Brexit and the Scotland factor
Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has called for a fresh vote on independence. The FT's Frederick Studemann and Janan Ganesh discuss how another Scottish independence referendum will affect the Brexit process.
Produced by Vanessa Kortekaas. Edited by Nicola Stansfield.
The decision by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister to call for a fresh vote on Scottish independence has already upset Prime Minister Theresa May's timetable for triggering Article 50, the process for Britain to exit the EU. So how seriously will Scottish independence now affect Brexit? Joining me to discuss this is Janan Ganesh, the FT's UK political commentator.
Janan, this wasn't totally unexpected, but it did come as a bit of a surprise in the precise timing of the announcement from Sturgeon. How much do you think looking beyond the immediate effect, which was the prime minister had to postpone plans to trigger Article 50 now to the end of March, but how much do you think it will really affect the whole process of Brexit?
A pretty substantial effect, I think. At the very least, Nicola Sturgeon now has leverage over Theresa May what it comes to the negotiations to leave the EU. And that's because the harder the exit is, the more Britain departs, and the single market customs union maybe even goes out on WTO terms, the more provocative I think that will be to Scottish public opinion, which was overwhelmingly pro EU. And so Nicola Sturgeon can say that Theresa May actually over the next two years you have to look upon me as almost an unofficial veto on your negotiating strategy.
And the reason that's so problematic is that everything's Theresa May has said in the nine months that she's been prime minister has been quite tough in terms of the model of Brexit that she would ideally like. So she might have to soften her line because in Nicola Sturgeons influence.
Do you think she'll soften her line?
I can't see how she can soften it substantially with that without losing the other half of the equation, which is her own party and euro sceptic opinion in England. There's a lot of that in Scotland as well, but in particular in England. If you're a sceptic who voted to leave on the assumption we would be out of everything, have total control of free movement, the freedom to do international trade deals, if those people see a deal which is much more moderate than that and they attribute it to Theresa May, taking into account the views of a leader of a nation of five million people, I think there'll be a lot of political flak for the prime minister. And so she is caught between two impossible demands, just to choose who to disappoint. I can't actually predict who she will disappoint in the end, except to say that turning your back on the union or making a decision that that helps to unwind the union would be absolutely historic.
But you could also make the case-- many people remarked how they were surprised Theresa May a remainer, perhaps reluctant just on that side, that she seemed to go so quickly for a hard Brexit once she became prime minister. And people have accused her of being sort of being held captive if you like by the hard right of the Tory party. This gives her an opportunity, doesn't it, maybe to tack back a bit to where she instinctively feels a bit more comfortable? And she can say look, it's the union, as you've said, or and that means you're going to have to reduce your demands on the other side, or it's a bust.
The problem with that is that it assumes that her sincere underlying belief is that Britain should have a much softer exit. And she's only being dragged right woods by her own party. I wonder whether actually her own instincts are a lot more euro sceptic, a lot more in favour of a hard exit than we've ever really been willing to entertain? She was pro remain during the campaign, but in the most perfunctory normal way possible. Made very little effort to campaign for that position.
She has a sort of home county's Anglican view, which is that it's worth trading away a bit of economic dynamism for a bit more control over immigration to have a bit more social cohesion. That means I have no trouble believing at all that she herself thinks the hardest of exits is acceptable to her. And therefore, even if she were she to be able to be liberated from the pressure from the right of her own party, she'd end up in the same place. That's just where her instincts are.
Well let's just look at the other side. Talking about Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon. This is a high risk for her, isn't it? In terms of almost under pressure of events of having to push for another referendum.
Some people think it's too early. What's her calculus? Do you think she feels she can win this one?
If she doesn't win it, then I can't see another referendum on independence for a generation. But an actual generation this time. Not the way she used the word generation after losing the last referendum. It will be dead for a long time. It would end her career.
There's no reason to assume that she would win it, because the polls are fairly ambiguous at the moment. So her calculation is that she can ask for a referendum. And even if she doesn't get it, she's better off. Because it's the spectacle of a British prime minister from London saying no you can't have a referendum, which is an obvious grievance with which the S&P can stoke their own voters.
And in the short to medium term, it allows them to influence the negotiating strategy of the UK vis a vis the EU. Because if they bring back too bad a deal, then a referendum would be winnable for the Scottish Nationalists. Although there is a risk that she calls a referendum and loses, there are many more opportunities in this. So I think she's played a bit of a blinder actually.
Right. Janan Ganesh, thank you very much.