The Scottish Parliament voted by 69 votes to 59 votes to create the conditions and preparations for a second referendum on independence (Indyref2). There was a danger that the process of triggering Article 50 to initiate the start of the UK-EU negotiations on Brexit would be overshadowed by the call for a second independence vote in Scotland.
The UK General Election has clarified the timing of any future referendum on Scotland’s membership of the union of the United Kingdom. During her campaign speeches and participation in television debates, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stated clearly that she is seeking a vote for the people of Scotland once the details of the final deal on Brexit are known.
The timing is very important. The British government is limited in its options on when it presents a proposed Brexit agreement to the British parliament. Opposition parties will demand some time for scrutiny of the deal agreed between the UK and European Union.
The remaining twenty-seven member states of the European Union will require some time to study and approve the proposed Brexit agreement, some through national parliamentary ratification. The European Parliament must also be given time to discuss and vote on any final deal agreed by the European Council, before the EU’s approval of an agreement is complete.
Optimistic estimates suggest that a minimum of two to three months will be required for this approval process.
Working backwards from the date at which the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union will terminate – whether a deal is in place or not – it is clear that a final proposed exit agreement will need to be in place by the end of December 2018.
Scotland’s First Minister suggests that the administrative arrangements for an independence referendum should be in place prior to this. Arrangements would include activities such as Electoral Commission approval of the referendum question put to voters, together with organisation of voter registration and polling place locations.
The British government will resist calls for a second independence vote, reiterating the challenge that it faces in concentrating wholly on the demands on government time and resources needed for the Brexit negotiations.
On timing, it is possible to conclude that the government has a maximum of fifteen months to secure a deal with Brussels. This takes account of the periods when the European Commission and Whitehall are essentially at their lowest capacity in numbers of staff, due to holidays and established ‘quiet periods’ from August through to the beginning of October.
Nicola Sturgeon is unlikely to accept the British government’s reasoning on the timing of any future independence referendum. Equally, there seems to be little appetite in Downing Street for compromise on this issue.
Ultimately, as the key tenets of any final Brexit agreement start to emerge – through leaks, press briefings and formal announcements by the UK and the European Union, demands for a second vote in Scotland are likely to increase.