The Brexit Bill and Scottish Independence

I’m having that feeling again. The one where every time my phone buzzes with a news update, I immediately assume that something awful has happened. Just in the last week:


  • The Brexit Bill was passed by the House of Commons, bounced back with amendments by the House of Lords, then passed by the Commons again -amendments be damned!


  • Nicola Sturgeon has declared her intention to launch a new referendum on Scottish Independence, catchily named IndyRef2.


  • Turkey and the Netherlands have entered a full-blown diplomatic crisis, which at this rate, might as well end in nuclear war. The Netherlands don’t actually have nukes but based on the way the last 8 months has gone, I’m still seriously considering building my own Hazmat suit like the one in 10 Cloverfield Lane.


Rather than pick just one of these issues to discuss in nauseating detail, I thought I’d discuss them all instead. But not in nauseating detail, in normal, healthy detail. Although it might still make you sick. This post will focus on the Brexit bill and IndyRef2, then next week I’ll talk about Turkey.


Let’s start with the Brexit Bill. In order to begin the process of leaving the EU, Theresa May must trigger Article 50. That means informing the rest of the EU of the UK’s intention to leave. Due to the Supreme Court judgement earlier this year, Parliament had to have a vote before Article 50 could be invoked. To this end, the government introduced a so-called Brexit bill. This was a one-page bill giving the Prime Minister the legal authority to begin the process of leaving the EU. It was passed by a huge majority in the House of Commons and as is normal procedure, it was then sent to the House of Lords for approval.


Here’s where Theresa’s problems began. The House of Lords did not pass the bill in its ‘clean’ form. Instead, they voted in favour of two amendments (additions) to the Brexit bill: one guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens currently living in the EU, the other requiring that Parliament be given a ‘meaningful’ vote on whatever deal the Prime Minister comes back with at the end of the Brexit negotiations with the EU. However, the House of Lords does not have the power to pass legislation on its own. The bill must be sent back to the House of Commons in a process charmingly known as ‘ping-pong’. The House of Commons can then adopt the amendments, or ignore them and send the bill back to the Lords again. In theory, the Lords could keep sending the bill back to the Commons over and over again, but in reality, this would have the potential to create a constitutional crisis. The House of Lords is an unelected body, so it doesn’t really have the legitimacy to overturn the ‘will’ of the elected House of Commons. It can only make suggestions. In this case, the House of Commons chose to pass the original bill again, minus the amendments added by the House of Lords. The Lords, bowing to the authority of the Commons, has now also passed the un-amended bill. Theresa May now has the legal authority to invoke Article 50 and begin the official process of Brexit. It was recently pointed out to me that if May had triggered Article 50 on Wednesday 15th of March, it would have been the Ides of March. No negative historical connections there, then…


Which leads nicely into Part Two of this week’s post, Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement of a new Scottish Independence Referendum. Say what you like about Nicola Sturgeon, but she is a consummate political operator. Theresa May basically dared her to call another referendum and in the very same week that the Prime Minister is supposed to be going to Brussels asking for the UK to ‘take back control’ of their own affairs, Sturgeon has called her bluff. The expectation was that Theresa May would trigger Article 50 this week, possibly as soon as Tuesday. However, with the announcement of IndyRef2 the First Minister has added another thing to the list of headaches for the UK Prime Minister. She can’t make the political capital she would have hoped for out of Brexit whilst a second Scottish referendum is ruining her big moment. It’s an impressive bit of political theatre on Sturgeon’s part and means that the PM probably won’t trigger Brexit before the end of March, which is literally the latest date possible given her commitment to do so in ‘early 2017’.


It’s worth watching a bit of the speech in which Sturgeon announced her intention to seek a new referendum. It’s a great example of turning your political enemies’ own rhetorical weapons against them. All the language of the Leave campaign was present and accounted for: Scotland wanted to ‘take back control’, its people wanted to be given a ‘real choice’. She has very neatly hoisted May onto her own petard, highlighting the hypocrisy of Brexit.  Technically, the UK Prime Minister could reject Sturgeon’s request and refuse permission for a new Scottish referendum. But how can she, when all her rhetoric since the Brexit referendum has been about ‘Respecting the Will of the People’? May dared Sturgeon to announce a second referendum and now Sturgeon is daring May to say no.


Of course, Sturgeon is still taking a big gamble with this move. During the last referendum, the SNP made a lot of economic predictions for how Scotland could survive and thrive outside the UK, mainly based on projections of North Sea Oil revenues, all of which turned out to be wildly optimistic. In many ways, narrowly losing the 2014 referendum was a blessing in disguise for the SNP. They gained a huge amount of political and popular legitimacy, helping them to rout Labour at the next Scottish elections, but they never had to actually deal with the realities of independence. The opinion polls also suggest that most Scots are currently against independence, with all the further uncertainties it would bring. If she lost the referendum, Sturgeon would surely have to resign. Then again, if May loses, she would probably also have to step down. It’s like a slightly less dramatic version of the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel to the death. Still, at least it should be amusing watching that confusing breed of UK politician, the Unionist Anti-Europeans, as they desperately try to explain to those recalcitrant Scots why ‘Taking Back Control’ is fine for the UK but not for Scotland.


Tune in next time for a discussion on Turkey and their charming President Erdogan.


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