In the absence of any clarity about the terms for Brexit, it’s no surprise that some Remain supporters are dreaming about reversing the result and nationalist politicians are weighing up the chances of the break-up of the UK. They may have to decide soon how realistic are their ambitions for constitutional change if a snap Westminster election is sprung soon.
The SNP are the only major party to have anything like a stable negotiating position at the moment. It looks like win:win once again for Nicola Sturgeon in any early general election. On the eventual outcome for all of us in these islands long after the election has been won and lost, a lot hangs on on the terms of the UK’s future association with the EU, the performance of the UK economy and sterling. If the UK as whole supported by Ms Sturgeon were to succeed in winning association with the EU single market combined with some restrictions on immigration, that could actually weaken the case for Scottish independence, according to one argument.
One the other hand, it would remove the downside of a hard border between Scotland and England and so make independence even more attractive.
A third option, a negative one, is that she may be setting herself up to fail by demanding full involvement in the UK’s Brexit negotiations. If the EU were to reject the initial UK terms, the choice between membership of the UK and the EU might favour the EU. But whatever the Brexit options, they will take longer to clarify with the EU than three to six months.
Despite all excitement over the Brexit chaos, there are other factors deterring an early commitment to a referendum including the abiding factors of the low oil price and Scotland’s choice of a currency. Sterling still seems the no-brainer. The volume and balance of trade is formidable. Not including oil and gas, show Scotland sold £50.5bn in goods and services to the rest of the UK in 2013. The rest of the UK sold £62.7bn in goods and services to Scotland.
It seems clear that the financial advantages of EU membership do not outweigh membership of the UK for as long as the block grant – i,e. transfers from HM Treasury- continues. This applies to Scotland and in spades to Northern Ireland. The EU may be planning to spend 118 euros to 2020 but UK spending on NI is £20 billion a year. The block grant would survive only within the UK. True, an independent Scotland would stop contributing to the UK Treasury but she is likely to remain a net beneficiary indefinitely.
In NI politics the rhetorical gap is widening but there’s a ritual quality to the exchanges . It’s intriguing to see Sinn Fein taking their cue from Nicola Sturgeon. Once she had pronounced that a second indyref was “likely”, they could hardly lag behind her. But the prospects for constitutional change as between Scotland and NI are quite different. Gerry Adams may claim that with NI voting for Remain it “could not be bound” by the UK vote but the underlying realities haven’t changed.
Stormont minsters clearly have yet to grasp the details of the Brexit implications and are right to commission briefs on the issues – like the impact on foreign direct investment and tax and spending (considerable according to George Osborne) the extent of the loss of EU structural and peace funding and CAP payments.
The DUP’s puzzling support for Brexit may look slightly better if the Conservatives are returned with another small or even smaller majority, But we are all in flux at the moment and future scenarios have never been less clear.
In the Dail doom-laden rhetoric about a fundamental change in relationships is understandable in view of the shock of the result, but overblown. All parties and governments in these islands will come together to mitigate the effects and apply the results however imperfect, with maximum goodwill.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London