22 December 2019
The Editorial Board
The die is cast. Parliament has backed Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, putting Britain on course to leave the EU on January 31. It is now clear that the future of the UK union itself will move centre stage next year. The Scottish National party, armed with electoral gains this month and the argument that Brexit is a material change to the UK’s constitutional make-up, wants a new vote on independence. Supporters of the union must make the case for its survival.
Viewed from Scotland, political arguments for independence have strengthened. The 55-45 “No” vote to independence in its 2014 poll never envisaged that Scotland would within years be pulled out of the EU by a majority vote in England and Wales, after Scotland backed Remain 62-38.
Mr Johnson’s withdrawal deal hands SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon even more ammunition. It grants close economic alignment with the EU to Northern Ireland to prevent a “hard” border with the south. Ms Sturgeon notes her proposals to enable Scotland to remain in the EU single market and customs union were, by contrast, ignored.
The economic case for independence has, however, weakened further. Brent crude was at $100-plus a barrel before the 2014 referendum. Today it is $65. That makes it all the harder for Scotland to fund itself without the sizeable net budgetary transfer it receives from the UK. The annual Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland review found Scotland ran a notional budget deficit of 7 per cent of output in 2018-19, even after including a share of North Sea revenues. The type of Brexit Mr Johnson is targeting would reduce the future UK-EU relationship to a trade deal. If Scotland then broke away but remained in the EU this would create a hard border between it and England, causing further economic harm.
The UK prime minister is right to refuse Ms Sturgeon’s calls for a new referendum in 2020. The SNP’s 45 per cent share of the Scottish vote in the general election is no independence mandate. Indeed, the party surely realises a plebiscite next year is neither likely nor well-advised — but hopes repeated rebuffs by Mr Johnson will bolster its vote in the 2021 Scottish parliament election. The government should, however, be working hard to win over Scots hearts and minds.
Former premier David Cameron devolved additional powers to Scotland after 2014, including on income tax rates and bands, but the structure needs further reform. Ms Sturgeon has requested more concessions, from control of Scottish rail franchises and infrastructure to exemptions from a UK law that blocks proposed anti-heroin programmes in Glasgow. They would not cost London much to grant.
Brexit must also be used as an opportunity to redistribute responsibilities within the UK. Many powers that will be repatriated from Brussels are in devolved areas; Scottish leaders fear a Westminster “power grab”. Ensuring Scotland receives powers it is entitled to, particularly in farming and fisheries, risks complicating efforts to reach UK trade deals with, say, the US. Yet it may be the price of saving the union.
This newspaper firmly supports the United Kingdom as one of the most successful political marriages in history. But the argument that Britain’s departure from the EU changes the constitutional situation is legitimate. If parties that unequivocally support a new independence referendum win a majority under Scotland’s proportional system in the 2021 election, the case to grant one may become unanswerable. Before then, if it is to preserve the UK, the government must do all it can to persuade Scots once again to vote No.
You can access the full article in the Financial Times here.