The Herald, by Iain Macwhirter
10.10.18

HOPE is a cliché political leaders resort to when they have little of it to offer. The hopes of those tens of thousands of independence marchers in Edinburgh of an early referendum must surely have been laid to rest after this week’s SNP conference.

Nicola Sturgeon wants to keep hope alive, but she’s not going to call any referendum she can’t be sure of winning. Activists have to content themselves with the thin gruel of “perseverance, pragmatism and patience”. Her conference speech was almost Presbyterian in its downbeat realism: you can wave all the flags you want, but there’s no short cut to independence.

Most of her troops get this. The SNP MP Angus MacNeill used precisely the wrong historical analogy when he urged Nicola Sturgeon not to “dither like the Jacobites at Derby” . Modern Scottish nationalists, like Nicola Sturgeon, loathe comparisons with Bonnie Prince Charlie and heroic failures like the ‘45. Nor is she an enthusiast for the politics of naive optimism.

She knows that, even if opinion polls started showing a majority in favour of independence, Theresa May is not going to allow another referendum in the foreseeable future. Westminster must pass a so-called Section 30 Order to legitimise a referendum on the constitution, and the PM made clear last year that she’s not going to table one. MPs would probably reject it if she did. For her part, Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly made clear she will not entertain any illegal referendums, not least because Unionists would boycott them, as in Catalonia in 2017.

This is not going to change any time soon. In her “now is not the time” interview in March 2017, Mrs May gave three reasons for refusing a Section 30. First, that voters are confused right now; second, that a second independence referendum would interfere with negotiations over Brexit; and third, that Scots need to know what the future relationship with the EU is going to be before making up their minds about relations with the UK. Ms Sturgeon agrees that the “fog of Brexit” as she put it yesterday, has to clear before any sensible choice can be made about Scottish independence. That “triple mandate for independence”,she won last year is not enough.

But will the fog clear? Even if Mrs May returns with an acceptable exit deal before Christmas, the confusion over Brexit will be far from over. Any deal with Brussels will be limited to the divorce bill, EU citizens’ rights and the Irish backstop (or “hybrid backstop” as we’re now supposed to call it) and this will not be the end of Brexit uncertainly. It won’t even be the end of the beginning.

The latest version of the Chequers deal, (heavily tipped by sources close to Michel Barnier) appears to involve the UK remaining in the Customs Union until a “friction-free” solution emerges to trade across the Irish border. This is the so-called “blind Brexit” under which Britain leaves the EU in March without any clarity about future trading relations. It suits hard Brexiters because once we’re out, we’re out.

But this half-in-half-out arrangement is not just confined to the transition period, which is supposed to end in 2020. Indeed, it will almost certainly continue after that. My reading of the negotiations is that Britain is heading towards a “Switzerland minus” outcome. The Swiss are not members of the EU, or the EEA or formally the European Single Market. However, they accept all the rules of the ESM on a “bilateral” basis, meaning that they accept changes as they come along, not en masse, as it were.

It’s a fine distinction, and most people agree that Switzerland is in the single market for all intents and purposes. It accepts the four freedoms, including freedom of movement, and largely rubber-stamps rulings of the European Court of Justice. However, it is not actually in the ESM, which makes it Brexit-compliant. Mrs May will try to get a Switzerland-type deal, minus any formal acceptance of freedom of movement. But this will likely be fudged over a lengthy transition in which the destination will be clear, but neither side will openly admit it.

Except for Ms Sturgeon, who will want to call a spade a spade. If there is a transition deal that explicitly confirms regulatory alignment for Northern Ireland with the single market – which is what the “hybrid backstop” also seems to involve – she will rightly call for Scotland to get parity. The Northern Ireland back-stop is similar to the hybrid arrangement she proposed for Scotland in the Scottish Government White Paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe, back in 2016. (Whisper it, but the UK Government has now quietly adopted many of the arguments in that White Paper – just not for Scotland).

But the downside is that Brussels and the UK could end up with an open-ended transition period in which Britain is out of the European Union, but remains in an uncertain relationship to its institutions. This means Scottish voters could be no clearer on our long-term relations with Europe than they are now. This purgatory could easily last 10 years, during which no UK government will agree to an independence referendum for Scotland, on the grounds that nothing is clear until everything is clear.

I suspect realisation that the fog of Brexit is going to linger helped persuade the First Minister, belatedly, to support a People’s Vote on Brexit. On the BBC Andrew Marr show she made clear SNP MPs will vote for a repeat referendum on Brexit, even if there is no guarantee of indyref2. The polls may indicate that support for independence would rise with a hard Brexit, but it is much better for the cause of Scottish independence if the UK doesn’t leave the EU at all. It would mean Scotland could seamlessly depart from the UK without there being any hard border with England, and without Scotland having to formally leave the EU.

There is now a slim chance that a People’s Vote might happen. That Britain will wake up from the Brexit nightmare. But that would be a triumph of hope over experience.