DUNCAN MACLAREN. Scotland and a Very English Brexit: the looming constitutional crisis

Jul 25, 2018

A glance at the increasingly Monty Pythonesque British/English Brexit illustrates the intra-European constitutional crisis of just how difficult it is to leave a multinational partnership of 40 years’ vintage – and how disastrous it will be economically, socially and, since it has a xenophobic tinge in origin, morally. A side effect of Brexit is an internal UK constitutional crisis which, internationally, has thus far concentrated on Northern Ireland’s desire to maintain the Good Friday Agreement which stipulates regulatory harmonisation between the NI and the Republic. Peace between Orange and Green is predicated on maintaining a seamless border which could be shattered by Brexit, especially, if, as looks increasingly likely, May’s hapless Government ends up with a “no deal” exit from the EU. Less apparent is the internal constitutional crisis featuring the pesky Scots. Let me spill the beans.

Westminster Governments tend to be amnesiac about the fact that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has not been a unitary state since the passing of devolution Acts for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1998. The Brexit vote – and subsequent debate – has especially thrown up tensions between the Scottish and UK Governments for a number of reasons. First, Scots voted 62 per cent to remain in the EU while in England the only part which voted Remain was London. As with all UK political votes, what England with a population of 55 million desires, the rest of us get, even if it is ruinous for our particular economy, social wellbeing or health. 

Second, the UK Tory Government (a party which the Scots have not voted into power since 1955) has taken advantage of the Brexit chaos, not only to ignore legitimate demands from the Scottish Government to participate in negotiations with the EU because of our differing circumstances, but to undercut devolution. Westminster decided to keep certain powers which should have gone directly from Brussels to Edinburgh for itself, including areas vital to Scotland such as fisheries, support for farmers, and environmental and other regulations. 

The fear is that our fishing industry will be sacrificed so that a special deal can be done with the EU for London’s financial sector; that our farmers will not receive the same assistance as they did with the EU; that the EU infrastructural projects in our remote areas worth £4 billion will not be replaced by a UK equivalent; and that environmental and other standards will be diminished to allow into a country famed for its fine quality food products US chlorinated chicken as part of a Trump-sanctioned trade deal while also forcing the opening up of the NHS (fully devolved to Scotland) to private American bidders. 

The powers will be retained by Westminster, not for a few months, but for seven years without the Scottish Parliament having a say over any changes Westminster decides. This blows a huge hole in the devolution settlement, a fundamental principle of which is that Westminster should only legislate for Scotland with the consent of the Scottish Parliament. Only fifteen minutes of discussion on the effect of this move in the devolved nations was allowed during the EU Withdrawal Bill debate in the House of Commons, and every second was taken up by a filibustering English MP. The SNP group of 35 MPs decanted angrily from the Chamber in a move reminiscent of Parnell’s use of the disruption of Parliament to promote Irish Home Rule in the nineteenth century. Within 24 hours, given the indignation in Scotland against this power grab, another 5,000 people had joined the Scottish National Party. The Scottish Parliament (SNP, Greens, Labour and Liberal Democrats) voted not to accept the EU Withdrawal Bill, and a court will soon legislate whether this is legitimate.

The gap has never been wider between antiquated English aspirations of red, white and blue plastered on everything and the past glories of Empire revisited, and a Scottish vision of a small, modern social democratic state contributing to a Europe of nations cooperating on a whole range of areas to make Europe safer, more prosperous and more just.  The EU’s institutions have kept peace all my lifetime in this former continent of bellicosity. 

We Scots need more migrants to keep our economy growing and the taxes flowing to keep the public services we all support afloat. We do not want to be an important military power which means retaining the nuclear deterrent within twenty-five miles of Scotland’s largest population centre – and think the whole concept delusional anyway, especially after leaving one of the most powerful economic and security blocs in the world. We do not want to have a centralised, deregulated and free market economy which will mean low wages and lower standards for our workers. We are proud of being European, summed up jocularly by a man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘Forever European’ in my local supermarket recently. We also don’t want to have to apply for a visa to get a suntan in Spain or Greece. The opposite to all this and more, wrapped up in the now toxic brand of the Union flag, may be the Brexit vision, but it is not shared by the majority of Scots as will be seen in the result of the second independence referendum.

The Scottish Parliament had already passed a Bill to have another independence referendum after the imperialistic tendencies of the British Government had become apparent in the course of the Brexit debate. So, when will it be? The First Minister (FM) has already said it will come after the Brexit deal is clear though the bets are now on a “no deal” scenario since the Chequers arrangement has been torpedoed by the hard-line Brexiteers in PM May’s own party. The FM will have to request a Section 30 Order to hold another independence referendum, but May (or her successor) can refuse it, causing Scottish ire to rise even further. There could then be an advisory referendum or the SNP could resort to standing in the UK elections on a mandate of negotiating independence which used to be party policy. 

If May grants the Section 30 Order, there could be a referendum by September 2019.  During the last referendum in 2014, the inferiorisation of the Scottish people prevented a majority vote for independence – just. The next one will be held against a backdrop of coming out of the EU when the Scots voted to remain; the realisation that their Government and Parliament had been ignored during the negotiations; and Westminster had the temerity to claw back powers from the Scottish legislature against the spirit of the devolution settlement; and if there is no deal, according to a leaked Government analysis, Scotland’s economic growth would decline by 9% over the next 15 years – and that’s just for starters. Not exactly the promised Nirvana of Brexit. 

The ‘technical notices’ from HM Government will be sent out soon to families and businesses to advise on stockpiling food and medicines in case of blockage at the ports once the UK officially leaves at the end of March 2019. That surely will be enough for the Scots to overcome their traditional lack of self-confidence and make the second referendum a resounding re-entry of this ancient nation into the EU and the international community as a sovereign state. As one of Scotland’s finest political commentators wrote recently, in the event of a “no deal”, “Scots will vote with fury for the party that has consistently opposed Brexit: the SNP. That could mean curtains for the Union, as Scots realise that they made a mistake in 2014. The Tory right better believe it: no deal means no more UK”. 

Duncan MacLaren KCSG is an Adjunct Professor of Australian Catholic University but writes in a personal capacity from Glasgow.

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