James Frayne: An early independence referendum could be the PM's best bet

Written by James Frayne on 17 March 2017 in Opinion

Delaying a second independence referendum until after Brexit could backfire on Theresa May.

Theresa May has suggested she will not approve a new Scottish referendum before Brexit negotiations have concluded - potentially delaying a referendum until at least 2021. Given the scale and complexity of Brexit negotiations - and the demands this will put on Government - it's not surprising May would prefer a delay. But putting logistical demands aside, it's not clear delay is necessarily a good thing.
In fact, the chaos of Brexit negotiations might provide the perfect backdrop to such a campaign. For the uncertainty will force the SNP into thinking and talking like a independent Government in waiting - explaining how they would deal with radically shifting circumstances in the sphere of international trade, economics and security that they don't yet have credible answers on.
There are three unresolved issues the SNP are currently struggling with in the context of Brexit they'd sooner avoid addressing in detail now.
The first is obviously the position of the Spanish Government. As many commentators have pointed out in recent times, there is nothing in it for the Spanish to accept early (or even delayed) Scottish entry into the EU. It will only encourage their own provinces to seek to realise their national ambitions if they think they’ll secure a rapid soft landing if they leave Spain. If the prospect of a truly independent Scotland is raised throughout the campaign, it’ll turn into a huge negative for the SNP. Perhaps Spanish scepticism will be a permanent feature of the next few years, but it's certainly a very real feature of the political climate now and would be hard for the SNP to deal with.

The second issue the SNP will currently struggle to address is the prospect of a tariff barrier between England and Scotland - and potentially more complex border arrangements between the two countries. Holding a referendum now would force the SNP to explain the different options they would have to consider - including what they'd do if there was no deal agreed between Britain and the EU. They would effectively end up launching a pre-emptive and ongoing negotiation with the European Commission as the campaign went along - explaining how they'd respond to every massively significant twist and turn in Britain's talks with the EU. In two years time, this will be sorted out and the SNP's task will be more straightforward - they'd simply need to explain their approach to a settled UK position. 
The third factor is the euro. It played a small part in the Scottish referendum last time but the SNP were able to shut the issue down to a point by making the obvious argument that Britain was able to keep the pound in the EU, so Scotland should be able to too. With Britain outside the EU, that argument is weakened. And this in turn will amplify concerns about barriers to trade that will exist between England and Scotland. As it stands, the SNP will have to provide options for their own financial arrangements because of the uncertainty in Britain's relationship with the EU.
All this considered, there are undoubtedly some positives for the SNP in holding a referendum during Brexit negotiations. The turbulence of the negotiations and the steady stream of bad news that will flow as the negotiations unfold will make people question the wisdom of being in Britain outside the EU. Furthermore, when the talks get rough, it’s likely there will be flashes of English nationalism that will go down badly in Scotland.
The SNP will be able to claim the country is advocating a more tolerant and progressive politics. At times, it’ll hard for the British Government to claim that life outside the EU will bring that. But, as positive as these two issues are - particularly for the SNP base - it's hard to see these outweigh the negatives that derive from the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations.
Like most politicians, Theresa May is cautious and thoughtful. She avoids rapid decisions and dislikes chaos. She has made a hugely successful career out of such an approach and it would be ludicrous to question her political judgement.
On this occasion, however, if Nicola Sturgeon's newly forming campaign for Scottish democracy develops momentum, it might be that May should take the risk on an early referendum and avoid being labelled the Westminster politician that treats Scotland with contempt. From where I'm looking, the British Government is in a very strong position right now. 
About the author

James Frayne is director of the communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, the go-to guide to consumer and citizen mobilisation. He was previously director of policy at Policy Exchange.

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