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No-deal Brexit is probableUnder the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, the UK leaves the EU at 23:00 UTC on 29th March 2019, whether we have agreed deal or not. That is less than four months away now, but it's four months which includes the Christmas and New Year holidays, so in practice it is more like three.
There is no majority in Westminster for the negotiated deal. There is a theory that, having failed in the vote on Wednesday 12th December, May could return to Brussels, negotiate some trivial face-saving tweeks, bring essentially the same document back to parliament and have it pass; I don't believe that is likely.
I think it much more likely that the vote on the 12th will fail, probably heavily; and that in the wrangling and chaos which results, the clock will run out. To me, just now, a no-deal Brexit looks virtually inevitable.
A 'snap election' won't happenUnder the Fixed Term Parliament Act, an early election requires two thirds of MPs to vote for it. Almost half of all MPs are Tories, who know they would be very heavily defeated in an election held now. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas.
A second EU referendum is irrelevantThere's a lot of folk arguing for a second EU referendum. I don't think that will happen, but it could. For it to happen, all of the following would be required:
Theresa May would have to be replaced as Prime Minister. I don't believe she'll resign. She is under a very great deal of strain, and might have a health breakdown; more probably, there could be a vote of no confidence in her or her government.
A Vote of no confidence in May by Conservatives would require that 48 letters of no confidence from Tory MPs are sent to the Chair of the 1922 committee. The European Research Group have been trying hard to achieve this total, and have clearly failed; however, losing the vote on the 12th could change that.
But if the total were achieved, a Tory leadership election would take time, and, given that the membership of the Tory party are much more extreme Brexiters than the population as a whole, such an election is very unlikely to produce a leader who would support a second EU referendum.
A vote of no confidence in the government by parliament would require all of the opposition parties (including the DUP) to vote together. It's unlikely that all Labour members would vote against the government, but a few Conservatives might, so it's possible that this would pass. What happens next is tricky. Corbyn would have an opportunity to form a government, which would require all the parties other than the Tories to form a coalition.
Tories would need to cross the floor. Corbyn himself doesn't want a referendum; the DUP definitely don't; so such a government would be unlikely to support a referendum. The only possibility there is if some Tory MPs (possibly Sarah Wollaston, although it's hard to think of many others) crossed the floor to join 'a government of national unity', which would not include the DUP.
The EU would have to agree to an extension of Article 50, even if a government prepared to hold a referendum could be formed. The new government could not be in place before January at earliest; a referendum campaign takes considerable time; if an extension is not agreed, then the clock will run out.
The second referendum probably wouldn't change things. Polling on a second referendum indicates that the UK as a whole is still split about 50/50 within the margin of error. There has not been a decisive swing from leave to remain. Furthermore, we have not effectively addressed the problem of dark money; hostile actors, including foreign actors, would continue to successfully funnel money into the leave campaign. I think we would again see Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voting to remain, England and Wales voting to leave.
A second independence referendum has grave problemsI have been working since September 2014 for a second independence referendum. I now think
- It's unlikely to happen;
- It's unlikely to be seen as legitimate;
- We're unlikely to win it.
Even if it happens, it's unlikely to be seen as legitimate. Although Keith Brown argues (and I agree) that Holyrood alone has the authority and the mandate to hold an independence referendum, a section 30 order is almost certain to be refused. The unionist parties - the Tories, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats - will use this to claim that the referendum is illegitimate, and will very probably campaign for a boycott. If the No campaign effectively boycott a referendum, the result would only be seen as legitimate if substantially more than 50% of the entire electorate voted Yes - because, in the media, all those who didn't vote would be assumed to support 'No'.
An independence referendum only succeeds if the rest of the world sees it as legitimate. If other governments - especially those in the EU - don't recognise the government of Scotland as sovereign, we've failed.
But in any case we'd be unlikely to win it. We are no longer holding the referendum from within the EU. From within the EU, while the whole aquis of European law held in Scotland, the negotiation would have been relatively easy (except fishing); and it would be preserving a large proportion of the status quo, which would give cautious voters confidence. By contrast, a second independence referendum could now happen only in the chaos of disentangling the UK from the EU, or after the Brexit dust has largely settled.
After the Brexit dust has settled, in a much poorer nation with a very recent memory of years of painful disruption, I think it would be hard to motivate any electorate to vote for major constitutional change again. Certainly it would be very easy to run a No campaign on the slogan 'no more chaos'. Also, after the dust has settled, new trade deals with the US will rapidly lead to a selloff of key state assets to American companies, and I do not see how we could protect the Scottish NHS from that. I don't believe we can afford to wait for the dust to settle.
But while Brexit is in progress, the unionists will still be able to paint a picture of the coming 'global Britain', and the 'sunny uplands' of new trade deals which will at that stage still be in fantasy land and thus capable of being painted in glowing colours. That will of necessity push the Yes campaign into a 'project fear' position, where we will have to be continually pointing out the risks - of losing the NHS, of losing our GM-free status, of losing our health, employment and environmental protections, of competing on labour rates against developing economies. Negative campaigns can win, of course, but I don't think that's a style of campaigning we'd be comfortable with.
'Business as usual' may not contineHuman beings are programmed to believe that tomorrow will be very much like today, next year very much like this year (damn, I hope not!). We assume business as usual will continue. But if we have a no deal Brexit - which, I reiterate, I think almost inevitable - it won't. Our supply chain is very fragile. Supermarkets keep stocks of only a few days' food and groceries. Much of our food comes from Europe. Chaos at the ports will very rapidly lead to shortages, which would lead to panic buying, which would lead to empty shelves.
The British are not used to going hungry. Social order would rapidly break down. There are already plans to deploy the army on the streets.
If a State of Emergency was declared, elections would almost certainly be suspended. It's quite likely that Holyrood would also be suspended, especially if there was a significant push for independence. As senior MSPs are unlikely to consent to Holyrood being suspended, it's likely that many would be interned; it's likely that influential Yes movement figures would also be interned.
In this scenario, independence would be literally impossible without civil war, and that is not a road I want to go down. So let's assume (for now) (and devoutly pray) that this dark fantasy of mine does not happen, and go onto more optimistic options.
An 'Independence Now' manifesto would workAs Margaret Thatcher repeatedly pointed out, and as the Irish precedent shows, all that is required under the British constitution to achieve Scottish independence is for pro-independence parties to win the majority of Scottish seats at Westminster - as, actually, the SNP did at each of the last two Westminster elections and almost certainly will at the next.
Of course, at the last two election, the SNP did not stand on an 'Independence Now' manifesto. If they did, they could make every Westminster election until independence a de facto independence referendum. Of course, it's likely that the unionist parties would join forces to put up just one candidate against the SNP, but that actually plays in the Yes movement's favour - because such candidates would inevitably either be Tories or be in explicit alliance with Tories.
There are three possible outcomes:
- We don't win a majority of seats, in which case nothing is lost and we can try again next time;
- We win a majority of seats and a majority of votes, in which case we have a clear mandate to immediately negotiate independence;
- We win a majority of seats but not a majority of votes, in which case we'd be well advised to negotiate for maximal devolution but could still try again next time.