Brexit and the hope of goodwill

IN one sense it is good to get some clarity at last over Brexit, and there was no room for ambiguity in Chancellor Philip Hammond’s statement in Edinburgh yesterday.

Speaking before he had even shaken Nicola Sturgeon’s hand, Mr Hammond ruled out a special deal on Brexit for Scotland. He said the decision to leave the EU was the will of the people of the United Kingdom. “We’re clear that we can’t have a different deal or a different outcome for different parts of the United Kingdom,” he added. It was just not realistic. Scotland would suffer a “disadvantage” if it were outside whatever new relationship the UK negotiated with the EU.

You can parse these words as much as you like but there did not seem to be much leeway for radically different interpretations.

The Scottish Government has of course been hard at work on a proposal on how Scotland could remain part of the single market even in the event of a hard Brexit for the rest of the UK. Ministers are looking at whether Scotland could preserve its Single Market membership by becoming part of the European Economic Area or the European Free Trade Association, even though this would entail the rules of both bodies being rewritten and would also require the support of the UK government.

It is worth pointing out that, in the wake of yesterday’s meeting, the First Minister’s people disclosed that Mr Hammond said he looked forward to hearing the proposals and that they would considered fully by the UK Government. Such a gesture, they added, was in line with the specific pledge made by Theresa May at Bute House in July.

Mr Hammond’s colleague, Brexit Secretary David Davis, told the Commons yesterday that the UK might be prepared to pay for a beneficial trade deal with the EU post Brexit. The Chancellor praised Mr Davis’s “flexible and open-minded” approach to negotiations in order to maximise the UK’s deal. If the government has promised to study the forthcoming Scottish proposals, might we yet see some open-minded flexibility between the two governments, some possible form of accommodation?

Much will depend on however much goodwill the UK government is willing to impart towards Scotland in its Brexit negotiations. If it priorities a separate deal for Scotland, should one be possible, it might have to sacrifice some other demand. But precisely how much political capital would UK ministers wish to sink into an arrangement with a Scottish government that will never quite be content until its achieves independence?

In the meantime, Mr Hammond’s words have provoked some supporters of independence to assert that the only way ahead for Scotland now is a second referendum. It is an understandable impulse, but this week’s opinion poll, which put pro-independence sentiment at 44 per cent, its lowest level since the 2014 referendum, does not suggest a country that is in a fervent turmoil to secede from the UK.

Much may depend on the extent of the UK Cabinet’s willingness to address the issues raised by the proposals currently being drawn up in Edinburgh. Mrs Sturgeon can but hope that the kindness of strangers, as it were, will make life easier for her.

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