Scotland’s independence debate is now intrinsically tied with Brexit

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Nicola Sturgeon hopes the EU will welcome Scotland back into the fold once the UK departs. [European Union]

Scotland’s nationalists hope the country’s pro-EU stance will translate into votes for independence. To ensure a European future for an independent Scotland, the next referendum must take place before the UK and the EU drift too far apart, writes Anthony Salamone.

Anthony Salamone is PhD candidate in politics at the University of Edinburgh and member of the Edinburgh Europa Institute.

Ever since the result of the UK’s EU referendum were known on 24 June last year, and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared that a second independence referendum was “back on the table”, speculation has continued to build on if and when the Scottish government would seek such a vote.

Sturgeon’s surprise announcement this week, that she would start the process by asking the Scottish parliament to formally request a new referendum, has adeptly ended that speculation – though many questions remain.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Edinburgh has been at pains to stress that this referendum is not a mere re-run of the 2014 vote, even down to the hashtags – it is #ScotRef, they say, not #indyref2 (echoing the original #indyref). It is true that Brexit fundamentally changes the calculus of Scottish independence.

In the first vote, the SNP was free to decide the timing and other logistics (subject to the UK government’s agreement) in an otherwise relatively stable domestic political climate. Having lost the 2014 vote, their ideal scenario would have been to wait several years (as long as necessary) until opinion polls showed a clear and sustainable majority for independence, and then hold a second contest.

Since the late 1980s, the SNP’s vision of independence has been characterised as “independence in Europe” – an independent Scotland as a full member of the European Union. This forms part of a self-espoused, outward-looking ideology and, back when it looked as if the UK would still be part of the EU as well, it solved a lot of the problems that independence would create (since both Scotland and ‘the rest of the UK’ – rUK – would ostensibly be EU members and part of the internal market, for instance).

That vision of independence is now intrinsically tied with Brexit. The question of Scotland’s place in Europe has become a cornerstone of political debate. The principle difference from 2014 – which has completely reframed the issue – is that the argument is now on maintaining Scotland’s relationship with the EU (not losing what it already has), rather than trying to gain something new.

More broadly, Scottish nationalists will attempt to use Brexit as an illustration of how Scotland can’t control its own destiny. That argument runs that Scotland is being forced to leave the EU despite voting 62% in favour of membership and, compounding matters, that the UK government has not made any effort to agree a compromise solution on Brexit for Scotland. Unionists have a relatively straightforward reply – saying that the EU referendum was a whole-UK vote, and the UK voted for Brexit.

Indeed, while the Brexit-induced reframing of the independence question might help the SNP to limit the appearance of a re-run, the present situation brings its own challenges as well. This time around, the proposition of an independent Scotland in the EU would have to be squared with relations with an rUK which seems on course to become the most removed country from Europe, in Europe.

This change from 2014 has already focused minds on the potential impact on trade and the prospect of a border between Scotland and England. A favoured talking point of unionists is that, rather than the EU’s single market, the ‘UK single market’ is most important to the Scottish economy.

Brexit also confuses the electoral picture. Support for independence and support for EU membership do not necessarily go together. A sizeable proportion of independence supporters – and SNP voters – in fact opted for Brexit. Conversely, some pro-European Unionists may well opt for independence as a means of securing a future in Europe.

The SNP is also motivated by the Brexit timetable. Sturgeon’s aim of holding the second referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 is designed to maintain at least a partial focus of the referendum on Brexit and to enable an independent Scotland to be in the best position for EU membership.

Concern among pro-EU nationalists would be that, if Scotland is outside of the EU too long after Brexit, the salience and perceived importance of EU membership in the public might diminish. Moreover, as the post-Brexit UK and the EU continue to diverge over time, the process of Scottish EU accession would become more complicated.

The Scottish parliament is near certain to formally request a referendum at the planned vote next week, with the support of the SNP and the Scottish Greens. The UK government must then respond. It is unlikely to refuse a referendum – this would almost certainly boost support for independence, and indeed reinforce an image of London dictating to Scotland. The conditions attached, in particular the timing of a vote, will be where the UK government attempts to have an impact.

Regardless of the formal process, people in Scotland are already beginning to prepare for a new referendum. The key questions of currency, the economy and the EU will all make a return, though this time in the Brexit context. Scotland’s constitutional debate looks set to continue for some time yet.