On Friday 24th June, the world woke up to the news that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union. In Scotland, the vote revealed an appetite to remain part of the EU by a margin of 62% to 38%. With characteristic enthusiasm, the Scottish National Party have signalled that the clock is ticking on a second independence referendum. Already a score of voices previously against independence, particularly among Labour types in Scotland, have joined this chorus. Many pro-Union friends and colleagues of mine have softened their view and I have been likewise forced to reconsider my position.
On the one hand, we can remain part of the UK. The English economy will certainly suffer in the short term, though how it will affect Scotland, which trades mostly with the rest of the United Kingdom (rUK), is unclear. It is hard to see any scenario where the UK retains access to the single market. The EU has made clear the obligation of single market access means free movement of labour - which 52% of the UK has had enough of - and it's hard to see how Scotland can stay in the EU but the rUK does not (if that isn't obvious to you, email me).
Scotland can be insulated from some of this by retaining access to its largest market - rUK. With oil close to $50 per barrel, the Scottish economy would be well served by maintaining the stability of its biggest trading relationship. If Westminster gets a grip, it will realise a useful counterweight in the EU BREXIT negotiations would be to agree a new trade deal, perhaps by applying to join the Trans Pacific Partnership. This would help the UK, and of course Scotland, both secure the most favourable trading deal with the EU possible and build new trading relationships with other markets.
Perhaps a deal could be done to allow Scotland to retain access to the single market, as Ruth Davidson has suggested. This presents a number of problems, not least how to square the free movement of labour between Scotland and the EU whilst also maintaining the lack of any border between Scotland and England. Time will tell if this is a viable option.
Or Scotland can call a second independence referendum and seek to join the EU. This would bring at least another year of political, economic and constitutional uncertainty to the country. Wounds that have barely healed since 2014 would be reopened. Even if a stomping majority of people, say 60% voted for independence, it would still leave an awful lot of upset Scots (see the protests from the 48% who voted Remain for evidence). Combined with on-going BREXIT negotiations, over the period of the second referendum campaign the economy would be about as wobbly as the knees of a teenager attending their first day at secondary school.
Then there is the question of the divorce from the UK, which we would have to conduct whilst at the same time gearing up for EU membership (or clarifying how we retain the UK's membership). We would have to devote huge resources to disentangling ourselves from the UK as well as deciding how entangled we want, or could be, with the EU. Exemptions from the Euro and the current British rebate would likely end. The new rUK would face uncertainty over its' UN Security Council seat as well as face questions over its leading place in NATO. Scots would be turning their backs on both these things, and signing up to a raft of new European commitments.
The SNP have spent most of their years in power building the case for independence. That's fine, because it's why they exist as a party. But that has costs. This latest call for a second independence referendum has not been accompanied by serious public debate over the merits of the case. That needs to change. Second, membership of the EU is not independence - just ask Greece, Portugal and Ireland. The EU is a political project that seeks to bind European nations together. That's fine, but Scots should be aware they would be trading one type of political union for another.
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