The UK House of Commons is scheduled to vote on Monday on whether to hold a pre-Christmas general election. This latest drama comes as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently said she will before year-end ask the UK Government to approve another independence referendum threatening one of the world’s most successful political unions.
What Sturgeon’s plans showcase is that political worries about Brexit, whether the United Kingdom leaves with or without an EU exit deal, go well beyond Westminster to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling in 2017 that the UK Government did not have to consult the devolved administrations before triggering Article 50 more than two years ago, this has not stopped politicians in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast being major thorns in the side of Theresa May and now Boris Johnson.
The Scottish and Welsh First Ministers, Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, who from their different political standpoints of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Labour respectively, have both said that they cannot support Brexit without membership or full access to the Single Market which appears highly unlikely to be realised.Sturgeon argued last week that the Brexit plan being touted by Boris Johnson, which if enacted looks likely to see a very ‘hard exit’ from the EU, would be particularly disadvantageous to Scotland.
There are significant uncertainties for Scotland from independence, while the costs to the United Kingdom are clear of diminished international influence, plus fraying of remaining bonds between England, Northern Ireland and Wales
Meanwhile, there is also substantial opposition in Northern Ireland to the UK Government’s stance, especially from Sinn Fein whose leader Michelle O’Neill has said that Brexit “ignores the views of the majority of the people” in the country who voted by 56 to 44 per cent to Remain in 2016.
Former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has also previously asserted that Brexit will undermine the Good Friday peace deal, and poses a unique opportunity to “unite the island of Ireland”. His argument is that it makes no sense, going forward, to have one part of the island (the Republic of Ireland) within the EU and the other outside it (Northern Ireland).
Given this opposition of most key party leaders in Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland to Brexit, the forthcoming exit negotiations with the EU is testing existing UK constitutional and legal frameworks to their limits.
Here it is not just devolved authorities outside of England, but also English local government leaders who have also voiced concerns about Brexit, not least given potential lost funding opportunities. With the planned repatriation of powers from Brussels, these local leaders in England want to assume some of these powers rather than all being centralised in Westminster.
Take the example of the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan who has made clear his concerns about the implications of Brexit for the metropolis, a city that from 12 per cent of the UK’s population generates approximately one third of all UK tax income.
Yet, frustrated as some English local authority leaders are, it is in Scotland where the ‘rubber may hit the road’. Sturgeon is seeking to capitalise on popular discontent with Brexit in a nation which voted 62—38 per cent in 2016 to remain in the EU.
Political ‘black hole’
Yet, while she has understandable concerns about Brexit, she is leading Scotland plus the wider United Kingdom, down a potential political ‘black hole’ which will probably weaken all involved given that their future is better together. It is more widely accepted that the wider United Kingdom would be damaged by Scottish independence.
For instance, a UK Parliamentary Committee has warned that losing the Scottish tax base, especially at a time of fiscal austerity, could lead to further budgetary cuts to the armed forces.
Moreover, the UK’s large overseas aid budget and extensive network of diplomatic and trade missions will also be impacted. Together with military cutbacks, this will undermine both hard and soft power that has enabled the nation to punch above its weight for so long.
Scottish independence would also erode the UK’s post-Brexit voice in international forums, from the UN, G7, G8, G20 and Nato. Perhaps, most prominently, it could, potentially, be seized upon by some non-permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and/or other UN members, to catalyse review of UK membership of the UNSC. To be sure, reform of UNSC is overdue.
However, Scottish independence could see this issue being decided upon less favourable terms for the United Kingdom than may otherwise be the case.
All this underscores that Scottish independence, combined with Brexit, would undercut the domestic underpinnings of the UK’s international influence. They threaten undermining the sizeable political, military and economic force that the United Kingdom has preserved, helping bolster international security and prosperity.
Moreover, Sturgeon is charting her pathway toward a second referendum despite the uncertainties that the country itself would benefit, significantly, from independence. This is not least given the different between tax revenues and public spending in the country which rose to a deficit of around 9.5 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 — which it can better stomach as part of the union.
With growing risks over the union’s future, the case needs to be made again for why the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom is better together. There are significant uncertainties for Scotland from independence, while the costs to the United Kingdom are clear of diminished international influence, plus fraying of remaining bonds between England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
—Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.