Scotland locks horns with British PM over Brexit

The Scottish first minister said that if plans for a hard Brexit proceeded, she would call a second referendum on independence in Scotland.

Britain's new prime minister Theresa May, left, meeting Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon in Bute House in Edinburgh, on July 15, 2016. Andrew Milligan/AFP Photo
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British prime minister Theresa May and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon are locking horns over their preferred versions of Brexit, with Scotland warning it will once again attempt to declare independence from the United Kingdom.

Ms Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the head of the Scottish government, reiterated on Sunday her demand for a “soft” Brexit. In this model – currently followed by Iceland and Norway – the UK would not be a political member of the European Union but would retain access to the EU’s common market.

A “hard” Brexit would pull the UK out of the common market and have a huge negative impact on Scotland’s economy, Ms Sturgeon said.

“I’m not going to sit back while Scotland is driven off a hard Brexit cliff edge with all the implications for jobs and the type of country we are that that would have.”

The Scottish first minister said that if plans for a hard Brexit proceeded, she would call a second referendum on independence in Scotland.

Ms May’s government “would be making a very big mistake if they think I’m in any way bluffing”, Ms Sturgeon added.

On Monday, Ms Sturgeon ruled out holding a second referendum on independence this year, but maintained that another ballot “has to be on the table”.

With the support of political allies, the SNP has the majority in Holyrood, the Scottish parliament, to pass a bill calling for a fresh referendum.

Scotland held its first referendum for independence from the UK in September 2014. On that occasion, 55.3 per cent of voters wanted to remain with the UK, while 44.7 per cent voted for independence.

But the result of the Brexit referendum last June has transformed matters, Ms Sturgeon says – a stance she has maintained ever since British voters chose narrowly to leave the EU. In the June referendum, 62 per cent of Scotland’s voters overwhelmingly chose to stay with the bloc.

If Ms May pursues the hard Brexit option, the impact on Scotland’s economy – already suffering from the crash in oil prices and the consequent £15 billion (Dh67bn) deficit – could be very worrying, studies have found.

Scotland could lose up to 80,000 jobs and see average wages fall by £2,000 per person in the event of a hard Brexit, estimated a report by the Fraser of Allander Institute, a Glasgow-based think tank.

The Scottish economy would decline by 5 per cent overall – shrinking around £8 billion per decade, said the report which was published in October. Even in the event of a soft Brexit, the Scottish economy is expected to erode by roughly £5 billion over the next 10 years.

Even so, opinion polls conducted since October show waning support in Scotland for a fresh independence referendum. Only 38.5 per cent of voters favour holding such a referendum in 2017, according to a survey conducted by Glasgow's Herald newspaper in January.

The proportion of people desiring independence from the UK, meanwhile, remains similar to the result of the 2014 referendum – 45.5 per cent versus the 54.5 per cent wishing to continue with the status quo.

“This is because the United Kingdom government remains deeply unsure about its preferred strategy,” said Jim Gallagher, an adviser to Better Together, the 2014 campaign to keep Scotland within the UK.

Mr Gallagher told The National he thought a new referendum would prove divisive.

“Even were it to gain a small majority for independence – which is possible but by no means certain – Scotland would be a profoundly divided country, in a situation of deep economic and political uncertainty,” he said.

“Leaving the European Union will, in the view of all reputable economic forecasters, be bad for the UK economy and for Scotland within it,” he added. “But leaving the UK would be catastrophically bad for the Scottish economy.”

If the mood shifts at all, it will depend upon the final shape of Brexit, said Tom Devine, a historian at the University of Edinburgh. “In addition, the SNP has still to produce a convincing plan for the currency and economy post-independence,” he added.

Mr Devine pointed out that Ms Sturgeon is exploring other alternatives, involving further devolutions of power from the British parliament to the Scottish parliament.

If Ms May’s government blocks these options, he said, the SNP could “blame the wicked Tories” and press for independence. But “it’s a high-risk strategy”, he said.

Ms Sturgeon has also been calling for separate Brexit deals to be negotiated for Scotland and the rest of the UK, to preserve Scotland’s access to the common market.

A soft Brexit for the UK as a whole is still an option, Mr Gallagher said, although “the mood music from UK ministers suggests this might not happen”.

“Nicola Sturgeon is right to argue for this for the UK as a whole,” he said. “But her suggestion that Scotland might remain in the single market even if the UK does not is wholly impractical.”

ssbramanian@thenational.ae