The idea Brexit could suddenly push Scotland towards a Yes vote isn’t supported by evidence
Now that the initial hysteria in the aftermath of the Brexit vote has largely subsided we need to address the longer-term consequences of Brexit for Scotland and map out the way forward.
Scotland’s immediate priority must be to make maximum use of our promised involvement in the UK/EU Brexit negotiations. Our three key negotiating objectives should be to ensure uninterrupted, permanent access to the European single market; get as many as possible of the powers to be repatriated from Brussels to the UK transferred to the Scottish Parliament instead of Westminster, as they relate to Scotland; and ensure Scotland’s share of the UK annual fiscal contributions to the EU budget be added to the Scottish Parliament’s budget and not swallowed up in London.
Achieving these aims would significantly benefit Scotland. For example we could extend the fishing limit to 200 miles, representing a massive boost to that vital Scottish industry. We could enhance our investment in Scottish agriculture. If the Leave campaign’s promise to devolve responsibility for aspects of immigration policy is honoured, we could seriously address our need to attract many more people to come to live and work in Scotland.
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We could make the payment of the Living Wage a condition of tendering for public sector contracts in Scotland. If we get control over workers’ rights legislation which is currently the prerogative of the EU we can embed those rights onto the Scottish statute book.
Similarly if the environmental and energy powers currently exercised by the EU are transferred to the Scottish Parliament, that would allow us to do more to tackle climate change.
This strategy recognises the political reality that there is little chance of Scotland being able to remain as a member state within the EU when the rest of the UK exits.
Despite the newly found empathy and goodwill there undoubtedly now is for Scotland in European capitals, the EU has already made it clear that there will not be separate negotiations with Scotland until after the UK/EU Brexit deal is done; and that this position won't change even if there is a Yes vote in a second independence referendum prior to the completion of the Brexit negotiations.
Spain, and possibly some other countries, would almost certainly be prepared to use their veto to ensure this position does not change.
In these circumstances the only way Scotland could become a full member state within the EU will be to apply to join after achieving independence and after Brexit is done and dusted with the rest of the UK out of the EU.
It is in this context that the timing of a second independence referendum (indyref2) has to be considered.
Like every other nationalist I want to see us win a second independence referendum at the earliest possible opportunity.
But we must not allow ourselves to be stampeded into holding a second referendum which is premature and unnecessarily risky.
The idea that we could suddenly be swept to independence on the back of an emotional tidal wave of support resulting from the Brexit vote isn’t supported by the available evidence. Opinion polls are showing that the initial surge in support for independence in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum is already reverting to pre-EU referendum levels.
We need a much more decisive and evident shift in support for independence over a sustained period of time before firing the starting gun for indyref2. Losing a second referendum would put independence on the back burner for generations. We must do all we can to avoid that happening.
Holding indyref2 before we know at least the Heads of Agreement of the Brexit deal, assuming there is one, would render the independence movement unable to answer basic questions about our future trading relationships with the rest of the UK and Europe in a post-independence scenario.
It would prove particularly difficult to win majority support if there is any suggestion independence could lead to the creation of a “hard border” between Scotland and the rest of the UK. However if independence is defined as Scotland becoming a full member of the EU, keeping an open border with the rest of the UK is likely to be very difficult to achieve. We therefore need to look at alternative scenarios other than EU membership in terms of the independence offer. These alternatives will be defined within the context of the known consequences of Brexit.
Our future trading relationships aren’t the only issues which need to have greater clarity if we are to win a second independence referendum.
We also need to convincingly address the fiscal position of an independent Scotland, our currency plans post-independence, the impact of the recent dramatic fall in oil prices and the need for a more ambitious plan for transforming the economic and social life of Scotland. To hold a referendum before all these issues are addressed would be a high risk strategy.
Even after all this preparatory work is done we will then need a sustained period of campaigning to build up core support for independence to well in excess of 50%; including trying to win over pensioners who voted massively against independence in the 2014 referendum.
As Robin McAlpine of Commonweal rightly pointed out in his recent pamphlet “Determination”, our aim is “an independent Scotland won with the support of a proportion of the population big enough to mean this deal is built into our nation unequivocally, for ever and without ayes and buts.”
Indyref2 should be held when, and only when, we are as sure as we can be that we can achieve that vision.
Alex Neil is SNP MSP for Airdrie and Shotts and former cabinet secretary for infrastructure and capital investment