sold a false prospectus in 2014. But anecdotally there are many more thinking this way than might be obvious from the opinion polls. Support for independence is up on September 2014, but not by a game-changing margin, and there is no indication from the polls that Scots are itching to have another referendum right now. Which leaves Nicola Sturgeon with the most difficult problem in politics: timing.

There are many in the SNP who believe, if my soundings are right, that a second independence referendum is imminent. I’ve even heard 2017 being mentioned during the current deputy leadership contest. The press has been full of stories of a “secret plan” for an early referendum. Many Nationalists believe that there is no time like the present, and that Brexit offers a unique opportunity to harvest Yes votes from former No voters. But while there are undoubtedly many Scots who are in the process, like Mr Joyce, of shifting from No to Yes, it would be unwise to believe that they are all there yet.

Now, I am firmly of the belief that Scotland is on the road to independence and that it’s only a matter of time before Scotland becomes fully self-governing, probably within a confederal UK. But as the former SNP minister, Alex Neil, pointed out last week in a surprisingly strong intervention, there is a risk that a premature referendum, before Brexit is resolved, could put independence back a generation. Voters have yet to come to terms with leaving Europe, and many would resent a third referendum in three years.

It is actually very difficult to frame a coherent case for independence right now. The European Union is in a tense stand-off with the British Government about when and how Brexit is to be achieved. Nicola Sturgeon is trying to keep Scotland in some sort of relationship with the European Union’s single market – she has said that is currently her priority. If Theresa May has her way, the UK as a whole could still be in the single market after Brexit – but we won’t know that for some years.

There has been no sign of the Prime Minister invoking the article 50 that will trigger the two-year-long Brexit negotiations, before the end of the year. This means the actual British departure date will not be until 2019 at the earliest. And since both houses of the Westminster Parliament will have to authorise Brexit, it could take longer still. That crashes into the 2020 UK general election. I can’t see another Scottish independence referendum until 2021/2 (assuming Westminster authorises one).

I have never subscribed to the view that the European Union would block Scotland’s membership of the EU. It would be absurd to do so, given that Scotland has been under EU law for over 43 years. There would almost certainly be a fast-track process of re-entry – but fast-track in EU terms would almost certainly mean another year or two until things are sorted out. So that takes us into the 2020s.

Now, for many Nationalists, this sounds like defeatist, time-wasting nonsense. Who cares what England is doing – Scotland needs to carve its own independent future, and the sooner it starts the better But against that you have to consider the state of mind of the potential new converts to Yes. Many were spooked in 2014 by the idea of being excluded from EU trade; might they not be equally uneasy about being excluded (potentially) from trade with our nearest partner, England?

The decision over whether Scotland would or would not have a hard border with England cannot be resolved until we know what is going to be England’s relationship to the single market. If the rUK is in the European Economic Area/European Single Market, then there may be no need for border posts – or “Berwick turning into Calais” as Ukip’s David Coburn put it last week. But that will not be known for some time. In the meantime the Tory, Labour and LibDem parties would argue that it is economic insanity to depart from Britain before its relations with the EU are resolved.

I suspect this would persuade a lot of Scots who are “swithering” about independence to stick with the safety-first option. Always keep a hand on nurse for fear of something worse. It may only be over-60s who understand that saying, but they were decisive in keeping Scotland in the UK in September 2014.

There are other issues too that need to be resolved. There has been much discussion on social media about Scotland abandoning the idea of a currency union with the rUK after independence. But setting up a Scottish currency involves problems and risks of its own – most notably the risk of a run on the new currency if the Scottish central bank, or “currency board”, lacks the reserves to support the Scots pound. This is not insurmountable, but it will involve negotiations with the Bank of England about Scotland’s share of the UK debt pile and what reserves a Scottish exchequer could reasonably expect to possess on day one of independence. This is not going to happen while the UK is busy extracting itself from Europe.

From Sunday Herald 14/8/16

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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