Analysis: Whose Brexit is this and what does it mean for Scottish independence?

Ben Wray

A soft-ish Brexit deal that satisfies the rich and establishment means the end of the ‘respectable road’ to Scottish independence

A CONSIDERABLE operation is now underway to generate momentum behind Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal deal.

Spearheaded by the business lobby and the media, it recognises the withdrawal agreement as a relative return to the status quo compared with other theoretical options.

So just whose deal is this? And what are the implications for Scotland and the independence movement?


The strongest indication of elite support for the deal was the the euphoric reception May received from business leaders at yesterday’s (19 November) CBI conference, which was more a Pentecostal rally for May and her draft agreement than a sober business leadership meeting. CBI is only one of several major business organisations backing the deal.

What’s making the corporate elite so happy about May’s deal? Put simply, they feel they have dodged the Brexit bullet. In place of a meaningful breach from the institutions that would seriously disrupt business access to the single market and wider trade arrangements, the deal promises a considerable degree of alignment. ITV’s Robert Peston has reported that the City of London are happy, with an agreement which will keep 80 per cent of financial trading between the UK and EU exactly as it is now.

And that close alignment is indefinite, because the backstop that would keep the UK aligned could not be unilaterally abandoned by the UK, requiring EU agreement. The UK would continue to be within the orbit of the EU, but without its current political representation in Brussels. 

The deal itself will rely heavily on this elite backing, because it has very little support among the public, with just 10 per cent saying they believe they will be better off under May’s deal than under the current arrangement in a poll for the Times (19 November).

State aid

One of the most important features of the deal is the maintenance of “dynamic alignment” on state aid. This would mean the UK continuing to use EU state aid rules that tightly restrict the abilities of member (and in the UK’s case, non-member) states to intervene strategically in the economy.

The EU’s Fourth Railway Package for instance would render Corbyn’s proposed project of re-nationalisation and reintegration of rail – something wildly popular among the British public – un-achievable.

This is not an accident, but a calculation. The Tories, the EU and the UK business elite do not want to empower any future leftwing government to make significant reforms to the ownership structure of the British economy.

And this ‘dynamic’ alignment would also mean the UK tied into the legal apparatus of the EU, which would mean any future further restrictions on state involvement in the economy would be enforced in the UK, despite the UK having no political representation in the EU.

The remainer’s dilemma

This all poses some serious quandaries for remainers who are seeking to overturn the Brexit vote in 2016. Indeed, it threatens to split them into the two (very) broad camps of remainers – those who have an ideological view of the EU as a route to Europe-wide solidarity and who are keen to support institutions like European free movement, and elites who want to protect economic ties between the EU and UK.

This was almost certainly part of May’s calculation, that a soft deal maintaining business priorities would break up a remain block which had begun to galvanise around the demand for a second EU referendum or ‘People’s Vote’.

A few voices of what might be called ‘corporate remain’ are already realigning themselves with May’s deal, while more intransigent leaders like former Prime Minister Tony Blair are calling for remain proper and with reforms to the EU, particularly to reduce free movement. Both elite factions are willing to toss free movement aside to achieve a pro-business settlement.

And these elements largely lead the organisations rank and file pro-remain sentiment, which often opposes Brexit for more altruistic reasons.

Sturgeon’s dilemma

The reality of a pro-Brexit Britain brings to a head the leading strand of strategic thinking inside the SNP.

Since the 2016 Brexit vote in 2016, Nicola Sturgeon and other leading party figures have continuously linked the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum to Brexit, and particularly to a hard or No Deal Brexit – that is, to a scenario where the economic structures holding together the EU and UK at present are broken apart

The strategic reasoning for this orientation is that new layers of Scottish society could be won to Scottish independence among 2014 No voters. Apart from EU nationals living in Scotland, this strategy would predominantly appeal to small ‘c’ conservative elements – small and medium sized business, more materially secure parts of the middle class, and those who sought stability and continuity in society above all else. Initiatives like the Growth Commission, which promised economic continuity with the UK and fiscal consolidation, could be thought of as a nod to this community of voters.

This anticipation of the UK heading for a catastrophic ‘crashing out’ of the EU may well prove false if May’s deal sticks. Whatever happens, the EU and UK leaderships have both proven eager to arrive at a compromise that protects the UKs economic relations with the EU project. As in the rest of the UK, there is likely to be support in Scotland among more conservative elements for May’s deal.

Sturgeon, Ian Blackford and the rest of the SNP leadership have been steadfast in their opposition to May’s deal, but questions remain about how – if it does get through the House of Commons – the push for independence will be re-ignited in the face of a hostile and belligerent Tory Government who can reasonably argue that Sturgeon’s biggest concern – No Deal Brexit – was avoided.