SNP pressure to stay in the single market boosts the UK case. Why not champion these ideas for Northern Ireland?

Nicola Sturgeon herself admits there are challenges in the SNP’s proposals to keep Scotland within the single market if the rest of the UK is without. The generous view of the paper Scotland’s Place in Europe is that at least it sets out a position, which is more than the than the UK government has done so far. Witness Theresa May’s stonewalling performance before the Commons Liaison Committee yesterday and the Guardian’s sketch of it. Furthermore the Scottish case could  boost the overall UK case which is partly the intention   (with a Northern Ireland case not far behind, if anybody is bothered to make it. Arlene and Martin when you’re finished squabbling). The cynical view is that it is set up to fail and that failure will boost the cause of a Indyref2 in due course.

This  view is not shared by leading Scottish experts. First Jim Gallagher, a  former senior civil servant, then  leading strategist for the No campaign,and now exploring ideas for a confederal UK, blogging for the Constitution Unit.

The big message from the paper and its presentation is not bullying language about when a referendum might be called: it is that the SNP don’t think leaving the EU justifies repeating the independence poll at all. Instead they are setting out ways the UK can leave the EU without one. Can the UK stay in or near the single market, or at least can Scotland? If it can the UK leaves the EU, but the SNP won’t find themselves demanding ‘indyref2’…

Sturgeon is right to argue the UK should keep as close as possible to the EU single market. It is looking increasingly as if she might just get her way, at least to start with. As the Brexiteers in the UK cabinet continue to fantasise about the world of their imagination, pragmatists like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, are stepping forward. They understand the reality of deal-making with 27 increasingly impatient member states.

Sturgeon is also arguing for a special European deal for Scotland within the UK. Her idea is that Scotland should remain in the single market even if the UK leaves.

That plan won’t work, and it would be a mistake for Sturgeon to make it a hard test for Theresa May to fail, because there are other ways to recognise Scotland’s difference that will work. Brexit inevitably makes Holyrood much more powerful. It will negotiate as an equal with Westminster on things like agriculture and fisheries. The internal balance of the UK will be shifted.

It can shift more. There is no reason to deny Holyrood the power to negotiate with Brussels too – on all devolved matters. Devolution means Scotland can make different choices over things that don’t have to be reserved to Westminster. Why shouldn’t it be able to agree, say, reciprocal health deals with European countries, or access to EU studentships for young people?

Similarly, if the UK ever does move to a system of work permits to control migration, permits to live and work north of the border could be issued in Edinburgh – and the same for Belfast, or London…..

.Nobody planned it this way, but Brexit makes that paradoxical phrase ‘independence inside the UK’ more plausible than it was in 2014.


While Charlie Jeffrey a leading politics academic in Scotland doubts that the political will exists in London to adopt the SNP plan, he nevertheless sees a way through, writing in the Herald.

What has been proposed is actually pretty mainstream opinion in Scotland. It is shared by many of those who see themselves as unionists and are committed to remaining part of the UK…

A trickier issue would arise from the proposal that, if the UK as a whole leaves the Single Market, Scotland would stay in by remaining within the European Economic Area, while also maintaining its membership of the UK’s internal market.

Some kind of economic border between Scotland and England would have to be established. The imagery of “border” conjured up in the Scottish constitutional debate is often that of fences and watchtowers; an economic border would be much more a matter of number-plate recognition and online form-filling: So, some additional expense and inconvenience, but not especially intrusive.

Can these proposals fly? That’s a matter less of law than political will. The UK has unusually malleable constitutional arrangements, with the sovereign UK parliament able to do much as it will. The EU too has shown an ability to accommodate all manner of distinctive territorial arrangements…

Give Scotland some set of additional powers, including the power to negotiate in external matters – more or less like those suggested in Scotland’s Place in Europe – and leave it to the Scottish Government to negotiate the details of a deal with the EU itself. That way there’s no need for a political bust-up, and Nicola Sturgeon, not Theresa May, would be responsible for the success, or otherwise, of the outcome.

Michael Keating director of the Centre on Constitutional Change agrees.

The closer the UK remains to the European market, with its free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, the easier it will be for Scotland. If the UK goes for a hard Brexit, it becomes more difficult for Scotland to keep in both markets. The Scottish Government proposes to keep borders open in both directions but, whatever happens, there will be borders. This is the inevitable result of Brexit.

The border may not be physical but virtual. It will be possible to move goods around the United Kingdom with no need for inspections, as the Scottish Government proposes to remain in a customs union with the rest of the UK. Yet if Scotland is in the single market and the rest of the UK not, there may be different product standards.

As the paper concedes, where goods enter the UK, the point of sale will need to be declared so that the relevant regulations can be followed. Trade in services between Scotland and England may be restricted by non-tariff barriers if different rules apply. Free movement of labour between Scotland and the EU may remain but it will be necessary to determine who is resident in Scotland and eligible to enjoy the right..

A second set of proposals concerns the extra powers that Scotland might require. These cover devolved competences subject to European law, plus wide powers to meet single market regulations in economic and social matters. Scotland might also need power to negotiate agreements with the European Economic Area and other governments.

None of this is technically impossible but it would represent a radical transformation of the United Kingdom and require the agreement of Westminster. The Scottish Government accepts that it would need the UK Government to negotiate the deal on its behalf. With the Tories already deeply divided over its approach to Brexit, it is unlikely to welcome an additional complication unless it really thinks that the UK is in peril. The ball is now in Westminster’s side of the court.

There are differing ideas here about Scotland  going  it alone in the single market and not everybody is  as optimistic about the impact on the border. But if some special deal over the single market could work for Scotland, could it be adapted for Northern Ireland? Is anybody listening?  Can you imagine the NI Executive taking in extra powers?