Contrary to popular belief, Theresa May has made pretty clear what her red lines are on Brexit. There will be no free movement, no accepting the rulings of the European Court of Justice. There will be no attempt to remain a member any of the multiple, overlapping EU-sponsored free trading zones: a customs union, single market or the European Economic Area. This means there will be no Norway, Turkish or Swiss options. You’ll have had your soft Brexit.
The SNP’s more confident supporters will welcome the new clarity from the Prime Minister. Some were distinctly uneasy at the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s, recent offer to shelve independence indefinitely if Scotland was permitted to remain in the single market. Surely freedom is more important than a trade deal? Many Nationalists think the First Minister should screw her courage to the sticking place and go for another independence referendum at the earliest opportunity.
800 of them made it to the packed Independence Convention in Glasgow to prepare the next Yes campaign. They are full of ideas, not all of them Scottish government policy – like the demand for a separate Scottish currency and no keeping the Queen as head of state. There is no shortage of enthusiasm. However, one very important thing is lacking: the green light.
Ms Sturgeon has ruled out a referendum this year, no doubt to prevent the issue dominating the May local elections when the SNP hopes for big gains. She insists no one had been talking about holding a referendum in 2017 but many in her party were hoping at least for a firm commitment pre-2018. This may not be a failure of will on her part but it suggests that the Scottish government’s consultation on the draft independence Bill has not registered an overwhelming clamour for an early referendum.
Ms Sturgeon may not want an early referendum either but time is not on her side. If Scotland is to remain in the single market, it really needs to become independent before Britain leaves in 2019. It will be much more difficult to rejoin the EU thereafter from outside. Also, there will be a new UK single market that will lock Scotland into a new and tighter UK Union.
The last independence referendum took two years to organise from the date of the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012. It may not take quite as long this time, but it still can’t be done over night. The Green Party has indicated that it supports independence if the alternative is hard Brexit, so that should give the First Minister the majority she needs for the independence Bill in Holyrood. But there could still be some negotiating there.
Legislation will then be needed in Westminster and there will be a fight about Holyrood’s right to hold another referendum. The Constitution is reserved to Westminster so both houses of parliament, Commons and Lords, will have to give assent. They will almost certainly try to make Scotland’s departure as difficult as possible in the hope of swinging Scottish public opinion against another referendum.
Then, Scotland has to be recognised as an independent country by the European Union. That should be largely a formality, but nothing happens overnight in Brussels, and all 27 members would have to agree Scotland’s membership. Some may still insist that Scotland has to go through the conventional procedure if only to deter their own regions from seeking to emulate Scotland. Spain may still regard Scotland as a secessionist country on the grounds that it is seeking to leave the UK before the UK leaves the EU.
Of course, first of all there has to be a Yes vote, assuming that Holyrood is allowed to hold a second referendum. So what are the chances? Probably better than last time. The conventional wisdom is that Scots are fed up with referendums and too confused to think of independence, but the polls show that 45 per cent still favour Yes.That is a high base line.
Since most Yessers are relatively young, SNP strategists believe they could supply the energy to persuade the “five per centers” to come over to Yes. Many of the 2014 Yes groups have been spontaneously kicking off again in the past six months. And unlike last time, the No side will be much weaker in indyref2.
The Labour party in Scotland is an empty shell, split on the constitution and in no position to lead a No campaign. The Tories are compromised because Ruth Davidson was a Remainer and can be presented as a puppet of right-wing UK Tories. The Liberal Democrats no longer matter. Many in the SNP believe the press has been overwhelmed by social media, where independence voices are much stronger and where the anti-establishment tide is still running strong.
Attitudes may also harden among swithering No voters as the reality of hard Brexit emerges. Mrs May is expected to push for sectors of UK industry, such as Nissan, to be given privileged access to EU markets. The City of London may have a special deal on migration. This will be a brutal rebuff to the First Minister’s plea that Holyrood should have powers over immigration and its own privileged access to the single market.
Unless Mrs May comes up with a convincing package of greater powers for Holyrood that compensate for exclusion from the single market, Ms Sturgeon may have no alternative but to double down and go for a second independence referendum; that is, if she still has the bottle.