Luke Skipper provides the Scottish perspective on Theresa May’s Brexit negotiation speech
There will be a very long series of politicians responding to Theresa May’s speech today on Brexit but few will be as closely scrutinised as the comments from Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minster of Scotland. In her speech, the Prime Minister made clear that the UK is heading for a ‘hard’ Brexit. The message coming from the Scottish Government before this speech was that this outcome made a second referendum on Scottish Independence more likely.
In response to the speech, the First Minister said, “The UK Government cannot be allowed to take us out of the EU and the single market, regardless of the impact on our economy, jobs, living standards and our reputation as an open, tolerant country, without Scotland having the ability to choose between that and a different future. With her comments today, the Prime Minister has only succeeded in making that choice more likely.”
Nuanced semantics do matter here. In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, the First Minister said it was ‘highly likely’ there would be second referendum. Now it is ‘more likely’ that Scotland will seek to choose a ‘different future’. Some will read this as a double-downgrade from ‘highly’ to ‘more’ and from referendum to a ‘different future’.
As the FM has ruled out having a second referendum in 2017, it is likely that a calculation was made that it is better to wait and see what damage a chaotic Brexit will have in terms of shifting public opinion than trying to have a second referendum in tandem with this process. There is a risk that it doesn’t pan out that way, however most believe a two year timescale for negotiations is quite optimistic. It could also have been an easier calculation: if you have any options at this stage there is no harm in keeping them open.
What we can be sure of is that perceived contradictions or problems in the UK’s negotiation position will now be more aggressively exploited by the Scottish Government. These include May’s claim around essentially a pick and mix customs arrangement (which SNP opponents say is seemingly impossible for Scotland) and also the hard border issue with Northern Ireland. May thinks both are possible so expect more ‘why not Scotland?’ to become a regular refrain.
The biggest unknown in this process is the possibility of devolving significant more powers to Scotland. The PM was very vague about this in her speech but if she is serious about a significant devolution it could dampen support for independence amongst the ‘undecided’. Some of the PM’s messaging on enhancing workers’ rights, attracting international students will be seen very sceptically in nationalist quarters. These were all proposed by the Scottish Government during the Smith Commission and they were all rejected. However, we are in unprecedented times so should the competencies over things like immigration be delivered to the Scottish Parliament it would be a hard thing for the SNP not to accept.
Finally the PM’s concession of allowing a vote on the entire deal in Parliament allows the SNP bloc of MPs another chance to emphatically vote against Brexit – as it stands it is quite likely they will lose, but it would still have a powerful symbolic effect.