Could a Brexit devolution deal satisfy the SNP's independence cravings?

Time is running out for the Prime Minister to come up with a Brexit deal for Scotland. 

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If Scots are to be spared a second independence referendum, two things will have to happen. Theresa May will have to come up with some kind of meat to throw to the Scottish government, and Holyrood will have to accept it. 

Access to the single market is already off the menu. It’s unclear whether May can deliver on her stated aim of preserving elements of the customs union. But there is one thing she can tear off in chunks – devolution.

Brexit means powers currently exercised to the EU will be repatriated to the UK, but so far it hasn’t been confirmed which part of the UK that might be. 

The SNP have been yowling about devolution for weeks. The party’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson demanded at Prime Minister’s Questions whether May could confirm whether the Scottish government would get control over farming and fisheries. (May responded that she was “in the process of discussing” this point). 

Scotland’s fishing industry is a political catch. It indirectly employs 48,000 people, but also underpins the nation’s cultural identity and defines many coastal towns. A majority in the constituency of Banff and Buchan, which includes the fishing ports of Fraserburgh and Peterhead, voted Leave. The SNP MP Joanna Cherry has remarked that it is “no secret” that a significant proportion of Scottish Leave voters worked in the fishing industry. 

We actually already have a good idea of what the Scottish government wants, because it helpfully wrote it down for everyone in December 2016. It is demanding a new devolution settlement which could allow Scotland to enter international agreements in areas affecting devolved responsibility. For example, the UK could sponsor Scotland to become a member of the European Economic Area. 

In her speech at the Scottish Conservative party conference, May left the door open for a devolution deal. 

“The UK devolution settlements were designed in 1998 without any thought of a potential Brexit,” she acknowledged:

"In areas like agriculture, fisheries, and the environment, the devolution settlements in effect devolved to the legislatures in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast the power to implement EU directives in these areas, within a common EU framework."

The Brexit process must include ensuring the “right powers sit at the right level”, she said. 

Then she hammered home her point: 

“While the SNP propose that decision-making should remain in Brussels, we will use the opportunity of Brexit to ensure that more decisions are devolved back into the hands of the Scottish people.”

May is partly on the defence. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been warning that the Tories plan to strip Scotland of devolution powers. She described a second referendum as “legitimate, almost necessary” if Holyrood does not win concessions.

Sturgeon, too, is backed into a corner. As I’ve written before, not only are the polls discouraging, but the economics of independence look worse than they did two years ago, so the stakes for the SNP are very high. A tasty devolution deal would give the more cautious nats something to stave off the hunger for independence. 

But time is running out. If May does not come good on devolution, the two main demands of the Scottish government - access to the single market and more powers - will be unmet. Sturgeon is expected to announce an independence referendum either at the SNP party conference in mid March, or after Article 50 is triggered at the end of the month. A devolution surprise could still be whipped up. But I'm preparing for #indyref2. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.