Scotland and Brexit: is Damage Limitation a Good Strategy?

Kirsty Hughes | 19 June 2018

© 2017 SCER

As the weeks and months of Brexit shambles go on, Theresa May’s government has failed to come up with a coherent, feasible strategy for a withdrawal deal or a future UK-EU relationship on trade and security – one that is acceptable to her cabinet, to the EU (its leaders and the European Parliament) and that would keep open the Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland.

May’s white paper on that relationship is now postponed until after the end of June EU summit – as the clock ticks down towards the autumn when some deal must be done if the UK is not to crash out without any deal. May is prisoner both to her own oft-repeated red lines and to her irretrievably divided cabinet.

The EU, in the face of UK political in-fighting and incompetence, nonetheless continues to produce clear negotiating positions that respect the guidelines set out by the EU member states. But they cannot resolve the chaotic contradictions of Brexit for the UK – and May’s government looks increasingly incapable of any serious negotiation. Uncertainty reigns.

Where are Scotland’s ‘halt Brexit’ voices?

But amidst this damaging, extraordinary chaos, where are the political voices demanding a halt to Brexit? In Scotland, two-thirds of the public now favour ‘remain’ according to polls. Even in England, polls are repeatedly suggesting a small, but consistent majority narrowly favour ‘remain’ too.

For the LibDems, Vince Cable, and in Scotland Willie Rennie, continue to argue (though with a low profile) for a ‘people’s vote’ on the deal (assuming there is a deal to vote on) – and London-based campaigns for a ‘people’s vote’ are moving into gear. But Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and in Scotland Richard Leonard, stand fast to their tactic of appealing, they think, to both leave and remain voters, by arguing for a ‘jobs first’ Brexit – even as growth falls, and big companies’ investments head elsewhere in the EU. As a result, the main Westminster opposition party is signally failing to hold this chaotically incompetent UK government to account and so UK politics is failing.

There is a major opening here for the Scottish government to call for a halt to Brexit. It’s an opening that is there too for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, or even Ruth Davidson if he or she were ready for a really courageous leap – but in neither case does that seem remotely likely. Polls repeatedly show two-thirds of Scottish voters would support staying in the EU – but who speaks for them?

For now, it seems that the Scottish government and SNP Brexit strategy is not one aimed at halting it. First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and Brexit minister, Michael Russell, put much more emphasis on the two issues of devolved powers and a ‘super soft’ Brexit than they do on campaigning to stop Brexit – even as Brexit itself becomes ever more chaotic, damaging and absurd.

Labour rebels and SNP MPs have, at least, been voting at Westminster for amendments that would promote a ‘soft’ Brexit, so far to little effect. But demands to halt Brexit – and to have another EU referendum as a route to that (a ‘people’s vote’) – are coming mainly from civil society and the LibDems, together with a small number of individual politicians.

The SNP has certainly spurred itself into action – and into the headlines – over the ‘power grab’ of devolved powers, and the over-ruling of the Sewel convention in the House of Commons. Perhaps, together with the renewed energy now visible in the independence debate, this will take the SNP towards another attempt at holding a second independence referendum – though whether Sturgeon will do that or kick it into the long grass again in the autumn remains unknown for now. Certainly, unless Brexit collapses, ambiguity over the future EU-UK relationship will carry on for a long time and can provide a cover for inaction if looked for.

But if the SNP did take the plunge on another independence referendum call, it remains unclear what the independence movement could or would do in the face of a further ‘no, not now’ response from the May government (if she’s still in power). And, as the challenge of keeping the Irish border open shows, border issues will loom large in any independence debate if Brexit is going ahead.

Strategic Passivity?

So why is the Scottish government and SNP not speaking out loudly demanding an end to a Brexit process that is now clearly causing increasing damage to the UK (including Scottish) economy, jobs, public sector, security, international reputation and to domestic politics and society? There appear to be a mixture of reasons that are underpinning what some like to call an approach of ‘strategic passivity’.

Despite the political opportunity to take the lead against Brexit, there seems to be considerable pessimism in the Scottish government that Brexit can be stopped. The political pressures that could be brought to bear, both through being the third party at Westminster and through speaking for the Scottish majority who reject the mounting harm of Brexit, could spark a strong political dynamic – both in Scotland and in England – to demand a Brexit rethink.

And the crucial and likely chaotic and unstable months that will now take the UK-EU Brexit talks to their autumn deadline represent a major political opportunity for an anti-Brexit stance. But pessimism and also lack of confidence in playing that leadership role both seem to be in play here.

Other factors, of course, are operating too: some in the SNP don’t see it as their job to give a political voice to ‘remain’ across the UK – even while others think the SNP should indeed be stepping up. But giving a voice to Scotland’s pro-remain sentiment would speak for Scotland, and by default (the default of lack of political leadership in England) would speak for the UK too. It would be powerful indeed.

Some see the Brexit chaos and hope that waiting to see, passively, whether and how it may all implode is a reasonable approach. But it may implode in ways that are highly damaging to Scotland too, rather than in ways that would reverse Brexit. And there is no safe escape route via independence – Ireland is set for growing economic damage from Brexit, damage that estimates suggest will be almost as bad as for the UK itself.

But independence politics play out here in several ways. The Scottish government has been very sensitive to the views of the ‘yes leavers’ who made up less than half of Scotland’s 38% leave vote in 2016, not least since the loss of 21 seats at the general election a year ago. So a cautious policy of demanding a ‘soft’ Brexit can perhaps, they hope, keep on board both ‘yes remainers’ who would prefer a single market/EEA outcome to a hard Brexit, and some of the ‘yes leavers’ who would find a Norway-option acceptable.

But apart from the absurdity of leaving the EU to stay in both the single market and the customs union as before – but without a say, vote, seat at the table – the ‘super soft’ Brexit strategy is one that ends up being complicit in Brexit, that passively accepts that Brexit is the route, that doesn’t call out the growing political and economic damage it’s causing.

And those who think there is a majority for a ‘soft’ Brexit in the House of Commons are perhaps very over-optimistic too. A ‘rule-taker’ soft Brexit does not look sustainable. And if there is a Brexit deal, it may well be one with a backstop for Northern Ireland and a hard Brexit for the rest of the UK (and ‘no deal’ can still not be ruled out).

The passivity on Brexit strategy is seen, too, in the SNP’s reluctance to have a clear position on a further EU referendum. Support for another EU vote to halt Brexit, some fear, could mean a ‘yes’ in a second independence referendum could then be reversed by another vote on the UK-Scotland divorce deal. This need not be the case – the SNP do not have to back a vote on the deal, they could back a simple repeat of the 2016 question.

Yet Nicola Sturgeon has gone from sounding like she might get on the front foot and support a further EU vote (‘almost irresistible’) to a Labour-blaming, ‘it’s not us who are blocking it’ non-position. Demands for a Scottish veto on any ‘people’s vote’ on the Brexit deal – a veto that everyone knows will not be conceded – add to the sound of reluctance not leadership or dynamism on halting Brexit.

Suggestions that the Scottish public aren’t interested in halting Brexit are contradicted by the clear opinion polls – but it’s not going to be the key topic on the doorstep if no party is giving a strong lead on it. Yet Scottish civil society is giving a lead. The Scotland for Europe Declaration and campaign launched in May (disclaimer – I am involved in co-ordinating this campaign) – aims to keep Scotland in the EU, and aims to push politicians, and public, in Scotland and the rest of the UK, to demand a halt to Brexit.

It may be that last week’s walk out by SNP MPs in the House of Commons in the face of the 15 minutes allocated for the debate on devolved powers, along with renewed debate over the timing and the substance of a new independence push, means a more intense political debate on independence is taking off in Scotland.

But a debate that ignores or accepts Brexit – beyond its impact on devolved powers – will be missing a key component. The Growth Commission ignored, by and large, Brexit and the EU. It may well be the SNP strategy now is to have an independence debate with Brexit chaos in the background, rather than having any upfront challenge to Brexit. Indeed, in comments on the Growth Commission launch, Nicola Sturgeon called for “a debate that is about how we maximise our potential as a country. Not a debate just about how we limit the damage of Brexit.”

But maximising Scotland’s potential depends on a debate about halting Brexit not just limiting its damage, and a new political lead is needed in Scotland to do this.

A pro-active strategy, that challenged the whole Brexit process – its impact on devolution, its impact on the economy, security, society – would be one that could spark real change. But a strategy based on accepting Brexit, failing to rise to the moment, is one that, in the end, risks at best being a passive observer or at worse being complicit in it.

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.