Scotland and Brexit: where next?

Philip Rycroft | Jul 2021

On 27 May this year, British Minister for relations with the EU, David Frost, wrote a peremptory letter to the leaders of the devolved governments of the UK. He demanded that they keep him informed of all significant contacts they might have with the EU institutions and member states and that they toe the UK government line in any such meetings.

The letter provoked inevitable accusations of heavy-handed meddling in the legitimate business of democratically elected devolved governments. David Frost could claim that all he was asking was for Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to respect the terms of the existing agreement between the governments on handling of international issues, as set out in a Memorandum of Understanding in 2013. But the high-handed tone of his letter was not designed to reflect the spirit of cooperation that infused the 2013 document. Rather it served to reinforce the hard reality of the subordinate position of the devolved institutions in the governance of the United Kingdom.

This is consistent with the Brexit story to date. The devolution settlements had previously been cloaked in a sort of polite ambiguity; UK governments paid at least lip service to the commitment to respect the views of the devolved legislatures and to formulate policy on EU matters that impacted on devolved competence in conjunction with the devolved governments. All that has fallen away with Brexit. Notwithstanding the majorities for Remain in Scotland and Northern Ireland, this UK government has reached its favoured Brexit destination riding roughshod over the fragile conventions of devolution and broadly ignoring the protestations of the devolved governments.

This, understandably, has impacted on voter behaviour, most evidently in Scotland. Brexit divisions have compounded the existing split in Scottish opinion over independence, with many Remainers gravitating towards the Nationalists and Leavers towards the Conservatives. This has worked to the electoral advantage of the SNP and has underpinned an uptick in support for independence.

With Brexit now ‘done’, will this prove to be a temporary phenomenon? Will the anger at Brexit and the way it has been transacted fade as its impact is normalised?

For many in Scotland, as elsewhere in the UK, there are currently constant reminders of the costs of Brexit, for businesses in terms of the increased bureaucracy of trading with the EU, for individuals in the lost opportunity of work or study in the EU. Over time people and businesses will adjust to the new dispensation. Residual grievance there will no doubt be, but will it be sufficient to continue to energise the politics of the constitutional debate in Scotland?

Both sides of the debate might conspire to keep Brexit in the limelight, for very different reasons. Brexit undoubtedly complicates the prospectus for Scottish independence. For those seeking to maintain the UK Union, there will be a constant temptation to point out that an independent Scotland that wished to re-join the EU would face the prospect of a hard border with its main trading partner, England. The sorry saga of the Northern Ireland protocol constantly reminds us that there is no easy answer to that. As an independent state, Scotland would likely have to choose between the UK single market or the EU single market; it could not be in both.

For the Nationalists, Brexit is now exhibit A in the catalogue of things done unto Scotland by force majeure on the part of its southern neighbour. The contention wielded by their opponents in the 2014 referendum that voting to stay in the UK was the only way to guarantee continued EU membership will be wheeled out to reinforce the claim of the ultimate untrustworthiness of the government in the south. The Scottish government will doubtless reinforce the point by making much of Scotland’s connections with the EU and emphasising the benefits that re-joining will bring.

Both sides will indulge in double-speak. Brexiteers who have loudly trumpeted the virtues of self-governance and national sovereignty will cavil at the exact same arguments put forward by nationalists in Scotland. They in their turn will continue to decry the damage done by the creation of new Brexit trade borders while bringing on new borders between an independent Scotland and England. Competing nationalisms are not always a pretty sight.

So there will be incentives enough on both sides to keep reminding voters of the fact of Brexit. The UK government has it in its gift to take some of the heat out of the debate, by reaching out to former Remainers, in Scotland as elsewhere, through seeking a deeper and more cordial relationship with the EU than the one it negotiated in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. But it won’t do that. Any advantage that might bring in a Scottish context is outweighed by the greater benefit of antagonistic positioning towards the EU in holding together the Conservatives’ new base of electoral support in England.

The UK government will appeal still to the Brexit heartlands. Its ideological coherence lies in the myth of Anglo-British exceptionalism, or it lies nowhere. It will take a seismic shift in British politics to reframe the political contest on different terms. A dysfunctional relationship between the UK and the EU will in itself provide enough fuel to keep the Brexit fires burning. On some counts, Brexit might be done, but it’s far from done in the constitutional debate in Scotland.