The United Kingdom will not break up after Brexit

If the political class have any sense, they will not be calling for any more referendums for a long time to come

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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Scotland’s First Minister and Leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon has not wasted any time exploiting the Brexit mess to maximise her own and her party’s political capital. And who can blame her? The SNP narrative has been one of Westminster incompetence and mismanagement for decades, and David Cameron’s failed gamble on the EU referendum was perhaps the most egregious example of such mismanagement since the Suez crisis in 1956. Even the former Prime Minister’s most ardent supporters must accept that the commitment to hold the EU referendum has been a catastrophic, unprovoked own-goal, for him, for “Westminster”, and ultimately for the entire country.

But while the glee with which Sturgeon welcomed the chaos that engulfed both the Conservative and Labour parties in Westminster in the wake of the vote is perfectly understandable, and finally validates an SNP narrative about the political establishment in the capital that for a very long time was rather contrived, we should not assume that a re-run of the Scottish independence referendum is a done deal.

To start from the beginning, the SNP manifesto at the last Holyrood elections stated that the party would only seek a second plebiscite if there was “a material change in circumstances” for Scotland and the UK. Brexit would nominally be just such a change in circumstances, but we do not yet know exactly what the actual changes will be. If the UK ends up with a Norway-style deal with full integration in the EEA, the change in the circumstances will be rather minimal, especially for Scotland -- even if the clout and reach of London will be reduced. In this scenario, the case that a sufficient change in circumstances has occurred is rather thin on the ground.

Secondly, there is still a minimal, though non-negligible, chance that Brexit will not actually happen. Theresa May is already kicking the triggering of Article 50 into the long grass. For David Cameron triggering the exit negotiations was first going to happen the day following the referendum. Then it was pushed to autumn, when a new leader of the Conservative party was going to be elected following his resignation. When the Conservatives quickly rallied behind May and she took power, she delayed things until next year. With cover from non-other that Nicola Sturgeon. And more recently, we are hearing that Article 50 will only be triggered at some point “before the next general election.”

Theresa May has insisted that she wants to negotiate a “common” UK negotiating position with the EU on the exit, which is to say that she will only invoke Article 50 once England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can all agree on what they want out of the negotiations. Of course, it is likely that May will be bounced by events into triggering the Brexit negotiations sooner or later, but at the moment, her current position may as well be declared as “when hell freezes over.”

If the political class have any sense, they will not be calling for any more referendums for a long time to come

Azeem Ibrahim

Thirdly, even if we end up with a “hard Brexit” which leaves Scotland up in arms about the outcome, and Sturgeon can legitimately call for a second Indyref, she does not in fact have the constitutional power to actually carry out this referendum. As with the previous one, Scotland will need the Westminster government to actually grant a legally binding referendum. David Cameron took those kinds of risks. Indeed, he took them exactly one time too often. But we would not expect May to repeat that mistake. If the political class have any sense, they will not be calling for any more referendums for a long time to come.

And lastly, there is also the issue of whether Scotland should want a second referendum. All the “fearmongering” that the Better Together campaign put forward about Scotland’s fiscal position in the case of independence has been borne out. Without the subsidy the country gets from London and which enable the highest rates of welfare spending anywhere in the UK, Scotland would run a fiscal deficit of over 10% of GDP, and faces more unfavourable demographics than the rest of the UK. These facts are now beyond contestation even for supporters of Scottish independence. If the economic issues continue to resonate with Scotland (in a way that they do not seem to have resonated with non-metropolitan England), the outcome will be the same as last time.

Overall, there are many, many hurdles to overcome before Sturgeon would be in a position to hold a second Scottish referendum, and to me the odds do not add up as things stand at the moment.

Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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