Analysis: As ‘no deal’ turns to ‘bad deal’ could the pro-EU indy pitch falter on soft Brexit?

Ben Wray

Theresa May is meeting with her cabinet to try and shore up support for a form of soft Brexit

THERESA MAY is trying today to win her cabinet and party to a deal with the EU that would keep the UK aligned to EU institutions, at least for a period.

The measures are designed to stop the development of a hard border in Northern Ireland.

This development poses some serious questions for independence supporters in Scotland. The SNP leadership’s pitch since the Brexit vote has been that a hard or ‘no deal’ Brexit would mean catastrophic economic fallout, and that this necessitated first opposition to hard Brexit, and potentially an independence bid in the event of hard Brexit.

With the strongest motions towards a soft Brexit ever, independence strategy has met a new crossroads.

The direction of travel is towards a form of soft Brexit

One clear reality we now know is this – both the UK Government and the EU leadership are aiming for the same essential outcome for Brexit. Some form of ‘soft’ agreement that means a continued entanglement of the UK in the institutions of the EU.

Precisely what form this could take is unclear. Theresa May has always insisted that the UK is leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. The question now becomes when, with the existing agreement stipulating that the UK would remain in the institutions for the transitional period.

The headline issue from the new agreement is that, in order to avoid the creation of hard border between a Northern Ireland in the UK and Republic of Ireland in the Customs Union, the UK would remain aligned to the Customs Union to allow frictionless trade.

The rightwing Brexiteers in the Tory party fear this would simply be the prelude to keeping the UK aligned with the EU’s trading practices and associated institutions for the foreseeable future. 

The rich in EU and UK: Shared interests

Their fears are founded. It is apparent from the deal that the EU see their interests as being in keeping the UK – which represents 16 per cent of the EU economy – as closely entwined as possible, perhaps with a view to slowly re-integrating the UK in the future.

The UK Government, permanent elements of the state like the civil service, and the majority of the business establishment seem to agree with this approach, though a growing element of the right and elite with some popular support want a second referendum or ‘People’s Vote’ as an attempt to keep the UK in the EU, full stop.

That may become more likely in future, but for now the strategy is to keep as close a relationship as possible, while honouring a rhetorically hard Brexit – moving outside of the EU institutions, at some point, at least in word if not in full deed.

Where does this leave Scotland and independence?

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon responded to the new developments by saying: “My job is to strive for what is right for Scotland, not accepting bad deals. It’s ironic that for the last two years the PM has told us that no deal is better than a bad deal, but now she’s arguing that we have to accept a bad deal for fear of no deal.”

She also argued that any arrangement that would leave Northern Ireland more closely aligned with the EU than Scotland would mean Scottish workers competing with their Northern Ireland counterparts at a disadvantage. Scotland should therefore remain within the Single market and Customs union, even should the UK eventually either leave the institutions, or leave a close relationship to them after the transition period.

All of this is becoming rather arcane.

Initially, the SNP leadership pitched a second independence referendum as an appropriate response should the UK crash out of the EU with no deal, and find itself in a state of nosedive economic crisis and disorganisation.

This last ditch position was complimented by a demand for a soft Brexit, keeping Scotland within the Single Market and Customs union.

Is the new argument really that Scottish independence should hang on the difference between indefinite alignment with EU institutions and definite membership of them?

Latterly, the party has joined the demands for a second EU referendum. But this position, in addition to endangering any future vote for Scottish independence, does nothing to address the democratic deficit.

The democratic deficit

And it is this democratic crisis of the British state that remains the key issue in the Scottish independence movement. For many independence supporters, the greatest offence of the Brexit process is the willful ignoring of Scotland’s 62 per cent vote to remain in 2016.
Rather than exploit it, and adopt a position of outright opposition to the British ruling elite over the democratic crisis, the SNP has sought out alliances with factions of the elite in order, variously, to achieve soft Brexit for the whole uk, or institution membership for Scotland, or a People’s Vote and remain for the entire UK.

This array of choices is past confusing for the public and keeps shifting. But most importantly, it diverts strategic energies from the wider issues behind the demand for Scottish independence.

And the democratic deficit is rapidly worsening, the crisis of the union deepening.

Defence of the Union has apparently collapsed as a major focus for both wings of the Tory party. It used to be the May’s Remainer faction that argued hard Brexit would undermine the Union. Now Boris Johnson is right to suggest May’s deal, differentiated between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, is also a threat to the cohesion of “our precious union”.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson and Scottish secretary David Mundell have threatened resignation if a differentiated deal is reached. We’ll see how much intent there is behind that. But in the meantime Scotland is voiceless in the Tory civil war. Scottish Ministers have not even been allowed to see the text of the new deal, or speak to the UK Government. The Union is functionally bust.

 It would be foolhardy to make any solid predictions at this stage about the final destination of the Brexit process. But from what we now know, forces are consolidating around some form of soft Brexit, Scotland is locked out and the British state is becoming less democratic. Could a final realignment of arguments from the independence movement meet this new juncture?

Picture courtesy of: European Council President