Ian Swanson: Second EU referendum is Scotland’s best hope

First Minister meets Prime Minister Theresa May at Bute House.  Picture; StevenSscott Taylor

First Minister meets Prime Minister Theresa May at Bute House. Picture; StevenSscott Taylor

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THERESA May made her debut on the world stage as she attended the G20 summit in China.

It was the first gathering of its kind since the UK’s surprise vote to quit the EU and future British relations with Europe and the rest of the world were inevitably one of the key talking points.

But what the UK Government wants that to look like remains shrouded in uncertainty.

And that makes it difficult for Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government to know how to react.

Mrs May coined her catchphrase “Brexit means Brexit” to reassure people that she would abide by the outcome of the referendum – that there would be no backsliding, no attempt to reverse the decision or ignore the voters’ verdict.

But the shocking fact remains that the Cameron government had no contingency plans for what to do in the event of a vote for Brexit and the Leave camp had made no preparations either.

Mrs May inherited a policy vacuum and had to start from scratch to plan for a massive step in the country’s future.

But despite a long parliamentary summer break to work out what should be done, two months on from the referendum the public is none the wiser about what Brexit will mean.

It has at least become evident that there will be no £350m a week for the NHS, as promised by some of the Leave campaigners, and the points-based immigration system which was talked abut so much has been ruled out too.

But just what are Mrs May and her ministers going to be negotiating for when they start talks with Brussels?

Scotland voted by 62 per cent to 38 in favour of remaining in the EU and a new poll shows an increase in the pro-EU support since the June 23 vote, making the balance of opinion 66-34.

But the surge in support for independence which the SNP seemed to expect as a result of a radically different referendum result north and south of the Border has failed to materialise.

And Ms Sturgeon has been accused of softening her stance – from declaring a second independence referendum “highly likely” to describing it merely as “an option” and most recently seeking a cross-UK political coalition to secure a “soft Brexit” by staying in the single market.

However, she did promise as part of yesterday’s programme for government to consult on a draft Referendum Bill which could be introduced immediately if she decided that was the only way forward.

The First Minister is due to update MSPs today on her efforts to “protect” Scotland from Brexit, but there seems little optimism now about Scotland being able to retain EU membership while still part of the UK.

Former SNP leader Gordon Wilson has published a paper arguing for a “Celtic corridor” – a trade agreement negotiated with the EU by the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland and Scotland. He argues this would allow Scotland and Northern Ireland – which also voted Remain – to continue as part of the UK but also enjoy the benefits of the EU. But it is not clear all the necessary parties would back the idea.

The poll that found increased support for the EU also found a majority of Scots wanting a second EU referendum.

It seems unlikely to happen, given Mrs May’s dismissal of the idea. But unless Ms Sturgeon can secure a special deal or there is a significant increase in support for independence, that might come to look like Scotland’s best hope.