Written by Lewis Scott.
Tech-savvy Scots were quick to CTRL+F the draft Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU when it was released last Wednesday. They found, to their horror, that Scotland was not mentioned even once in the 585-page long document. Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, even used this observation as the centrepiece of his remarks during Theresa May’s statement in Parliament on Thursday. Northern Ireland, as he said, receives 100 individual mentions; Gibraltar is in there 30 times; but Scotland is nowhere to be seen. What are we to take away from this? Blackford says that the absence of Scotland in the Withdrawal Agreement speaks to the contempt with which the Prime Minister has treated the Scottish Government during negotiations.
But is he right to make this interpretation? England also receives zero mentions in the document, so too Wales. The Prime Minister ended her reply to Blackford with the line: “Scotland is not specifically mentioned; Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom.” Similarly, when Glasgow North MP Patrick Grady asked the Prime Minister whether she agreed that the best possible relationship with the EU would be to, as Scotland voted for, remain inside the EU, May’s response was that the United Kingdom voted to leave.
The Union also featured heavily in Jackson Carlaw’s questions to Nicola Sturgeon in First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood, running concurrently with May’s statement in Westminster. Carlaw, deputising for Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davison, on maternity leave, asked the First Minister why “fracturing” the union would be in Scotland’s interests. Certainly a naïve question to ask the leader of the Scottish National Party. Carlaw’s final question asked Sturgeon to act in the “national interest” and stop talking about Scottish Independence because it was disrupting negotiations.
May and Carlaw both spoke on Thursday in a way that suggested an understanding of the Union as whole and indivisible, with one single national interest. This is not surprising, the Conservative and Unionist Party are nominally and ideologically bound to this conceptualisation of the UK. This approach may have been workable in the past, but how can this position be reconciled with the realities of devolution?
The reconvening of the Scottish Parliament and the creation of the post of First Minister have created a highly visible and confident Scottish Politics. The Remain campaign drew on the popularity of Scottish politicians and selected both Sturgeon and Davison to represent the cause in televised debates. The Scottish Independence referendum gave the SNP ample opportunity to articulate the specificities of Scotland’s economy, its natural resources, and its demography. In this politically aware context, Carlaw’s singular national interest seems incredibly hollow. How can the needs of the City of London be the same as those of the people of Stornoway, or Dingwall, or Lerwick?
May and Sturgeon have clashed publicly several times over the past two years. Sturgeon engineered a vote on a second independence referendum, but May failed to respond to her written request for the legislative competence to hold such a vote. Sturgeon published negotiation position papers which May did not accept. May frequently sends her deputy, David Lidington, to meet with the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, much to Sturgeon’s chagrin. The Scottish Parliament withheld legislative consent for the Withdrawal Bill, but the Bill was pushed through regardless. Most recently, May briefed Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo on the draft agreement before cabinet, but only spoke to Sturgeon afterwards.
Both Sturgeon and May believe that they have mandates to act in the process of the UK exiting the European Union, and the constitutional set-up of the UK gives both of them powers to affect the performance of the other. This is the root of the problem – both May and Sturgeon derive their approach and their sense of authority from different interpretations of the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum and the 2016 European Union membership referendum.
May interprets the No vote in 2014 as reinforcing her understanding of unionism, and the Leave vote in 2016 as giving her a mandate to bring the entire Union out the EU. Sturgeon, meanwhile, sees the 2016 vote on a subnational level, focusing on the fact that Scotland returned a majority of votes to Remain. This gives her, as First Minister, a mandate to fight May’s approach to Brexit. Her interpretation of the 2014 vote is also very different to May’s. Sturgeon and other SNP politicians often refer to “The Vow” made by the leaders of the three main UK parties before the 2014 vote that Scotland would receive significant devolved powers if it voted to remain in the UK.
The Vow effectively reframed the independence referendum and proved a decisive momentum changer in the dying days of the campaign. Cameron’s negotiated concessions from the EU never managed to influence the debate in 2016 to the extent that The Vow did in 2014. To Sturgeon’s mind, the people of Scotland were not choosing between unionism and independence; they were choosing between independence and further devolution.
May seems to believe that the 2014 and 2016 referenda provide her with a carte blanche for negotiations regarding Scottish interests, but Sturgeon has reason to believe that the people of Scotland want her to be an active participant. This fundamental difference of opinion between May and Sturgeon over the meaning of these two referendum results highlights the difficulty in interpreting any referendum result. Referenda are indelicate vehicles for deciding policy and we can see the problem of interpretation colouring the various arguments from Labour, the DUP, the ERG, and others, that May’s agreement with the EU is “not what the people voted for”.
So, does it matter that Scotland isn’t mentioned in the draft withdrawal agreement? In a word, yes. May’s suppression of Scottish voices in the negotiation process belies the constitutional reality of UK politics today and over-determines how the 2014 and 2016 referenda should be interpreted. Presumably, the inflexible opinions of May and Sturgeon will not be reconciled and the future is likely to hold yet more strife between Westminster and Holyrood.
Lewis Scott is a doctoral researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His research interests include Political Marketing and British Politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets @lwssctt.