Brexit threat still looms over Scotland despite Tory revival

by John McLellan | 07.05.2016

Five years ago the SNP won an absolute majority at the Scottish parliamentary elections. In winning the mandate for an independence referendum, it ushered in an unprecedented era of uncertainty which is still with us: Scottish elections in 2011, the European Parliament vote in 2014, the independence referendum later that year, Westminster polls again last year, Thursday’s Scottish elections and the EU referendum to come in June.

On Friday morning another staging post was reached when the SNP just fell short of an overall majority. That made a second vote on independence less likely for the lifetime of this parliament at least.

But although the odds on another referendum on secession might have lengthened, the threat remains if Britain votes to leave the EU on June 23. Only a vote to keep Britain in Europe will make it a definite non-starter.

Much of the argument in the independence campaign centred on Scotland’s place in the EU, whether the new country would be a continuing member or a new applicant, the terms of admission and the time negotiation would take. That there would need to be discussions was beyond doubt – and, with Spain likely to make them as difficult as possible because of its own separatist movement, there would be no quick resolution.

The arguments are similar for the new relationship post-Brexit Britain would have to forge with the EU.

For most Scots, the prospect of Brexit, followed by another independence referendum and then potentially another set of negotiations for Scotland’s EU membership is too awful to contemplate. Voting to stay in the EU is a straightforward way to make sure none of it happens.

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At the same time as the political processes have unfolded, Scotland’s economy has struggled. New figures from Glasgow University economist John McLaren point to just 4% cash terms growth in the Scottish economy since 2008, compared to 23% across the UK. Last week saw yet more lay-offs in the North Sea, this time about 150 jobs going after the collapse of oil services firm Harkland.

It will be much more difficult for Scotland to attract the investment it needs if businesses looking for opportunities compare an unpredictable landscape here with greater certainty in places like Ireland or the Netherlands. The benefits of being part of the single market matter in the long term but, in the short to medium term, there is nothing to be gained by entering into unnecessary and protracted argument on the vague promise of something better over the horizon.

The shape of the Scottish parliament in the next five years is now set. The SNP will govern as a minority. So now it’s time for its considerable campaigning abilities to be directed at the battle to keep Britain in the EU.

We also look forward to the pro-remain Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson making her mark on the UK stage. In winning 31 seats she has revived her party in a way few predicted. If English voters think Boris Johnson is a Heineken politician, wait till they see Ruth in action.

Edited by Hugo Dixon