Brexit, Ireland and the case for Scottish independence

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 19 October 2018 in Inside Politics

Continued UK membership of the customs union would make post-independence negotiations between the UK and an independent Scotland simpler, but a hard Brexit could boost support for independence

Image: The Irish border at Jonesborough, just south of Newry, during the 1980s

It was around the point that Tory MPs started to join calls for a second EU referendum that you began to wonder if Theresa May would struggle to get through her Brexit statement on Monday.

The Prime Minister had handled Jeremy Corbyn pretty well, after all, and in normal circumstances that would be enough to call her appearance in front of the House of Commons a victory. But these are not normal circumstances, and as the day wore on, the extent of the opposition facing the UK’s beleaguered PM became harder and harder to ignore.

Clearly some Tories are worried. As Conservative MP Anna Soubry put it: “Leave voters and businesses in Broxtowe were promised a deal on trade not after we have left the European Union, but at the time that we leave the European Union. They were told that it would be the easiest deal in the history of trade deals. They were told that it would convey the ‘exact same benefits’ as our membership of the single market and the customs union.

“What we now see is complete chaos and a total mess. Would the Prime Minister consider that, if her government cannot get a grip on this, and if Parliament cannot get a grip on this, then it’s time to face up to the fact that Brexit cannot be delivered, take it back to the people, and have a people’s vote?”

Anna Soubry was the first, but others followed. And while it was probably predictable to see calls for a so-called ‘people’s vote’ from opposition MPs – Ben Bradshaw, Chris Leslie and Tom Brake all urged the PM to hold a second referendum – the Tories too seemed to be swithering. Dr Sarah Wollaston backed Soubry, and so did Heidi Allen, while former home secretary Amber Rudd had made her support for a second referendum clear before the debate began, at least as an alternative to a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.

For May, the statement had obviously been an attempt to reassure Parliament and paint the Brexit negotiations as a process nearing completion, and these sorts of interventions were not all helpful. As she put it: “We are entering the final stages of these negotiations. This is the time for cool, calm heads to prevail, and for a clear-eyed focus on the few remaining but critical issues that are still to be agreed.”

Chief among these issues was the future of the Irish border, amid ongoing negotiation over a so-called ‘backstop’, the name given to an arrangement – yet to be agreed – aimed at guaranteeing there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, even if no formal deal can be reached on trade and security arrangements.

May said: “This backstop is intended to be an insurance policy for the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland. Previously, the European Union had proposed a backstop that would see Northern Ireland carved off in the EU’s customs union and parts of the single market, separated through a border in the Irish Sea from the UK’s own internal market. As I have said many times, I could never accept that.”

The UK and Ireland’s common membership of the EU is referenced over 140 times in the Good Friday Agreement, yet, with time running out, the sense remains that Brexiteers gave almost no thought to how a future Irish-UK relationship might work.

For May, that pressure only increased with rumours that both Ruth Davidson and David Mundell had threatened to resign over any deal in which Northern Ireland enjoyed “a different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK beyond what already exists”.

The logic of this was clear, they were worried about what it would mean for Scotland, even if the reality of the threat was perhaps less pronounced than reports suggested – in fact, Mundell has since denied it. For some, this was just a warning shot to help the PM push those on the other side into something resembling compromise.

Yet to an extent, the structural obstacles facing the Prime Minister remain the same as they were when she walked into Downing Street.

To make a success of Brexit, she needs to achieve three things simultaneously. She must find a deal her party will accept. She must find a deal the other EU states will accept. And she must do both without crashing the economy or escalating conflict in Ireland.

It’s easy enough to see how she could achieve two of these things. The hardest of hard Brexits, for example, would probably suit Jacob Rees-Mogg and his cabal, and the EU would accept it. But the effects could well be devastating. The fact the PM has appointed a minister for food supplies is just one symbol of that, even without considering the implications for the Irish border.

Alternatively, May could still push for continued single market and customs union membership, and pursue as close a post-Brexit relationship with the EU as possible. That would probably be less economically destabilising, and it would certainly make questions over Ireland less complicated, but her backbenchers look unlikely to accept it.

In this context, May seems to feel she has no choice but to pursue a third, ill-defined option. One where the UK continues to receive market access but doesn’t accept freedom of movement or find itself restricted in striking other trade deals, and where she can avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. And so, more than two years on, the debate over May’s strategy continues to stall over whether the EU will back down – there are no signs it will – and allow her to pursue her plan without installing a border either in the English Channel, between Northern Ireland and the Republic, or somewhere in the sea between.

And that’s where Nicola Sturgeon comes into this, with the First Minister travelling to London to deliver a detailed speech calling for compromise. And by compromise, the FM meant continued single market membership.

As she said: “The UK Government has spent two years asserting that no deal is better than a bad deal. But they will almost certainly now try to railroad MPs into accepting a bad deal, on the grounds that no deal will be a catastrophe.

“They are threatening us with fire, to try to make us choose the frying pan. But MPs do not have to fall for that false choice. Indeed, I would argue that no self-respecting parliament would fall for it.”

She added: “In fact, in these circumstances, it is probably the case that the only option with any chance of commanding a parliamentary majority is single market and customs union membership.

“Now, I am not saying that the way to such a solution would be easy. But it might well be the only option which is not completely impossible at this stage.

“It should be acceptable to the EU. It avoids the worst economic damage that Brexit will wreak. It resolves the Irish border issue. And it comes closest to reconciling the different views of Leavers and Remainers. And while it is an outcome which might still look some distance away, it is not unachievable. What it requires, is common sense, and a willingness to compromise.”

Aside from the fun of watching the leader of the SNP urge the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party to adopt an approach aimed at unifying the whole of the UK, the speech was mainly notable for the fact that very little of its contents were anything new.

The FM had already set out her stance on a second EU referendum a week previously, while her desire to maintain Scotland’s single market membership had been made clear the day after the vote. In fact, watching her speak, the overwhelming feeling from the statement was of a well-aimed and well-timed reminder to UK policymakers of the Scottish Government’s view.

Yet clearly the questions surrounding the future of Ireland will have implications for the FM if Scotland does ever opt for independence, and you can be sure SNP strategists will have been watching the Brexit process with that in mind.

As Sturgeon said: “One of the lessons from our experience of the last two years, which I suspect has not been lost on the Scottish people and which will be remembered in Scotland for a long time to come, is the stark contrast between the EU’s treatment of independent nations, and the UK’s treatment of devolved nations.

 “The European Union has supported Ireland and shown it nothing but solidarity as it confronts the challenges of Brexit; by contrast, the UK has dismissed and ignored Scotland’s concerns.

 “Looking at the UK and the EU, it is fair to say that only one has looked like a partnership of equals. And over the past two years that has not been the UK.”

Yet it’s here that the FM may one day find herself sympathising with her UK counterpart, at least when it comes to the parallels between the challenges facing May and some of the ones the FM would face if the remobilised Yes campaign succeeded in winning a vote for independence.

After all, continued UK membership of the EU customs union would seem to make post-independence negotiations between the UK and a newly independent Scotland far simpler, though a bungled Brexit, hitting jobs and potentially even food supplies, would likely give support for independence a huge boost.

And so the FM is left in a peculiar position. A no-deal Brexit might help her win a second referendum through sheer anger, but it could also make the aftermath much harder to negotiate. And that’s assuming a second independence vote wasn’t followed by a third.

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