Brexit, Scottish Independence and Leaving a Union: Lessons to Learn?


The tangled, chaotic and damaging process of Brexit[1] will drag on for many years to come, unless the UK changes its mind and stays in the EU. The many and deep downsides of Brexit have led some to argue that Scottish independence would lead to similar downsides for Scotland – leaving a union, as Brexit shows they say, is no easy project.

This policy paper examines whether and to what extent there are similarities and differences between the Brexit process and Scottish independence. It finds, unsurprisingly, both points of comparison and points of difference. It also suggests areas where more research and analysis are still needed.

Central Scenarios

Given the many unknowns in the Brexit process, including what the UK’s final relationship with the EU may be, and given different choices an independent Scotland could make on its future EU and UK relationships, this policy paper simplifies the number of potential scenarios that could be involved in such a comparison. We assume, following the current policy positions of the UK and Scottish governments, firstly that the UK leaves the EU with some form of May’s Withdrawal Agreement in place, including the backstop. And secondly, we assume that the Scottish government’s current policy of independence in the EU is also adopted and implemented. We note, at various points, where other outcomes and scenarios would particularly impact on the comparison of the Brexit and independence processes.[2] Given the deepening UK political crisis, Brexit could well be postponed, but here we look at the comparison if both Brexit and independence happen.

These central scenarios mean that in the coming years, unless Brexit is halted, the UK would be in something equivalent to a customs union with the EU. This is the implication of the Northern Ireland backstop – it will only be superseded if a future free trade agreement can ‘in part or in whole’[3] render it unnecessary. That is why the accompanying Political Declaration[4] talks of building on the customs arrangements in the backstop and it is why Theresa May in her recent 10 February letter to Jeremy Corbyn said her future trade deal would not only have no tariffs but also ensure no rules of origin checks were needed either. While May claims this could be consistent with an independent trade policy it is hard to see how. But it is consistent with being in a continuing customs union with the EU.

If an independent Scotland joined the EU as a member state, much of the future UK-Scotland relationship would be determined by the UK-EU relationship. There are certainly key questions of timing here not least, firstly, when that clarification of the UK-EU future relationship happened and, secondly, whether a second independence referendum were held while the UK was in the transition period (i.e. still in the EU’s single market and customs union). There would also quite likely be a period where Scotland would have left the UK but not be in the EU. These issues are discussed further below.

The Brexit-independence comparison is considered here under nine main headings.

Kirsty Hughes, 2019
Picture Credit: Kirsty Hughes