History seems to develop in sudden bursts (the punctuated equilibrium theory) – nothing happens for decades, and suddenly everything changes at once. For instance, the map of Europe changed very little between 1949 and 1990, and then a lot of borders changed in the space of three years. After that, things went fairly quiet again.
The financial crash, austerity, rising inequality and other factors are now turning the world unsteady once more, and there is a potential for quite a few changes to the map of Europe. (We’ve already seen Crimea and parts of Georgia getting occupied by Russia, and Catalonia might be independent in a month’s time.) However, at some point in the near future, this window of uncertainty will close again, and the status quo will reign supreme again for a long time.
It was probably the financial crash that in 2014 convinced a lot of people in Scotland that independence was a better option than remaining within the UK, and Brexit is now a great opportunity to make even more people come on board. This doesn’t happen on its own, of course – somebody needs to explain to former Unionists why Brexit means that Scotland is a safer way forward.
However, at some point Brexit will get resolved, and things will stabilise again – the companies and people that couldn’t accept it will have left, and the rest will have found a new to live. Even if the new status quo is clearly worse than the old one, people’s livelihoods will depend on the new state of affairs, and they will not want to rock the boat. At that point it will again get much harder to interest people in independence.
For instance, if the UK has left the Internal Market and the EU’s customs union and instead entered an association agreement with the US, leaving the UK and rejoining the EU (or Efta) will seem like an enormous change, a step too far for the vast majority of people whose jobs depend on trade with the USA, even if they vaguely remember that the jobs they had before Brexit were better.
Furthermore, it doesn’t seem at all certain that there will be a pro-independence majority at Holyrood after 2021, and that could make it impossible to call a new referendum, even if the opinion polls at that time find a majority of Scots in favour of independence.
This means that if ScotRef hasn’t happened by 2021, the window of uncertainty is likely to have closed by the time pro-independence parties gain a majority again, and then the ball will have been kicked into the seriously long grass.
However, this doesn’t mean that waiting till 2021 is a good idea at all. In fact, I’m getting increasingly worried that time is already running out, and I’m getting increasingly frustrated with the Scottish Government – they seem to be focusing mainly on getting the best possible Brexit deal from the UK, instead of spending their time campaigning for independence. I’m not saying anybody should really be talking about a referendum at this stage – there’s a lot of referendum fatigue in Scotland – but if nobody explains why Scotland will be better off as part of the EU than as part of the UK, former No voters won’t change their mind.
The thing is that people and companies are moving. I’m aware that relatively few people have left yet, but that’s because it takes time to make such a big change.
To take my own family as an example: My wife holds UK citizenship, and nothing else. Moving to the rest of the EU will thus be much harder for her after March 2019, so if we move, it’ll need to happen sooner than that. We have kids in both primary and secondary school, and making such as fundamental change during a school year isn’t a great idea. The best time to move is thus the summer of 2018. It’ll take us at least six months to plan such a move – we’ll need to find new jobs, sell the house and many other things – so we’ll need to make our decision by Christmas this year. This doesn’t mean that Scotland will need have to have left by then, but if it’s still looking like the UK might be going for a hard (or even a cliff-edge) Brexit, and if there’s no concrete plan for Scotland to be doing anything about it, we’ll have to execute Operation Flit.
I imagine that many other people and companies are working to similar time scales. What’s important here is that once the house has been put on the market and new job contracts signed, it’ll get very hard to reverse the decision, even if ScotRef suddenly gets announced next summer.
There is a mandate for independence both in Holyrood and in Westminster (counting only the Scottish seats). We need to act while Scottish independence can act as a solution to Brexit, not as yet a further upheaval once things have finally calmed down. And we need to signal what the plan is before lots of people and companies have relocated themselves permanently to the rest of the EU.
We’re in a hurry.