ENTER stage right, a familiar character from the past with an unexpected message. Tony Blair has returned to the headlines with a speech which was a rallying call for Remain voters, but also argued that the Brexit vote had made the case for Scottish independence more credible.
The former prime minister made it clear he was not advocating independence. “Even if Brexit goes ahead I am still in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK,” he said.
“Scotland’s single market with England is of far greater importance to it economically than Scotland’s interaction with the rest of Europe.”
But the fact he not only mentioned the possibility of independence but highlighted the matter of credibility sounds like a significant concession over the balance of the arguments compared with 2014.
In the course of his Brexit-focused speech at an Open Britain event last week, he told his audience: “The possibility of the break-up of the UK – narrowly avoided by the result of the Scottish referendum – is now back on the table, but this time with a context much more credible for the independence case.”
He is far from endorsing the SNP’s dream of an independent Scotland, but he implies there is more chance of a majority backing it in a new vote.
With speculation widespread that Nicola Sturgeon could use the SNP spring conference next month to make some kind of announcement about another referendum, Mr Blair’s comments serve as a warning to the UK Government that a determination to pursue a hard Brexit – or as he refers to it, Brexit at all costs – will play into the Nationalists’ hands.
Two leading academics this week said even if Scotland voted for independence in autumn 2018, it was unlikely it could simply stay on as an EU member when the rest of the UK leaves.
But Tobias Lock from Edinburgh University and Kirsty Hughes of Friends of Europe said the 62-38 vote for Remain north of the Border meant there was “considerable political goodwill” towards Scotland in EU capitals and the country could therefore expect to be fast-tracked back in.
In his speech Mr Blair took the Tories’ changing stance on Brexit apart, recalling how before the referendum Theresa May and Philip Hammond claimed that leaving the EU would be bad for the country, its economy, its security and its place in the world. “Today it is apparently a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity’ for greatness.”
He said after the referendum result, Mr Hammond described leaving the Single Market as catastrophic. “Now it appears we will leave the Single Market and the Customs Union and he is very optimistic.”
Boris Johnson had been emphatically in favour of the Single Market. “Now ditching it is ‘brilliant’.”
Mr Blair argued persuasively that many of the Brexit campaign themes quickly evaporated after the result and immigration remains as the one practical argument still advanced – yet leaving the EU will not affect the immigration most people care about.
However, his answer – urging people to “rise up” – against Brexit sounded less convincing.
Ms Sturgeon said Mr Blair was “stating the obvious” about Brexit and the case for independence – but she will nevertheless be glad he did so.