Recently I have been visiting Yes Groups across Scotland and questions I always get asked are, “can Brexit be stopped?”, “will it be a hard or soft Brexit?”, and “when do I think the Scottish Independence referendum will happen?” Let’s combine those three questions into a timeline as that may offer some clarity.
First let me be clear, the Scottish Parliament has a majority for independence and therefore a mandate to call an independence referendum based on the SNP and Green party manifestos exists. This mandate must be used in the term of this parliament. I believe that the First Minister will use that mandate but that there may be a refusal to grant a Section 30 order from Westminster (yes they can refuse) which would make any result binding on the Westminster Parliament. This article outlines the tactical options available to the FM in the event of that happening.
Next week, July 24th and 25th, the UK Supreme Court will rule on whether the Scottish Parliament can block the UK Parliament intercepting powers that will come back to the UK from the EU. I didn’t include this in an earlier version of this article because it’s less important than people think. Win, lose or draw in the Supreme Court the UK Government has means at its disposal to take those powers and it will also need to take no EU related powers from the devolved parliaments, such as health, in order to do international trade deals.
This September: the UK Government will publish its immigration paper and that will set the UK’s negotiating position on immigration. That will restrict the type of trade deal the UK can do with the EU as freedom of movement is one of the four freedoms that define trade relationships.
September 30th to October 3rd: the Conservative Party Conference where May will say “here is the deal we are asking for and they will back it or face a General Election.
October 7th to 9th: the SNP annual Conference in Glasgow and a lot of people think that this might be when Nicola Sturgeon announces a referendum but I think it’s way too soon as the EU won’t have delivered its verdict on Mays proposals yet.
The FM will, however, have an opportunity to demonstrate comparative competence, outline how to save Brexit / end it in a credible way and just look much more stateswoman-like than May will have done at the Tory conference. She will issue an ultimatum though – Scotland in the Single Market and Customs Union or else. She will also be mindful of a potential Government defeat on the Brexit Implementation Bill and another snap General Election (once bitten twice shy).
October 18th and 19th: EU Council meets in the last scheduled Council of the year (all the leaders of the EU members states except the UK) and they could ratify the deal then and there, but I would bet that they will flex their muscles and demand more from the UK Government.
November: Expect the agreement to signed at an emergency EU Council Summit in November. A bit of brinkmanship, good negotiations tactics on behalf of the EU and too good a PR opportunity, sticking it to the Brits – unless of course the UK Government has completely capitulated, which would create its own problems in the UK.
December would then be the date for the Article 50 withdrawal agreement to be signed by the members of the Council of Europe.
Jan / Feb 2019: Theresa May will present the Brexit Deal and a Withdrawal and Implementation Bill to Westminster for a final vote. This will be Nuclear Button Day for Brexit – failure to ratify means a likely no-deal Brexit and most likely a General Election with the tories now led by Boris Johnson or Micheal Gove. It is also when we will know enough about Brexit to start pulling together an alternative offer of independence and compare and contrast. The type of Brexit will define the message of the next independence campaign.
Early March 2019: assuming the UK Government has voted through the Brexit bills (big assumption), the EU Council will meet to ratify the deal. It’s worth noting that the Council can only ratify with a supermajority of 20 of the member states out of 27. Then the EU Parliament must back the deal with a simple majority.
If the EU Withdrawal deal fails to pass in Westminster, there could be an agreement with the EU to wait whilst the UK has another General Election or another EU referendum. Then the time table would be thrown into confusion again and I do not think that having called an independence referendum before we know the lie for the land would be even remotely wise. However, a second EU referendum would make the UK a global laughing stock, as would withdrawing the Article 50 request to leave the EU. However, a second EU referendum does also offer the Scottish Government the option to add a second question in Scotland – a possibility but frankly an unlikely scenario on all fronts.
March 29th 2019: Brexit day – we are out at 11pm but it doesn’t end there. There will be a 21 month transition period and things like free movement and trade in goods and services etc will continue mostly unchanged – unless there is no deal of course. This is also when the UK and EU can begin trade negotiations based on limitations of the Withdrawal Agreement. 21 months is just not enough time – it won’t take the seven years a trade deal with the USA might take, but less than two years to reach an agreement with the EU is a pipe dream.
April or May 2019: Under the right circumstances it could be sooner but I predict that Nicola Sturgeon will (assuming we are not heading to a snap UK General Election) ask for a Section 30 Order to hold an independence referendum in September 2019. It’s 50/50 whether May will refuse a Section 30 and overrule the mandate of the Scottish Government, but by then with Brexit damage to Scotland at the forefront of the minds of Scottish voters, glib “now is not the time” statements will no longer wash.
If May, or whoever is the UK PM at the point, refuses a Section 30 (they have every legal, if not ethical, right to do so) the FM will then have the choice of calling an advisory referendum which Unionist campaigners could boycott and encourage their voters to refuse to take part, thus damaging it’s legitimacy, or she could state that she will use the accepted legitimacy (on constitutional issues) of Westminster and announce that an SNP simple majority in seats in the next Westminster General Election would give her a mandate to begin negotiations with the UK Government for Scottish Independence.
December 31st 2020: transition period ends and in my humble opinion, chaos will descend.
May 5th 2021: the SNP will be in a far better position in the polls to win a Holyrood Majority than current polls would suggest as independence support will have risen to above 50%. The SNP manifesto and hopefully Green one will have a rock-solid commitment to a Westminster majority in 2022 giving them a mandate for independence negotiations.
December 31st 2021: the Brexit backstop period ends and no trade deals will be in place by then.
5th May 2022: The UK General Election delivers an easy majority of SNP MP’s with a detailed independence prospectus including a roadmap to prosperity with the new powers of nationhood that offers an antidote to austerity and Brexit trade woes. Soon after independence negotiations begin because any doubt about Scottish independence will stop the UK agreeing trade deals.
However, let’s remember that a section 30 enabled referendum in September 2019 is the most likely and most desirable independence referendum scenario.
So to conclude, it’s a terrible time to support independence if you are prone to overthinking. You see, all the problems go away when independence support hits 55% or more, and that’s only going to happen if the grassroots independence movement actually campaigns and raises support to game-changing levels. Maybe someone (not the SNP) should announce a major grassroots, well-funded campaign in August and give Yes groups the campaigning materials and messages they need? Watch this space.