It is not yet absolutely certain that Brexit will happen; if the courts rule that the UK Parliament must have its say, then it could still be blocked. However, let us assume that Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon is invoked, one way or another, before the end of next March.
There are certain advantages in having a new independence referendum as quickly as possible, assuming that the result will be a vote for independence. It would allow the possibility that Scottish independence and Brexit could be simultaneous, with the EU accepting Scotland as the successor state to the UK for the purpose of EU membership. Scotland would then go straight from being part of the EU as part of the UK to being a member state of the EU. Even if independence did not happen until some months after Brexit, there have been suggestions that some transitional arrangement could be found that would would preserve continuity of EU membership for Scotland. (It may help that the Treaty of Lisbon’s 2 year period from notice to Brexit will only apply if no agreement is reached between the UK and the rest of the EU; an exit agreement can specify the date of Brexit.)
In this way, we could be spared some of the adverse economic effects of impending Brexit and the uncertainty over how much access to the European single market will be retained. Indeed, there may even be some gains from Brexit, as some of the companies which are expected to leave England, in order to remain in the EU, may choose to move to Scotland.
Some cautious independence supporters argue against another referendum in the near future. They say that a second lost referendum would destroy any prospect of independence for the foreseeable future, and that we should wait until opinion polls show consistent and significant leads for Yes before trying again.
However, if the cautious ones have their way, it will probably not be possible to hold a referendum before Brexit. They will then perhaps argue that the Scottish Government should wait until after Brexit before deciding whether to hold a referendum, to see how the reality of Brexit affects support for independence. This would probably mean postponing a decision until at least the summer of 2019. Assuming that at least a year will be necessary from that decision until the referendum, it will then be too late to hold a referendum before the UK general election in May 2020. Caution would then suggest postponing the decision until after the election; it will then be to late for a referendum before the Scottish election in 2021. By then the SNP’s mandate from last year’s election to hold a new referendum in the event of Brexit will be getting rather stale. Hence there would be a need for the SNP to seek a new electoral mandate in the election, with the aim of holding a referendum in the summer of 2022 at the earliest.
Assuming that there is a vote for independence, it might take at least 18 months for Scotland to become independent. Only then could Scotland apply to join the EU; if accession takes a further 18 months, then Scotland might finally rejoin the EU in 2025, after more than 6 years of (assuming a fairly hard Brexit) exclusion from the European single market. How much damage will have been done to the Scottish economy by then?
The cautious ones might argue that it is still worth delaying the next independence referendum if this makes a vote for independence more likely, but I am afraid that it might not work out that way. One reason is that citizens of other EU countries living in Scotland, who mostly voted No in 2014, can be expected to vote mostly for independence in a pre-Brexit referendum. After Brexit, they will be disenfranchised, if they have not already left Scotland as the UK Home Office makes them feel unwelcome.
More importantly, we must consider what I think of as the timorous voters. These are people who are to some degree in favour of independence, but are nervous of change. In 2014, they let themselves be persuaded by Project Fear that independence was just too big a leap into the unknown, and that an independent Scotland would be thrown out of the EU. They were tricked by Gordon Brown into believing that by voting No they could have many of the advantages of independence, in the form of Home Rule, without the perceived risk of leaving the UK. They may have been tempted to vote Yes, but in the end they opted for the comfort of the status quo. They are the people who need to be persuaded to vote for independence to tip the balance in a new referendum.
In a pre-Brexit independence referendum, the status quo will not be an option on the ballot paper. The choice will be between leaving the UK and leaving the EU. The timorous voters will have to choose which of these options is the the less scary, and a significant fraction of them may vote for independence.
In a post-Brexit referendum, there will once again be a status quo for the timorous voters to take refuge in. They will have become used to not being in the EU. The new Project Fear will be able to claim that there can be no guarantee that an independent Scotland would be able to rejoin the EU, as its accession could be blocked by any one of the member states. It might be argued by cautious independence supporters that after maybe three years of Brexit its negative economic consequences will be clear, and will push people into voting for independence. However, I suspect that economic problems following Brexit could actually have the opposite effect on the timorous voters. They may well recognise that Brexit has left them worse off, but that may just make them even more averse to change. If one change, Brexit, has been bad for them, will they really be willing to embrace another major change? Perhaps, the less that a timorous one has, the less they will want to risk that which do have.
There is a final reason why I am in favour of an early referendum. The harsh reality is that May, who is showing signs of becoming one of the most authoritarian Prime Ministers in recent UK history, could block a referendum or simply refuse to recognise a vote for independence. The EU will not want the UK to be seen to have gained from Brexit, to discourage anti-EU movements in other EU countries. For this reason, and also because the EU does not want to lose territory or citizens, I believe that the EU will look favourably on Scotland wanting to become independent in order to remain in the EU. In Brexit negotiations, the UK will be in a weak position if the government wants anything other than the hardest of Brexits, opening up the possibility that the EU could put pressure on Westminster to allow a new independence referendum. The EU could justify this by saying that it is acting to protect the right of the people of Scotland to remain EU citizens. After Brexit, it will be much more difficult for the EU to intervene on behalf of Scotland.
Once Article 50 has been invoked, and it has been made clear that no special arrangement which might protect Scotland from the consequences of Brrexit will be clear, I hope the Scottish Government will push ahead as rapidly as possible with a new referendum. Otherwise, I fear that any chance of independence in the foreseeable future may slip away.