Brexit is turning Britain upside down – and Scotland has a chance to say No

Gerry Hassan

The Guardian Comment, January 15th 2018

Brexit has turned British politics and Britain itself upside down. But to the UK Government and Westminster political classes it is business as usual on the home front as far as Brexit and everything else is concerned.

Not for them that Brexit is nearly entirely an English revolt (with Welsh acquiescence), or that Scotland and Northern Ireland are being dragged along against majority sentiment in their territories.

Today the Scottish Government published its latest paper on Brexit, ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe: People, Jobs and Investment’ which estimates that a hard Brexit would cost the Scottish economy £12.7bn a year by 2030, representing £2,300 per year for every person in Scotland.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke in her typical, no nonsense manner at its launch. But while Sturgeon is consistently impressive, she has to deal with inconvenient realities. Namely, that the UK Government have consistently marginalised Scotland in the Brexit process.

After playing an impressive hand post-June 2016 Sturgeon was out-manoeuvred in March 2017 when she made a call for a second independence vote. This was overtaken by UK Prime Minster Theresa May calling the June 2017 UK general election which resulted in the SNP winning the most votes and seats, but losing impetus with the loss of 21 of 56 Westminster seats.

The UK Government doesn’t have a strategy for Brexit, but nor does anyone else for now, including the Scottish Government. It isn’t a party to the UK-EU negotiations and can only influence events from the sidelines, and it doesn’t have any way of stopping Brexit.

These are problems beyond its calling – all of which are made worse by Corbyn’s deliberate evasions on Brexit and his refusal to countenance Labour cross-party co-operation on discussing Westminster tactics with the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru on Brexit. Yet the SNP could choose to seize the opportunity provided by this vacuum – and call for a second referendum on any Brexit deal (with 87% of SNP members wanting a second vote according to recent Queen Mary University London research).

Alongside this there is the outstanding issue of Scottish independence and the possibility of a future second referendum, which Sturgeon despite the events of March 2017 has refused to rule out. Sturgeon said on Sunday on ‘The Andrew Marr Show’ that once UK Government plans on Brexit became clearer in the autumn ‘we will look at … the right to choose between whatever that new relationship with the UK is going to be, or choosing to be an independent country.’ This is in part understandable as it allows her to use this as a big stick and negotiating card in discussions with the UK Government.

But there is also the realpolitik that the Scottish Government haven’t got any new independence offer or plan up their sleeves, and no sign of one emerging in the immediate future. The threat of a new independence referendum is politics as drama and theatre: playing to the pro-independence Scottish constituency inside and outside the SNP, and signaling to the UK Government that Scotland cannot be permanently ignored.

Where all this ends up is anyone’s guess but it is more than likely it isn’t going to be pretty or deliver the bright new confident morning for the UK promised by zealous Brexiteers. The UK’s institutions and very fabric are increasingly threadbare, while the Westminster political classes increasingly talk to themselves. ‘Taking Back Control’ has proven nothing of the sort as the UK Executive makes an obvious power grab over legislative powers coming back to the UK. Meanwhile, devolution itself is being undermined, from the abandonment of Northern Ireland power-sharing, to EU powers that sit in devolved areas coming back to Westminster and not Scotland.

British politics as currently conducted cannot go on indefinitely: the will of the people interpreted just by one June 2016 vote, but ignored in everything else. The difference in Scotland and one that the Scottish Government articulates over Brexit is that public opinion north of the border cannot be permanently ignored without profound consequences. Business as usual politics is part of the problem and not an option with regard to Scotland or Brexit.