Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Scoxit could lead to Brexit

By Hugo Dixon
May 12, 2014

By Hugo Dixon

Hugo Dixon is Editor-at-Large, Reuters News. The opinions expressed are his own.

If the Scots vote to leave the UK in September, that could trigger a chain reaction which leads to the rest of the UK quitting the European Union. This is a threat British pro-Europeans need to take seriously given that a Scottish independence vote is quite possible, though the chances are still less than 50 percent.

Were it not for the Scotland factor, the risk of a so-called Brexit – Britain’s exit from the EU – would be receding. A string of business leaders have in recent months come out and argued that the economy would be damaged if the UK lost full access to the EU’s single market.

All the opinion polls by YouGov since the start of March have shown a lead, varying between 2 and 6 percentage points, for Britain wanting to stay in the EU. In the previous year, YouGov’s polls were consistently in favour of pulling out with one showing a lead of 17 points for the “Out” campaign.

This switch-around has happened despite the fact that the UK Independence Party, which wants to pull out of the EU, is expected to get the most votes in this month’s European Parliament elections. UKIP’s rise, on the back of leader Nigel Farage’s formidable debating skills, seems driven more by disaffection with London politics and immigration than a strong desire to quit the EU.

But a vote for Scottish independence would change all that. And here the polls are moving in the opposite direction. Until a year ago, the idea that Scotland would quit the UK seemed a remote possibility. But in one ICM poll last month, 42 percent of those quizzed said they wanted to stay in the UK versus 39 percent who wanted to quit.

Alex Salmond, the Scottish nationalist leader, is running an effective populist campaign. The odds from betting house William Hill currently imply a 30 percent chance of a “Scoxit” – Scotland’s exit from the UK.

Such a scenario would increase the chances of a Brexit for four reasons.

First, the Scots are more pro-EU than the other Brits. If there is a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017, as Prime Minister David Cameron has promised, the Scots won’t vote and it will therefore be a little harder to persuade the rest of the UK to stay in. The absence of Scotland might deprive the “in” campaign of 2-3 percentage points of “net” pro-EU votes. That could be decisive in a tight race.

Second, the chances that Britain will hold a referendum will shoot up because it will be more likely that there will be a Conservative government in 2017. At present, the Labour opposition has 41 members of parliament (MPs) from Scotland while the Tories have only one. The UK has 650 MPs in total. If the Scottish MPs were excluded, it would be harder for Labour (which has pretty much said it won’t call an EU referendum) to run the country.

This doesn’t mean Cameron will necessarily win the next general election in May 2015, because the Scots will still get to vote even if they back independence this September. It will take at least until March 2016 for Scottish independence to become effective. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, might well become prime minister in 2015.

The snag is that, once Scottish independence does become effective, Scotland would lose its MPs in Britain, and Miliband, if he was prime minister, would probably lose his majority. Either there would then be a new general election, which Miliband would probably lose, or Miliband would immediately be replaced by a Tory prime minister, who would then call a referendum on EU membership.

That new Conservative prime minister almost certainly wouldn’t be Cameron. If he had lost both Scotland and a general election in quick succession, he couldn’t stay as leader. In fact, he might even be kicked out before next year’s general election if the Scots vote for independence, such would be the blow to national pride.

The possibility that a Scoxit vote could lead to a new Tory leader is the third reason why it would increase the chances of a Brexit. Cameron is a luke-warm pro-European. He would probably be replaced by a more eurosceptic leader who might actively campaign to pull Britain out of the EU.

The final reason why Scoxit might lead to Brexit is linked to Cameron’s strategy of renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU before holding an In/Out referendum. He hopes to use the concessions he has won as a strong reason for voting to stay in.

The problem is that, if Scotland votes for independence, there will then be a messy argument over the divorce terms. Brussels will also need to negotiate the terms of Scotland’s admission to the EU, which won’t be easy either.

Will both London and Brussels be able to focus on renegotiating their own relationship when they are tied up bargaining with Edinburgh? There has to be a risk that they won’t and that, therefore, Cameron’s strategy of going to the electorate with a new deal on Europe in 2017 will be in tatters. That, in turn, would make it harder for the “in” campaign to win a referendum.

In other words, Salmond may be as big a risk to Britain’s EU membership as Farage.

Comments
3 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

That Labour governments in the UK depend on Scotland being a part of the Union is purely myth and it is a myth that a supposedly responsible news organisation has NO business repeating as though it were true. Only three times have Scottish in the past have MPs made any difference in the outcome of a British General Election.

Other than that your reference to Scoxit and Brexit are silly, your basic premise is deeply, deeply flawed. And for that matter if the people of Scotland want to withdraw from the UK, it is their right and their business. The same must be said about the UK withdrawing from the EU and proposing that Scotland should prevent EWNI from expressing their democratic will is appalling.

Posted by JTomlin | Report as abusive
 

As an American, I don’t really have a right to an opinion on either Scottish independence or Brexit, but it’s difficult to avoid having questions when hearing about these things. First, I really don’t understand how Scotland could become better off by leaving Great Britain. I saw clips of a recent speech by Alex Salmond in which he was summing up his case for Scottish independence, and it all appeared based on emotion and nostalgia rather than practical considerations. I confess that I, too, prefer Robert Burns to William Wordsworth, but I don’t see how that kind of preference should affect important political and economic decisions.

As for Brexit, it’s easy to see why some Brits are seeing EU membership as a pair of lead boots. But it sure sounds like David Cameron’s approach to the problem is very practical. On one hand, he’s telling Europe that Britain may have to leave the EU if they can’t fix the Britain-Europe relationship. On the other hand, he’s telling the extreme anti-Europe group that this is the era of Elizabeth II, not Elizabeth I, and there is certain advantage to being a member of a larger polity, even if the status quo is not workable over the long term.

The real question is how the Scottish National Party can be both anti-UK and pro-EU. One of the long-term objectives of the European project seems to be to create a European identity that really doesn’t seem likely to appeal to Scottish nationalists.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive
 

As an American, I don’t really have a right to an opinion on either Scottish independence or Brexit, but it’s difficult to avoid having questions when hearing about these things. First, I really don’t understand how Scotland could become better off by leaving Great Britain. I saw clips of a recent speech by Alex Salmond in which he was summing up his case for Scottish independence, and it all appeared based on emotion and nostalgia rather than practical considerations. I confess that I, too, prefer Robert Burns to William Wordsworth, but I don’t see how that kind of preference should affect important political and economic decisions.

As for Brexit, it’s easy to see why some Brits are seeing EU membership as a pair of lead boots. But it sure sounds like David Cameron’s approach to the problem is very practical. On one hand, he’s telling Europe that Britain may have to leave the EU if they can’t fix the Britain-Europe relationship. On the other hand, he’s telling the extreme anti-Europe group that this is the era of Elizabeth II, not Elizabeth I, and there is certain advantage to being a member of a larger polity, even if the status quo is not workable over the long term.

The real question is how the Scottish National Party can be both anti-UK and pro-EU. One of the long-term objectives of the European project seems to be to create a European identity that really doesn’t seem likely to appeal to Scottish nationalists.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive
 

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