The Prime Minister has launched the referendum and in just four months Britain’s membership of the European Union will be on the line. Europe could break and so could another union, the union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
A second independence referendum is a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ in Scottish politics. If Britain – let’s be frank – if England votes to leave the European Union, then the wheels would be set in motion for this second referendum. The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on The Andrew Marr Show that in this circumstance a second referendum would ‘almost certainly be the demand of the people of Scotland’.
She is correct. But this is not her preferred route to a second referendum.
A sudden Brexit presents an issue in terms of an independent Scotland’s prospective European Union membership. If you cast your mind back to 2014, the argument followed that in the period between 19 September 2014 and 24 March 2016 (independence day) Scotland would negotiate its membership of the EU while still being a member via the United Kingdom.
If Brexit occurred before the second independence referendum was held or the official independence day then that strategy for negotiating as favourable terms as possible (the United Kingdom’s membership terms which Scotland enjoys currently) while part of a member state is obviously ended.
Do you really think Sturgeon would want that sort of headache during the middle of a second referendum campaign? I don’t.
Brexit would deny Nicola Sturgeon the thing which she wants more than anything: time. She wants to fight the second referendum, which would be the last throw of the dice for the entire independence project, when the ground suits her. She does not want her hand to be forced.
If the Nationalist’s vision of independence is to maintain the same level of public spending or indeed to raise it to ‘Scandinavian levels’, then 2016 is not a fertile year to leave the UK. Next month will bring us annual GERS figures which will illustrate Scotland having one of its highest deficits in living memory. Principally, of course, due to the oil price crash.
Sturgeon therefore needs time for either global demand in oil to outstrip supply or to refashion the Scottish economy so that it yields the same revenues as the 2013 white paper forecasted.
Of course oil is not a prerequisite for independence. Scotland could adopt a low tax, low public spending model like our neighbours in Ireland. Perhaps Sturgeon could look further afield to the non-oil producing small European nation of Estonia with its flat income taxes and a thoroughly modern economy.
If, however, the prospectus for an independent Scotland is the same one which was laid out at the first referendum then either tax rises or increased borrowing would now be needed to maintain the same levels of public spending outside the UK which currently occurs in Scotland. This is why Sturgeon wants time. There could be nothing that she fears more than to be pushed into launching a second referendum by events out with her control.
Her preference is very simple. Following her government’s reelection in May, Sturgeon will have five more years until the next Holyrood elections. The previous year in 2020 a Corbyn led Labour party is trashed at the UK general election. A third term in government for the Tories, “who Scotland didn’t vote for”. The 2008 financial crisis will be a historical event and Scotland’s, and the United Kingdom’s, economy will be growing – she hopes. When Scots then go to the polls to elect the next Scottish government in May 2021 the economic and political terrain will suit the Nationalist cause far better than this year. Then, more than likely, will Sturgeon play her hand and include a guarantee for a second referendum on independence.
2021 is far enough away for the economic issues to be straightened out and not that distant that the idea of independence will have disappeared out of the national consciousness.
Between 2007 – 2011 Salmond, the first ever Nationalist to hold power, sat tight and did not push for an independence referendum as he knew the time was not right. Sturgeon in many regards is a very different person to Salmond, but on this they are both alike.
There is no secret Nationalist conspiracy theory. Sturgeon wants the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union. Both for Scotland’s economic well being and to fight the second referendum when it suits her best.