Can We Afford to Wait?

Nicola Sturgeon has said that “a second independence referendum is now on the table”. I welcome the fact that she has said this so promptly and unequivocally.

We will take all possible steps and explore all options to secure Scotland’s continuing place in the EU and in the single market in particular…When the process for the UK to leave the EU begins in three months time, it is expected to take two years to leave. If the Scottish Parliament decides that a second referendum is the best or only way to protect our place in Europe, it must have the option to hold one within that timescale. (http://www.snp.org/nicola_sturgeon_s_statement_on_the_eu_referendum_what_you_need_to_know?mc_cid=f0ff861029&mc_eid=756ff63535)

The bit about ‘exploring all options’ is necessary diplomacy, but is there any realistic option other than independence or being dragged out of the EU by England? I have seen a suggestion that it might be possible for Scotland to remain in both the UK and the EU, even after Brexit. This is based on the fact that after Greenland was granted limited autonomy as part of the Kingdom of Denmark, it left the EEC in 1985. As a result, part of the current Kingdom of Denmark is in the EU and parts (Greenland and the Faroe Islands) are not. Closer to home, the Isle of Man is neither a member nor an associate member of the EU, although its defence and foreign policy are handled by the UK Parliament. Clearly, the EU has no problem with the government of a member state having some authority over a territory which is not within the EU. However, it seems unlikely that the EU would permit an arrangement whereby a primarily non-EU government (such as Westminster, post-Brexit) has direct authority over a part of the EU. Also, any such arrangement would almost certainly require Scotland to have a much greater level of autonomy than it currently has.

On the question of the timing of an independence referendum, I would argue in favour of it being held as soon as possible, for the following reasons.

  • Cameron’s replacement as Prime Minister may invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty soon after taking office, possibly in October. Brexit will follow exactly two years later, except by mutual agreement between the UK and the EU; it could therefore take place any time from October 2018 on. If it will take about 18 months from an independence referendum to actual independence (as was estimated at the time of the 2014 referendum), then we must have a referendum not later than April next year to ensure that independence can take place at the same time as Brexit, allowing Scotland to inherit the UK’s membership of the EU, and transition straight from being part of the EU as part of the UK to being a member state.
  • It is expected that many companies, currently based in the UK but trading extensively in Europe, will consider moving to other EU countries. An early referendum in which Scotland chooses to remain in the EU rather than the UK should persuade companies already based in Scotland to stay, and some based elsewhere in the UK to relocate to Scotland. Even the prospect of a referendum which is likely to lead to independence may help to protect the Scottish economy.
  • It will be easier to win an independence referendum before Brexit than afterwards, assuming the criteria for eligibility to vote are the same as those used as in 2014, as citizens of other EU countries who are resident in Scotland will still be entitled to vote. After Brexit, they will be disenfranchised.
  • With an impending Brexit to concentrate voters’ minds, a long referendum campaign should be unnecessary. There could be a risk that some of the people who voted No in 2014 and Remain, and who are saying they would now vote for independence, may become reconciled to the idea of Brexit and revert to opposing independence.
  • There is a very slight possibility that some deal or political upheaval in England might result in Brexit being cancelled before an independence referendum could take place; even if the independence referendum went ahead, it then would be more difficult to win a majority for independence.

Brexit may prove to be an opportunity for Scotland. However, that opportunity must be grasped quickly, lest it slip away.

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