by Atul Hatwal
There are three stages to processing the news that we seem to be heading for a sequel to the Scottish independence referendum.
Stage one: why the shock.
What is surprising about a Scottish nationalist politician calling for independence from the rest of the UK? Surely, the clue is in Nicola Sturgeon’s party title.
Brexit offers a justifiable opening to ask the question which was meant to have been answered for a generation. The fundamental circumstances of Britain’s position have changed and the post-2014 settlement was predicated on a United Kingdom in Europe.
Stage two: Sturgeon has miscalculated.
But once the campaign begins, the same economic pressures will be brought to bear again on the electorate. Set aside for a moment the ludicrous hypocrisy of a Tory Brexiteer government running a facsimile of the Remain campaign’s economic arguments about leaving a union, the threat that will be articulated is not only real but potentially greater than in 2014.
Many will talk about the importance of identity and nationalism but that doesn’t pay the mortgage or put food on the table.
There was a reason the SNP lost in 2014 by 10%: the economy, stupid.
Stage three: hang on, what if the UK is about to crash out of the EU without a deal?
The kicker for unionists comes courtesy of the Tory government’s approach to Brexit.
At the weekend, Boris Johnson was on our screens giving his considered view as Foreign Secretary that exiting the EU without a deal would be just fine.
If, and it’s a big if, the SNP could promise some form of ongoing EU membership while the rest of the UK wilfully stepped off the trade cliff, babbling about empire, the nineteenth century buccaneer spirit and British pluck, which outcome would represent the greatest economic danger for Scotland: independence or remaining in the UK?
Exiting the EU without a deal would mean that British trade would effectively grind to a halt, not just with the EU but all of the countries with whom Britain traded on the basis of its membership of the EU. That’s pretty much everyone. The run up to this economic detonation would be preceded by the panicked flight of investment, businesses and jobs.
For the Scotland, it’s conceivable, even likely, that a significant chunk of investment flowing out of the rest of the UK would head north at the prospect of retaining the benefits of EU membership.
The total population of Scotland is roughly 5m – about half the size of Greater London. It wouldn’t take a huge proportion of the potential investment that will leave the rest of the UK, London in particular, to flow into Scotland to make a material difference to its future.
The key for Sturgeon is a deal with the EU.
This is often painted as a huge barrier. It’s not. The incentive for Brussels to punish a hard Brexiteer UK government by giving Scotland an easy path to membership would be impossible to resist.
Speaking to EU officials after Sturgeon’s announcement yesterday, they mapped out a route involving fast track membership of the single market (something Spain would find it hard to block) followed by accelerated accession talks for full membership.
A referendum in Autumn 2018 would likely be at the low point of UK divorce negotiations with Brussels – hostile rhetoric and posturing before the scale of imminent economic horror forced some form of interim deal to be cobbled together, at the last minute, in 2019.
In this scenario, the economic threat of independence, the argument that saved the union before, would be contestable.
In contrast, at the last independence referendum, the SNP literally had no answer to the barrage of economic warnings.
The importance of contestability was evident in last year’s EU referendum.
Despite six months of concentrated fire from business, the Bank of England and David Cameron’s government, not enough people believed there was an economic downside to leaving the EU.
Polling from the huge British Election Study which had a 30,000 sample has highlighted the almost total alignment between peoples’ economic expectations and the way they voted – 93% who thought Brexit would make the economy worse voted Remain, 91% who thought it would make things better voted Leave.
The reason project fear (or fact as it will come to be known in a few years) failed is that the economic threat was contestable.
Decades of stories blaming the EU for our economic ills, an absent Labour leader and most of all, six years – 2010 to the start of 2016 – of David Cameron making the case that Britain would be perfectly fine leaving the EU, meant the economic debate dissolved into a white noise of he said, she said, for the typical voter.
In a context where there wasn’t a clear and present economic danger from Brexit, the country voted to take action that they believed would cut immigration – an issue which has consistently been important to voters, but not salient in determining their votes because the economy always previously trumped it.
A 2018 Scottish independence referendum could replay key aspects of the EU referendum.
Picture the scene: Early September 2018, an independence rally where yet another finance CEO walks out on stage with Nicola Sturgeon to announce that their business is going to relocate from London to Edinburgh and that they have faith in the economic future of an Scotland.
5% is the swing that the nationalists need. If the economic case is contestable – six of one, half a dozen of the other to most voters – do we really think that 1 in 10 No voters from 2014 would not fancy taking back control?
Particularly from a Tory government that they didn’t vote for and one which, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts, is likely to be in office for many years to come.
Suddenly, Nicola Sturgeon’s gamble doesn’t look such a bad bet.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut