The UK now faces its greatest crisis since the Suez debacle. Just like Suez, the situation is of our own making and will, for better or worse, change our standing in the world. The vote to leave the UK has the potential to reshape and dominate the political landscape for a generation.
The political response so far has been mixed. David Cameron, after announcing he’ll stand down in the Autumn, is keeping a low profile, but I expect/hope his government is working frantically to prepare the UK for what comes next. Boris Johnson looks like a man who just lost a game of Russian roulette, but is now no doubt focussing on replacing Cameron as our PM. UK Labour is turning inward as the campaign has raised more questions about Corbyn’s leadership.
In Scotland the debate, understandably, is focussing on whether or not Scotland should leave the UK. Ruth Davidson argued that Scottish remain votes do not cancel those cast in 2014 to stay in the UK. Nicola Sturgeon is less sure, but has said a second independence vote is “highly likely” – she’s making herself look busy by holding press conferences. Scottish Labour’s Kezia Dugdale has made it clear that the party will “consider all options”.
An opinion poll today shows a clear majority of Scots now back Scottish independence. Whilst this poll does reflect the conversations I have had with people since Friday, my view is that it’s too soon to know what’s best for Scotland now. There will always be those who will support independence at any cost and those who support remaining in the UK equally strongly. In 2014 the bulk of Scots were caught in the middle of these opposing groups, but rightly voted “No” as it was clear we’d be worse off outside the UK – the vote was about head, not heart. To be clear, we made that decision knowing Brexit was possible as the EU Referendum was already on the table.
Of course the economic argument for Scotland remaining in the UK has now changed. However, we don’t know how it has changed and will not do so for some time. For that reason, I think it’s too soon to know how I will vote in any second independence referendum. Yes, solidarity with the rest of the UK is hugely important, but the Brexit vote may mean that Scotland may have to choose between that and Europe. Until the uncertainty is reduced we simply do not know what outcome is the best path to protecting public services and economic prosperity in Scotland. In my view, the economic argument can’t be made until three things (at least) are known.
Firstly, we need to know what the UK’s future relationship with the EU would be. It’s clear that the UK will try to establish some sort of a Norwegian/Swiss style EFTA deal. This will, its supporters will claim, give us the benefits of EU membership without the downside. The costs and benefits of this deal are key to the UK’s economic prosperity.
Secondly, we need to understand what an independent Scotland’s relationship with Europe will be. It appears unlikely that Scotland can stay (yes, I know we are not a member right now) in the EU as the rest of the UK leaves:
1. With one of the largest deficits in the western world (more than double that of rUK), we don’t meet the entry criteria -The EU does not need another country with a huge deficit.
2. Any country which backs Scottish membership would essentially be triggering the break-up of the UK – a diplomatic minefield.
Can Scotland really leave the UK due to Brexit only to become an independent state adrift outside the EU without the support of the Barnett formula? The 33% of SNP voters who backed Brexit may think that’s a good idea, but I don’t.
Thirdly, the SNP have several of the usual non-trivial questions to answer on things like borders with rUK and currency.
This uncertainty explains why even the staging of a second independence referendum looks less than certain to me. Until the three points above are addressed I will remain undecided but, like Kezia and Nicola, I’ll keep all the options on the table.