Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Post Brexit Britain and Scottish Independence

In my 2014 blog, The Scottish Referendum: Why I am voting No, I outlined the reasons for staying with the United Kingdom. At the time, all the reasons I stated were sound. However, I also wrote this:

I may well reconsider my position in the future should Britain leave the EU: that would be the height of nationalistic folly - albeit English on this occasion.

With the end of 2020, we finally see the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and it is not pretty. All third nation regulations and bureaucracy apply to the island of Great Britain, with the only “benefit” being that trade is tariff-free. It is a total disgrace and a disaster for small and medium sized businesses that trade with the EU. The only companies that can ride out this arrangement relatively unscathed are the largest. 

So the question I have to face now is, given this change, where do I stand now on the issue of Scottish Independence? It is not a moot point: the SNP will be pressing for a second referendum, assuming they do well in the upcoming Holyrood elections. 

Former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has waded into the debate. He rightly points out that the vast majority of Scotland’s trade is inside the United Kingdom. If Scotland were to leave the Union and we were to join the EU, there would be a very good chance that we would be facing a hard land border with England, at least for goods and services. One only has to look at what is happening in Kent and Holyhead to see the results of such trade barriers. It’s either chaos or the calm of greatly reduced trade. Scottish businesses with any dealing with England would have to complete whatever paperwork required by England, and English businesses and goods would have to be completely EU-compliant. Brown cited that Scotland currently does £15 billion worth of trade with the EU, and about £60 billion with England and Wales. This would be a massive brake on the Scottish economy and there is no getting around it.

Since Scotland and England share the same island, the movement of people would be easier. That is unless an independent Scotland were to join the Schengen Area, which allows free movement of people from anywhere in the EU, in which case a hard border would certainly be the result. In order to enjoy freedom of movement within Great Britain, it is very likely that Scottish and English border forces would have to maintain a joint relationship, with pooled recording of every individual that enters Great Britain. It is not impossible to do but would mean that the independence of Scottish immigration policies would be limited in scope by the larger neighbour to the south. 

The truth is that Scotland will be poorer if we are to vote for independence. That was always the case. In 2014, it was made clear that the EU would not support swift membership for an independent Scotland. This was one of my reasons for opposing independence. It is entirely understandable that the EU would support a member state to maintain its national integrity. Now that the UK has left the EU, that attitude might well change. In 2016, Scotland voted 62% to stay in the EU. If anything, support for continued EU membership has grown since them. But this is the same across the UK. If there was another referendum, polls from 2020 indicate that the UK as a whole would vote 60% to stay with the EU. Well, that ain’t going to happen. The Conservatives will not give another chance for a referendum for at least another 40 years, if ever. Labour is fence-sitting and not willing to lead any debate. Even Ed Davey of the Liberal Democrats has said that while the party will campaign for closest possible ties with Europe, we will not campaign to rejoin. In this Davey is completely wrong: the majority of Liberal Democrats are ardent supporters of the EU and would rejoin in a heartbeat. The overall political picture though is clear: despite the train-wreck that Britain is currently going through, there is no appetite among the leadership of any major political party to reopen the debate.   

So what do we do now in Scotland? The SNP would have us vote Yes of course. I don’t like nationalism and I don’t like the SNP. They are illiberal, prone to centralise power and there is a certainly a pitchfork-and-torches section in their membership that target political opponents. For example, Alex Cole Hamilton, Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh West, has had roughly thirty complaints levelled against him to the police by SNP members, concerning election spending and paperwork. All have been dismissed as baseless. Also I don’t care for the SNP tendency to go in for their cults-of-personality, both Salmond and Sturgeon have in turn enjoyed such mindless support. An independent Scotland would have this version of politics turned up to 11. 

There is a host of reasons not to support Scottish independence and yet I am thinking about it now: the reason being down to bastard Brexit.

Brexit is not an end but a start. The leaders of that movement, mostly from the economic right but aided by fellow-travellers on the democratic-socialist left, have campaigned against the EU for decades. The left because the EU is a capitalist club (they are correct: it is) but the right wanted out because it is regulated capitalism. In the words of former Conservative minister Eric Pickles, that’s communism. Which is utter bollocks. Capitalism has to be regulated by the rule of law. Deregulation is economic Darwinism where people like you am I are food to be preyed upon by corporations and the very rich. It takes the pooling of political sovereignty in order to stand up to modern-day global companies. Although not perfect, this is what the EU does regulate on. It is one of the few multi-national bodies that can. The alternative is to go the way of China, Russia and Singapore, which have little in the way of individual rights or effective courts, therefore authoritarian governments lay out how it is going to be. At least in Singapore the citizens have a luxurious lifestyle to compensate for their lack of political involvement, even if the migrant workers do not. 

Post-Brexit Britain will head the same way: an erosion of working and political rights, a dominance of large corporate bodies and ultimately the privatisation of all of public services. This will take time to occur but freed from the constraints of international law and EU regulation, it will happen.  Add to this the continued rise of the far right, as I and many others are persistently warning against. It is not coincidence that Trump approves of Brexit and Biden does not. So far, Brexit has been the biggest tangible victory of the international far right movements. While Hungary and Poland are under their sway, neither country has actually left the EU. Britain has. 

Gordon Brown has got around to advocating a federal Britain. He is right: that would have been a good answer. Liberal Democrats have been pushing for federalism for years. But who is listening now? Who listened before? Certainly not the Labour Party. Nor does federalism answer Brexit. Ed Davey’s proposals, which ultimately means rejoining of the EU Customs Union and Freedom of Movement, would work too. I would have, reluctantly, accepted Brexit if this had been on offer. Brexiters made sure that those of us who voted Remain were completely shouldered out of what type of Brexit would be settled for. Their Brexit, an apparent liberation for businesses, has resulted in red-tape strangling SMEs. 

Make no mistake: it has been nationalism on all sides that has brought us to this pass. This is an example of why I am committed anti-nationalist. I also said in 2014 that I would accept the outcome of any Scottish referendum result: a pledge notably absent from nationalists. I have not accepted the Brexit result because we had three months debate ahead of the vote and then four years arguing about what we had actually voted for. That is the wrong way around. In 2014, we in Scotland made our decision after two years of debate.

What do I want? Britain to rejoin the EU as soon as possible. What if that soon as possible is thirty years? Scotland could be independent and settled within the next twenty. If there is a Yes to independence in another referendum, my advice would be not to rush the transition. As shown by the past five years, it takes a long time to make a break. If there is a Yes result, I will continue to campaign for a liberal Scotland within the EU (or EFTA) framework. I would be happy to live out the rest of my life in a Scandinavian-style Scotland and would do what I can to bring that around. This would not help the people of England and Wales though, except through example of what is possible. 

If the Referendum votes No, I will continue to campaign for a better UK under the rule of law and with proper human rights to the highest standards. I am not so confident that is possible any more but that is no reason to give up. 

How would I vote in another referendum? There is no easy or clear path now. One has to look towards what the ends are. The ends of Brexit are totally abhorrent to me. So, reluctantly, and in great sorrow for the breaking of the Union, I would now vote for independence. 

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