The starting pistol hasn’t actually been fired on the two-year Brexit process yet, but now we have a clear statement of when it will be: this morning on The Andrew Marr Show, the Prime Minister pledged that it would happen before the end of next March.
When she gave a speech to the Conservative conference later, Theresa May did even more than that. By the common consensus of the punditariat – whatever that’s worth these days – May’s message was that the UK was heading for the “hard” version of Brexit, with the single market sacrificed for control of borders.
(We might end up broke, in other words, but at least we’ll be good old British broke, with none of those awful smelly foreign Euro-Johnnies around to see it.)
And nobody was getting a sick note.
And for supporters of independence, that’s about as good as news gets.
Many gloating Unionists – and some of the more cool-headed Nats – have speculated that a hard Brexit is the worst option for the Yes movement, on the grounds that it greatly complicates the decision to be taken in any second indyref.
Their argument is basically that as Scotland does far more trade (somewhere roughly in the region of four times as much) with the rest of the UK than it does with the rest of Europe, it would face enormous risk in protecting that trade should it seek to throw in its lot with Europe rather than an isolated Britain, because the EU doesn’t allow member countries to conduct trade deals unilaterally with outside parties.
But that’s a somewhat curious position, because the entire point of the two years that would follow the invoking of Article 50 is to do that deal. Should a second indyref be scheduled for spring 2019 – as we posited just a couple of weeks ago – as a sort of last-chance escape clause for a Scotland that voted to stay in two unions but now has to pick its favourite, then it would be a choice between two known situations.
Because if an independent Scotland was going to be staying in the EU, then the trade deal with the rUK would already be in place, because the EU would just have negotiated it for us.
And if – as is now the prevailing wisdom – that deal turned out to be basically “Bend over, Britain, this is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts us”, then the economic arguments in favour of independence would be the strongest they’re ever likely to be in the lifetime of anyone reading this site.
(The downside of a hard Brexit focused on immigration controls, obviously, would be the presumption of border posts between England and Scotland, a very unpopular idea. But the Tories have repeatedly insisted that they intend to keep the Irish border a free and open one, and in those circumstances it’s almost impossible to create a sellable political case for Scotland being treated differently. Of course, they could be lying about Ireland, but either way we’ll know by 2019.)
The technical difficulties of ensuring that an independent Scotland WOULD be staying in the EU, of course, can’t be dismissed with an airy wave. The EU’s protocols don’t allow for formal negotiations while Scotland remains part of the UK.
But if anything characterises the way the EU does business it’s pragmatism, and if both the EU and Scotland wanted Scotland to stay in – and for that fact to be known at the time of the referendum – then that’s what would happen.
(And it WOULD be what they’d both want, because the SNP will still be the Scottish Government and Holyrood still has a clear majority of pro-indy, pro-EU votes.)
Nor can we complacently assume that Yes 2019 would be a slam-dunk. The problem of the Yes side’s awkward squad who also voted Leave is one that looms large. But again, by 2019, with a brutally punitive Brexit deal on the table, staying with Brussels might come to look very much the lesser of two evils.
This site remains of the view that it’s simply not credible for Brexit to happen without a second indyref. Two conflicting votes in Scotland – to stay in the UK, and by a far bigger margin to stay in the EU – are a circle of contradiction which cannot otherwise be politically squared. (And fighting for Scottish independence from outside the EU is a doomed project. We might as well give up at that point.)
There are a great many unknowns on the path ahead. But it’s a universally-accepted view within the media – which is, as we know, very far from meaning it’s actually true – that the economy, far above all other concerns, was the overwhelming weakness in the Yes case and the primary reason for its defeat.
If that’s accurate, then the second referendum will be a very different game indeed. If Brexit is to be hard, then so will be the argument for the UK. The No camp’s deadliest weapon just changed hands.