Brexit and Scottish Independence: It May have been time for some bad game theory

The SNP have called for a second referendum on Scottish independence, and many feel this is the direct result of the Prime Minister steering us towards a ‘hard Brexit’:  exit from the single market and the customs union.

This seems both right and wrong.

It’s wrong in the sense that one could argue that the real driver of a hard Brexit is the EU’s strategic determination to keep itself intact, post Brexit, and what it has decided best serves that end.

As seemed likely before the June 23rd vote, the EU would figure that to avoid a chaotic renegotiation of its constituent Treaties, it would basically offer the UK a take it or leave it option.  Pay for single market membership, or be out of it.  No menu of alternative options.  The emergency brake on immigration and the other concessions Cameron wrung were no longer to be pursued because there was not the incentive of keeping the UK inside the union to make it worth the strategic risk (to its own integrity) to pursue them.

It’s right that May has driven us to this point because she observed that the one thing that might have avoided it is agreeing to these EU terms, and hoping that a symbolic Brexit would placate the Brexit constituency in her party.  Some hoped that this might be chosen as a ‘compromise’ solution balancing the interests of Remainers and Brexiteers.

But it would not have been a coherent compromise to anyone who understood beyond symbolic terms what full EU membership and ‘Norway’ options meant.  For the intelligent Brexiteers the ‘compromise’ amounts to what it is:  the status quo without representation to go along with the taxes that are paid for the benefits they don’t value.  And it also closes of pursuing the fantastical project of trying to improve on free trade with Europe by freer, but far from free trade with the more distant rest of the world (which requires existing the customs union).

One calculation amongst all this game theory might have been that though a proper compromise deal was not likely to be on the table, the best way of increasing the chances of it being there were to try to convince the EU that the UK was prepared to tolerate the hardest possible of Brexits.  That would cause the strategic unity of the EU negotiators to buckle, generating otherwise absent compromise offers, which in turn would make Brexit look less damaging to Scotland, and independence less attractive to those who would seek it to preserve the old terms with the EU.

However, if this was what was going through May’s head, it seems so far to have been a miscalculation.  There has been no buckling yet, and the SNP have been able to use the threat of a hard Brexit to relaunch its long-term campaign for independence.  Scottish independence was to have been made less likely by the bluff tactic, but in fact it has been made somewhat more so.

That this might have been a miscalculation – if anything like this was calculated at all – ought to have been apparent.  For one thing, the EU can see the costs and benefits of different outcomes for the UK without the UK itself declaring them.  For another, the tactic was ripe for being taken advantage of by the SNP, which might be presumed (from its name) to value independence for its own sake, and not because of the trade relationships which forgoing it confer on Scots (a mindset that Tory strategists ought to have had some exposure to).

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One Response to Brexit and Scottish Independence: It May have been time for some bad game theory

  1. Peter Tulloch says:

    “There has been no buckling yet” but who would expect that? The negotiations are still at the shouting stage, not even engaged. Michel Barnier has spelled out his opening position and that is all. Importantly, that includes the issue of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa.
    Both sides still have lots of room for manoeuvre.
    Nicola Sturgeon’s gambit was a clever short-term move, but will it go further than that?
    Scottish independence within the single market, if England and Wales are outside, will complicate the UK issue, including that of Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland, even further; there would then be two “hard” land borders. This may give the Brexiteers pause. But there are two long years to run.

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