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15 October 2019

The SNP hopes Brexit will lead to Scotland’s independence. But the opposite could be true

Unionists will argue that the difficulties the UK has had exiting a 40-year union highlight the challenge of leaving a 400-year one.

By Stephen Bush

The golden thread of this year’s SNP conference is the contrast the party wants to draw between politics in Scotland (stable government capable of passing meaningful progressive legislation, opposed to Brexit) and in England (unstable government, incapable of passing meaningful legislation, supportive of Brexit).

The speeches from the party’s leaders feel a lot like those Old Spice commercials: look at me, now look at your country, now back to me. Nicola Sturgeon’s big speech today is going to hit a lot of the same themes as well as talking up the ability of an independent Scotland to act as a “bridge” between the European Union and the rest of the United Kingdom.

It helps of course that the backdrop to this conference is British politics at its most dysfunctional: a pointless Queen’s Speech stuffed full of bills that parliament won’t vote for, a Prime Minister who most people across the United Kingdom as a whole and Scotland in particular dislike, facing a leader of the opposition they like even less. Yes, one or both men might transform their standing with the public, as Jeremy Corbyn did in 2017 – but unless or until they do, British politics could almost be a laboratory designed to advantage the SNP’s big argument.

But there are risks as well as opportunities in the current political moment, and Sturgeon’s “bridge” line highlights some of them. A Brexit that takes the United Kingdom out of the single market boosts the emotional case for Brexit and the theoretical economic bonus of independence in Europe, but it also makes the logistics of independence harder to navigate. The most powerful Unionist argument in the next referendum will be to emphasise the difficulties Brexit has exposed in exiting a 40-year union in order to highlight the greater challenge of leaving a 400-year one.

By talking up a “bridge” and speaking of the “best of both worlds”, Sturgeon wants to turn that threat into an opportunity. It might work. But the big risk remains that the SNP’s effectiveness in arguing that the post-Brexit United Kingdom will be a basket case could be turned against them in their great fight for independence.

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