Nicola Sturgeon has said that should the UK vote to leave the EU but Scots return a majority to stay in, then another independence referendum is 'inescapable'. It’s worth going through the steps of that scenario. The Europe vote is on 23 June. If the UK votes to leave, then the next day the EU and London would set in train the process of negotiating the whole of the UK out of all the EU treaties. Officials within the Scottish Government would have to start work on leaving the EU.
Let’s assume the first minister on the same day declares another referendum on Scottish independence because Scots voted to remain in the EU. If she did she would be breaking the law. Her own officials would say this, pointing to the powers within the Scotland Act of 1997 regarding the limits of the FM’s authority. No one in the devolved system has the power to call a referendum on a matter which is reserved to Westminster. The Smith recommendations include Edinburgh being master of its own destiny (to a degree) but those have not been enacted. This means the lord advocate would have to declare the referendum illegal, and it would be outwith the scope of officials to work on it.
Should St Andrews’s House overlook this and pursue the plan, presumably claiming a great injustice (Scotland’s voice being ignored), there would still need to be a bill submitted to the Holyrood parliament. The presiding officer would also have to declare the bill illegal, and thus reject its submission.
Assuming some popular wave of enthusiasm for the idea which somehow persuades everyone in the Scottish establishment to permit the bill to be discussed, the plan could be scuppered by any individual taking the government or the parliament to court, challenging the legality of the process.
Now imagine that somehow the first minster argues the matter is so important that it transcends normal legal process and she simply declares a plebiscite. This too could be challenged in the courts. As would any suggestion that public funds be used – who would pay the returning officers and counters and policemen who make elections possible?
Let’s assume that all of this is overcome – perhaps David Cameron resigns, a new Tory PM takes office and says 'hell mend them', and permits the vote. This too could be challenged in the UK supreme court but again, let’s set that aside.
So the second referendum is happening, and for argument’s sake it is to be held in September 2016. If the legal issues were the starters to this feast of possibilities, now we are moving onto the main course.
Scotland, as part of the UK until the second referendum result is won, will be negotiating out of the EU while holding a campaign to leave the UK. Scottish Government officials will be working on how to leave the EU and how to leave the UK (and so hope to stay in the EU). Public administration would be obsessed with the complexity and contradictions at the expense of domestic affairs.
Then there is the economic issue. In the last independence referendum, the SNP argued that sterling would be the currency. This wouldn’t apply if England were leaving the EU and Scotland hoping to stay – you couldn’t have a currency straddling two competing regimes. So in this scenario, Scotland would have to chose another currency, or invent its own.
A new, independent currency is very unlikely, so the SNP’s new model of independence would include joining the euro. It is true that some states have delayed the euro indefinitely, but that may be academic. What other choice would Scotland have? If Scotland used the euro, it would come with strict borrowing limits – this is the big lesson of the euro crisis – and rules on what Edinburgh could do with tax powers. In short, Brussels would block any tax cuts as proposed by the SNP back in 2014.
As Scotland does have a gap between what is earned and what is spent, it is very hard to see how the SNP could argue its way out of a financial hole. The only option would be higher taxes. That is exactly what the SNP denied in the last referendum, and as they still see the cautious middle classes as the voters who need to be turned, it's hard to see the party being happy with this new reality.
There is a much bigger problem for the SNP. In this grand 'what-if’, we are saying that England is out of the EU. The only economic bolt the SNP have ever had is cutting tax to compete with London – but this time London will be ferociously tax-cutting to create its advantage over the EU. It would protect the City of London in particular.
The SNP would have to somehow conjure up a world where Scotland has a hope of competing when it has a land border with a much lower tax regime.
Assume that the independence case is won in our imaginary vote of September 2016. The sovereign state of Scotland cannot exist until it does exist – that is, 'Scotland’ would not come about until after it had negotiated out of the UK – which may take two years (the timeframe in the White Paper was simply invented to suit the existing rhythm of elections).
Scotland might exist as a sovereign nation in late 2018, by which time it may have completely left the EU by virtue of being part of the UK until that point.
Let’s assume that after a yes vote to Scottish independence, the negotiations between London and Brussels become three-way, including Edinburgh. London would be negotiating out, Scotland negotiating in. In this scenario, there would be no time to leisurely divide assets and responsibilities – who gets what and who pays for what in the dividing UK would become hotly disputed. This isn't the friendly parting of the ways the SNP promised in 2014.
Which isn’t to say Scotland’s new membership couldn’t be expedited in some novel manner, given the unique situation, but that would require the consent of the remaining 27 members.
Any deal struck between a sovereign Scotland and the EU would have to be voted on by the Scottish people. What if they vote No? Then Scotland would have no currency, a pip-squeak voice in global affairs and be in chaos as the finance industry would have left for either London or Frankfurt.
It may be 'inescapable' to Nicola, but as the days pass she may also conclude that the chaos which would follow is no good for her nor for Scotland.