From what I can gauge, collective surprise seems to be the feeling in Scotland at the moment. The prevailing mood here during the EU referendum was a mixture of general disinterest, passive observation and wide-ranging consensus. That the push for ‘Brexit’ succeeded has come as a shock to many Scots, and appears to have awoken them to the fact that they are a relatively small part of a far larger country.
Of course, a Brexit was always a very real possibility and we should perhaps have been more prepared for that potential outcome. Nonetheless, when immersed in a broadly Europhilic debate, it can be hard to countenance such a result.
Whilst the pollsters ultimately called it wrong (again), the prediction that Scotland would vote overwhelmingly in favour of the EU was duly fulfilled. That Scotland, as part of the UK, will now be withdrawn from the EU, against the wishes of the people who live there, throws up serious constitutional questions – the ramifications of which we do not yet fully understand.
It’s worth remembering that this referendum doesn’t cause anything to happen immediately
As the result became clear, pundits and politicians predictably raised the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum. This should come as no real surprise; especially given the fact that both the First Minister and former First Minister repeatedly suggested the outcome of the Brexit debate may trigger ‘IndyRef2’.
SNP strategists are aware that many Scots feel far more wedded to the UK than the EU. They also understand that this democratic deficit – whilst clearly a huge constitutional problem – will not be enough to ensure independence, and that a compelling case must still be built to sway those who remain unconvinced.
It’s a commonly held view that Nicola Sturgeon is a far more cautious leader than Alex Salmond – who often showed his gamblers streak when making the big decisions. As such, there will be two schools of thought within the Party: one keen to ‘seize the day’ and the other more comfortable to play the long, tactical game. Both sides know that failure to win this time would take Scottish independence off the table for at least the next 20 years. With so much at stake, it is my sense that the cautious side will prevail.
So, what now? Clearly, in the hours following the result, pretty much everything is up in the air. The Prime Minister has resigned, the Tory leadership is jockeying to replace him, the financial markets are in turmoil, various sides of the Leave campaign seem unsure of what their role now is, the EU and its member states are yet to fully react. All we can do, in the meantime, is speculate. But speculating is fun, isn’t it?
It’s worth remembering that this referendum doesn’t cause anything to happen immediately. The result was merelya demonstration of the will of the people and acts as an instruction to MPs from the electorate. This means that any process to withdraw the UK from the EU will still have to go through the usual legislative channels.
Given that somewhere in the region of 70% of MPs back EU membership, this throws up an interesting scenario. Whilst it would take some serious guts to do so, many MPs might argue that their constituents’ interests are best served by remaining members of the EU and refuse to back Brexit in a House of Commons vote. The SNP (now the third largest party in the UK) will presumably be comfortable in adopting this approach, arguing that they were elected to represent pro-EU Scotland. Although politicians are unlikely to ignore the referendum result, we should not overlook the role of the UK Parliament in the process.
Another interesting scenario would see the Scottish Government open direct negotiations with the EU in a bid to maintain links and relations. Whilst it is unheard of for the EU to negotiate directly with sub-national legislatures, there are some who believe that the EU may be willing to extend an olive branch to Scotland in attempt to chastise England and Wales, and prevent further fragmentation within the EU. This approach has been championed by the First Minister, and the Scottish Green Party has launched a campaign to encourage this course of action. It’s a long shot, but stranger things seem to happen a lot these days.
As the dust settles, we will be able to build a clearer picture of the new political landscape. What is known is that we’re in uncharted territory and the consequences of the decision taken are yet to be fully realised. For individuals, businesses, our sector and Scotland as a nation, the future looks deeply uncertain.