Debate rages on about whether a new referendum would be justified. What everyone north and south of the wall can agree on, however, is that in any referendum an informed choice is better than an uninformed one. (Unless you’ve had enough of experts, or truth, because those things don’t serve your agenda.) And that is why the best time for Scotland to vote on its independence would be once Brexit is a done deal.
Nicola Sturgeon’s previously announced timeframe, autumn 2018 to spring 2019, appears sensible, and the justification hits the nail on the head – she wants the referendum to be held once “the terms of Brexit are known”. And indeed, the European Commission would like the terms to be known by September 30, 2018. But why should we be taking risks? Everything has already gone wrong many times in the last year, and this is another time when everything can go wrong.
Let’s invoke Murphy’s law. Say that a new independence referendum is officially scheduled for November 1, 2018, so that before going to the polls Scottish voters can familiarise themselves with what kind of a Brexit future is facing them if they stay in Britain. Then, it turns out that the negotiations are taking a bit longer than expected, but Theresa May assures the public that a decent deal is close, and that everything will be finished just in time. Scottish voters feel reassured, and in a nailbiter referendum Scotland votes to stay in the UK by a margin of less than one percent. The next day, it conveniently turns out that Theresa May was spreading alternative facts all along, and some months later Britain – and Scotland with it – is left stranded with no Brexit deal at all. Voters in Scotland feel betrayed, and the Westminster government will have a lot of explaining to do. Demands for an indyref3 couldn’t be dismissed as outright illegitimate.
Of course the European negotiators on the other side of the table might be able to provide a reality check, but relying on foreign aid to get the facts straight would appear profoundly dubious. As far as the trustworthiness of the current British government is concerned, if you ask Boris Johnson at least, misleading the public ahead of a referendum isn’t such a big deal.
One might say that Brexit won’t be a done deal in years, and that the two-year negotiation period is only the beginning. While it is true that many things about the relationship between Britain and the EU will remain unknown, the day an official agreement on the terms of departure exists is a clear landmark. After that, it might be difficult to justify a longer wait with the independence issue to the Scottish public. As for the possibility of Article 50 negotiations being extended beyond the two-year negotiation period, it must be noted that a unanimous agreement among EU28 to that effect seems distant. Also, it could be possible to take such a possibility into account by wording the referendum bill along the lines of “the referendum shall take place two months after the Article 50 deal has been concluded”.
It’s hard to see how an independent Scotland would at this point be able to ‘rejoin’ the EU without ever having to leave in the first place. In other words, with the current schedules an independent Scotland would only emerge from a United Kingdom which is no longer an EU member, considering among other things the transitory period between an independence referendum and actual independence, which in 2014 was planned to be a year and a half. That is one more reason to think that having the referendum before the facts about the Brexit deal are definitively out there would be risky rather than rational.
To ensure that any complaints about the result truly amount to illegitimate, pointless moaning, we need to avoid all sorts of red buses (and last-minute vows, if you like). Now that we’ve entered the time of deciding things based on snapshots of the public opinion on a given day, making sure that those referendums that are held yield informed choices is our best shot at moving towards a stabler future on our chosen paths, without too many reasons to hold grudges.