Apart from the first month after Brexit, the polls on Scottish independence have been remarkably 2014 static. Brexit seems to have encouraged some and discouraged others in equal measure.
My own view is that legally, economically and technically Brexit has made Scottish independence less risky. The best solution is for Scotland to become independent and apply immediately to join EFTA. Joining EFTA avoids questions around a ‘Spanish veto’ and consolidates a North Sea alliance with Norway.
With the prospect of being a forgotten region of a lost UK under a ‘no-deal’ hard Brexit scenario, there’s now no realistic risk of a worse situation in the event of independence. That’s because there’s no longer stable and attractive status quo for Unionists to defend. The threat of exclusion from EU, so effectively mobilised in 2014, has been completely neturalised by the UK’s own actions. On the other hand, independence does bring an opportunity for a better situation, in terms of access to the customs union and single market.
Brexit has also made Scottish independence more necessary. It is necessary for access to the economic advantages of European markets and to the social advantages of European human rights, employment rights, and environmental and consumer protection laws – all of which risk being torn up under a hard Brexit settlement. It is also necessary because the Britain that is emerging in a hard Brexit scenario is a distinctly inward-looking and backward-looking one, with polarised angry politics and a dysfunctional political class.
Furthermore, Brexit has given Scotland allies in Europe – for the first time in 300 years, Scotland now has a foreign policy, and that policy is noticeably more constructive than that of the UK. However, I fear of parallels between Scotland and Catalonia may have made some of those allies lukewarm at best.
On the other hand, while Brexit has made Scottish independence both less risky and more necessary, it has also made it more difficult – in political terms – to achieve. We have seen growing intransigence of the UK govt. It is unclear whether we will have another Edinburgh Agreement (the deal between the UK and Scottish Governments) which allowed for a legitimate referendum in 2014; without some agreement providing for a process which is both legally and politically legitimate, we are in danger of being pushed into a situation where independence by lawful means becomes impossible – and, of course, independence by unlawful means would be near-suicidal, as Rhodesia proved.
Ultimately, the case for independence is as strong as ever – and it is at heart a democratic case – but it is not going to be easy. Presenting Scottish independence as a normal path of constitutional development for a commonwealth country (e.g. seeking comparisons to Canada, Australia etc) is a better bet than seeking comparisons with secessionist movements in continental Europe – if only because the Commonwealth provides another layer of international legitimacy that can, potentially, unite nationalists and unionists. After all, the Commonwealth Charter – signed by the Queen and UK Prime Minister, no less, commits the Commonwealth to a set of meta-constitutional values that can help legitimate a Scottish state – values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law, but also a respect for the independence of small states.