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The Prime Minister is in a bind over growing Scottish pressure for another referendum on independence from the UK.  Many of Boris Johnson’s actions, including visiting Scotland, seem to increase support for independence.  The Scottish National Party regard him as the gift that keeps on giving, and they have the wind in their sails.

Mr Johnson has said he is not prepared to give Holyrood the power to hold a referendum, which creates another grievance for the nationalists to exploit. 

To escape this trap, Johnson needs to reverse the Brexit playbook model of vote first, clarify later.  This served him well previously and the Scottish nationalists are now enthusiastically following it. 

The winners in the Brexit referendum and 2019 Conservative election campaigns fought on the basis of a broad concept, avoiding discussion of details.  The Scottish nationalists are currently able to use a similar strategy based on emotional appeal for an independence referendum while minimising debate on specific policies.  Leaving all details to be sorted out afterwards minimises democratic input, as the nature of the final settlement owes more to the government of the day and its competence than to the views of the electorate.

In the Brexit referendum and the UK’s 2019 ‘Brexit election’ this approach proved impossible to counter.  It follows that to neutralise the nationalists, a diametrically opposite policy is needed.

Downing Street may have the makings of a plan.  It has already announced that there will be no officially sanctioned referendum during the current parliament.  While this may look like a measure certain to inflame the nationalists, it lays the ground.

If the SNP achieve a Holyrood landslide next May, granting a Section 30 order transferring power to hold a referendum would become politically harder to resist.  An effective and suitably dramatic response would be for Boris Johnson immediately to offer to start negotiations with the Scottish government to produce a draft withdrawal agreement, to be put to the Scottish people in an official referendum once finalised.

The draft agreement should obviously cover all aspects of Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom and the future relationship between the two countries.  It might include constitutional issues and the role of the monarchy, trade and economic matters and which currency Scotland would use, citizenship and common travel area arrangements (perhaps like those the UK has with Ireland), defence (including basing arrangements for the UK’s nuclear armed submarines), and more.  

The process of negotiation would require the nationalists to address political realities and awkward questions such as how to deal with the current collapse in oil and gas revenues and the future loss of fiscal transfers from the UK exchequer worth around £11bn per year.

Timing is important.  Under the Good Friday agreement, an Irish referendum on re-unification may be held every seven years.  If this precedent were applied to Scotland, another independence referendum could be due in 2021.  If negotiations on a Scottish withdrawal agreement were under way, that would inevitably push the issue beyond next year and perhaps even beyond the end of this parliament.  The outcome of a referendum that might look like a foregone conclusion now could be very different if held some time after the next UK general election due in 2024.

Such a draft agreement would provide a solid basis for Scots to vote on their nation’s destiny through an officially recognised “indyref 2”.  The referendum then might be hailed as a global exemplar of enlightened, democratic decision making, with the Scottish people making an informed choice about their future.

Some aspects of separation and the future relationship with the UK would by their nature be contingent on actions by an independent Scotland.  Most obviously, if Scotland were to join the EU then the economic significance of the UK border would change radically.  At present around 60 per cent of Scotland’s exports go to the rest of the UK, whereas a hard border north of Hadrian’s Wall with possible customs and phytosanitary checks would adversely affect all the economies of the British Isles.  No government can fetter its successors, and a new Scottish government would have to make its own decisions within the context of domestic politics and whatever constraints the withdrawal agreement with the UK entailed.

The contrast between the Brexit model of enduring uncertainty until the end of negotiations and this approach is pointed.  Boris Johnson has shrugged off far more serious sources of potential embarrassment with his customary bluff and brio.  That seems preferable to the risk he currently runs of going down in history as the prime minister who divided the UK and lost Scotland.

Andrew is a member of Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Number 10]