Scotland's rocky road ahead

Scotland's rocky road ahead

Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, launches her manifesto during the Scottish Parliamentary election in Glasgow, Scotland.

Jeff J Mitchell/Pool via REUTERS

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's first minister, says another independence referendum for Scotland is now a matter of "when not if," and that after leaving the UK, Scotland will launch a bid to rejoin the EU. But there are formidable obstacles ahead.

Getting to a vote will force a complex game of chicken with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. If a majority of Scots then vote for independence — hardly a sure thing – the process of extricating their new country from the UK will make Brexit look easy. Next, come the challenges of EU accession. In other words, Scotland's journey down the rocky road ahead has only just begun.


Obstacle 1 – Getting to a vote. Scotland can't stage a legally binding referendum without approval from the UK parliament, which can't happen without a go-ahead from Boris Johnson. Here's where the political game begins. Johnson knows an independence vote in Scotland could still go either way. Polls suggest support for independence winning by the narrowest of margins.

If Johnson says yes to a referendum, he could become the PM who lost Scotland and broke up the UK. That would likely end his political career. If he says no, he risks driving up support inside Scotland in favor of breaking away — and he knows he can't say no forever. The UK can't simply hold Scotland hostage. At least not indefinitely.

For now, Johnson can say, "Nicola, shouldn't you be focused on COVID and recovery?" To which Sturgeon will reply, "Yes, Boris, we are focused on COVID. But when it's under control, we want to vote." Johnson can throw money at Scotland and offer it more autonomy, but it's unlikely that either will change many Scottish minds on a question as large as independence.

Obstacle 2 – Winning the referendum. In 2014, Scotland voted to remain within the UK by a margin of 55-45. Much has changed since then. Though Scotland voted 62-38 for the UK to remain within the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the far larger number of votes in England carried the day, and Brexit pulled Scotland unwillingly from the EU. That's the main reason there's been a shift in Scotland in favor of independence since the first referendum.

But no one knows what might happen during a new campaign. Johnson's government will pull out all the stops to persuade Scots that independence is much riskier than they think, and he'll insist Scotland will be economically stronger inside the UK than outside. If Scotland votes to remain, even by the tiniest of margins, it will be at least a generation before another referendum can be contemplated.

Obstacle 3- Leaving the UK. Extricating Scotland from the UK will be far more costly and risky than the UK leaving Europe. After all, the UK joined the EU in 1973, while Scotland has been part of Great Britain since 1707. The legal and regulatory ties will be extraordinarily hard to untangle. The value of Scotland's exports to the rest of the UK is four times more than to the EU. That would change over time if Scotland joined the EU, but a hard border between England and Scotland would create an immediate shock and lasting damage. At least one recent study found that Scottish exit from the UK would be far more economically damaging than Brexit, even if Scotland eventually rejoins the EU.

Adding to the friction, Johnson's government, mindful of the movement for Irish reunification and independence chatter in Wales, will make everything to do with Scotland's exit as contentious and painful as possible.

Obstacle 4 – Joining the EU. This might be the easiest to surmount. After all, as part of the UK, Scotland was an EU member for nearly half a century. The process of political, economic, legal and regulatory alignment would be far easier than for any previous EU membership candidate.

That said, accession would depend on a unanimous vote of all current members. Spain, under challenge by Catalan separatists, might wield a veto to avoid setting a precedent for breakaway states. EU concessions to ease Spanish fears could smooth Scotland's path, depending on what's happening in Spanish politics at that moment.

Bottom line. Brexit reminded us that secession movements aren't driven by pragmatism. They're fueled by hope, fear, anger, and pride. Those who want an independent Scotland can overcome all these obstacles. But we shouldn't underestimate the complexity of the problems ahead, or how long it will take to solve them.
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