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Analysis

SNP emboldened by May’s Irish woes

by Kirsty Hughes | 05.12.2017

Nicola Sturgeon was quick off the mark yesterday. If Northern Ireland was getting a special deal that allowed it to stay in the EU’s single market and customs union, she argued, then Scotland wanted a special deal too. She was rapidly followed by Sadiq Khan for London and Carwyn Jones in Wales.

This fractured patchwork of “me too” special deals is a Brexit model the other 27 EU countries would never accept. But it does add to pressure for the UK, if it goes ahead with Brexit at all, to go for a “soft” Brexit staying in the EU’s single market and customs union – not least to avoid constitutional and political fractures deepening further. This would also solve the border problem for Northern Ireland.

The Scottish government has been arguing for this since it published its “Scotland’s Place in Europe” paper in December 2016 (an updated version is due early next year). The SNP has a rather dizzying array of Brexit policies. It would like the UK to stay in the EU but doesn’t make this the centrepiece of its current policies, and hasn’t up till now backed a further EU referendum on any Brexit deal. Eventually, it wants independence in the EU. Its preferred compromise is for the UK to stay in the single market and customs union. And if that’s not possible, it would like Scotland to stay in both the EU single market and in the UK (for now).

The latter shows one of the challenges of arguing for Scotland, London and Wales all to be allowed special deals if Northern Ireland gets one. The Scottish government wants Scotland to stay in the EU single market even if the UK doesn’t – but not the customs union as that would create a hard England-Scotland border.

But if Northern Ireland were to get a special deal on both single market and customs union, then the desired Scottish deal would be different. In this scenario, the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be different to both the border between Scotland and the rest of the UK and the Scotland-Northern Ireland border. Confusing. No wonder Sturgeon is putting more emphasis on keeping the whole UK in a super-soft Brexit.

But what of the other Scottish parties? The Scottish Labour MSPs and pro-independence Greens have backed Sturgeon’s single market for Scotland or for the whole UK policy. But the Lib Dems, having originally backed it, then stopped, saying it was all an independence game.

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, has been a missing link here. The Conservative MSPs opposed Sturgeon’s “super-soft Brexit or Scotland in the single market” policy from the start. But on Tuesday, Davidson set out her current position, saying that if there is regulatory alignment “in a number of specific” areas for Northern Ireland then it should be for the whole UK. David Davis, the Brexit secretary, seemed to adopt Davidson’s position later on Tuesday when he said in Parliament that “regulatory alignment” would apply to the whole of the UK.

Davidson could electrify the whole UK debate if she backed a super-soft Brexit, or at least backed the whole UK staying in the EU single market. But for now her position is more unionist than European. And it’s the SNP in the lead on arguing for the UK to choose a single market and customs union Brexit.

This article has been updated shortly after publication to include David Davis’ comments in Parliament.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe