1 July 2016

Scotland's future? Brexit on Brexiteers' terms. Unless...

Consider the following scenario. The United Kingdom votes narrowly to crash out of the European Union, 52% to 48%.  In Scotland, by contrast, a substantial majority - from coast to coast - votes to remain. Invoking the popular will of the Scottish people, the First Minister gives a press conference. Distilled down to its essence, she says that unless Scotland's EU membership can be secured, we're on course for #indyref2 as the last viable route to secure a European future for this country. 

Merry hell ensues. It soon becomes apparent that none of the alternatives to keep Scotland in the EU fly. In erecting the legal infrastructure for the referendum, Westminster refused a home-nations Euro lock, which would have required all four parts of the UK to vote in favour of Brexit. The Scotland Act gives Holyrood no constitutional power to veto the departure from the Union which the majority of Britons demanded. For all the well-intentioned creativity of the ideas produced by desperate Remain campaigners and academics in the frenetic wash following the vote, all of their solutions are quickly revealed as far-fetched and politically inoperative; intolerable either to European governments, to the United Kingdom, or both. 

Scotland can't invert Greenland's experience. The autonomous island is part of Denmark, but sits outside the EU.  Why - some folk have asked - couldn't England and Wales fall beyond the frontiers of European law and the four European freedoms, of goods, services, capital and people, while Scotland is left in? But the two cases are completely different. Greenland has a population the size of Livingston, compared to the 5.6 million Danes on Europe's doorstep, who accept EU rules and participate in the bloc's decision-making. If we "reversed" this in the UK, over 80% of the UK population would fall outside the EU. To put it mildly, this would be an unwieldy, cumbersome, unsustainable solution, even if it was politically acceptable, which it isn't.

But beyond that -- Britain voted to leave the European Union. Without independence, Scotland cannot step up and occupy the seat which the UK will vacate. Even if this lop-sided, unstable compromise was acceptable to European governments, the UK isn't going to remain even a paper member in Brussels, for the sake of five million Scots in a country of more than sixty four million. Particularly, if the consequence of such a decision would be to asset-strip the English economy, as companies relocate north of the border to secure their access to the single market. It is a fond fantasy. It soon becomes clear that there is no viable route for Scotland to remain within the EU while it remains a junior and overruled partner the United Kingdom. Thus far, I'd argue, we have already come in the manic progress of the last week. 

This is not to say that Nicola Sturgeon's unprecedented embassy to Brussels was cynical or calculated gesture, as some of the First Minister's more embittered critics argue. But Sturgeon's remarkably gutsy response to the result immediately established a trajectory which made a second independence referendum seem nigh unavoidable. "Highly likely" but not her "first option", is how the First Minister has characterised it. I agree.

But a key variable is and remains missing from these calculations: what kind of deal will Britain do with the EU? Here, to my mind, there is only one master question: will David Cameron's successor accept the principle of free movement or not? Whether under Prime Minister Theresa May, or Michael Gove, is this to be a Brexit which turns the lock in the door, or which leaves it ajar to the European nations Britain has decided to distance itself from? The past couple of days have brought a little bleak clarity to that.

But there is - at least in theory - considerable wiggle room for British political actors here. Many pointed to the solution devised by the EFTA states, including Norway, which permits Norwegian goods and persons to circulate freely in the single European market, without fully incorporating the Norway into the EU proper. But the price of this kind of privileged access to the single market? Free movement of persons and no internal borders. You can't say we weren't warned. European Council President, Donald Tusk, has repeatedly underscored this. The view has been reiterated several times, before and after the referendum, by key actors within the EU, from Chancellor Merkel to Jean-Claude Juncker: "no single market a la carte."

(I'd merely note, when he isn't getting standing ovations in the European Parliament, that Alyn Smith MEP was bang on about this back in 2014, when he wrote that the "unreality" of David Cameron's renegotiation proposals made Brexit odds on. How sadly prescient.)

There was - briefly - a window in which this might have been fought for from within the major UK parties. If they had seized the initiative, remain campaigners and more liberal minded Tory and Labour Brexiteers might have made a coordinated push to define the terms of which Britain would have negotiated its departure from Europe, emphasising the narrowness of the margin of victory, and seeing something like EFTA status for Britain as the next-best or least-worst alternative, keeping the channels of trade, work and travel open.  If Mr Cameron had remained in post, this might have been possible, and Britain might have secured this kind of looser connection with the European Union

But there would be an obvious political cost to this which your average calculating Tory politician would be unprepared to pay. With its ugly emphasis on "taking back control" over our borders, it was always going to be tremendously difficult for any post-Brexit PM to avoid committing to ending free movement of persons from the Europe Union. Any Tory PM who failed to do so would leave themselves vulnerable to a massive and emboldened UKIP campaign against immigration. After all, why vote for the lesser evil? 

But if this became a serious option -- it would have put Nicola Sturgeon in a deuced difficult spot.  If an EFTA type deal was struck, which meant that Britons could work, travel and trade freely within the European Union, how many Scots would really be prepared to die in the ditch for the European rights, freedoms and regulations we had lost? There are, perhaps, a handful of people in this country for whom full participation in the EU is a red line. 

Even so, the Brexit result has almost certainly done lasting damage to liberal, cosmopolitan and professional Scotland's confidence in the UK, its stability, competence, and the mutual faith and credit in these islands which many No voters felt so keenly in 2014. (As a perceptive friend of mine noted, weeks out from the poll, the levels of complacency you encountered in Scotland about the referendum were startling. This is, perhaps, understandable. If you live in those parts of Edinburgh and Glasgow, for example, in which more than 75% of the population voted to Remain, it is understandable that the outcome seems a sure fire thing. Friday was a grisly morning, but all the more so, because it caught big parts of the electorate completely by surprise).

But offered an EFTA deal, I suspect most Scots would be prepared to endure the compromise, and count themselves lucky, even if Nigel Farage and his honking compatriots belched and gurgled about it. What would Nicola Sturgeon do? On these terms, would Brexit really represent a "material change" in most Scots attitudes to independence? I hae ma doots. 

I suspect that for many, many Scots, the perceived necessity and temporary appeal of independence would recede. The First Minister has given herself considerable wriggle room, in her public remarks. She has never, to my knowledge, made a categorical statement about whether or not an EFTA style deal would satisfy her, or not, representing an almost adequate reflection of the popular will. But at the very least, it might leave Nicola exposed, having given the prospect of a second independence referendum such powerful momentum, in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum results. Such things have the habit of running out of control. 

But hidden beneath the incessant Game of Thrones metaphors, lost-sight of in the explosive Shakespearean game of political personalities -- Gove bursting out of Johnson's belly, like an alien hatchling -- the past two days have confirmed that the brief window of opportunity for a more open European deal has been slammed unceremoniously shut by the ascendant forces within our Tory government. Now the rout begins. 

Both Michael Gove and Theresa May have effectively confirmed that they will not countenance the more cosmopolitan option of EFTA. The implications for the UK's access to the single market remain fully to be charted. But we shouldn't kid ourselves on. We can't pretend we've been hoodwinked. At the weekend, in a common statement, the European heads of government set out their position perfectly categorically.

"In the future, we hope to have the UK as a close partner of the EU and we look forward to the UK stating its intentions in this respect. Any agreement, which will be concluded with the UK as a third country, will have to be based on a balance of rights and obligations. Access to the Single Market requires acceptance of all four freedoms."

That's freedom of goods, services, capital -- and yes, persons too. Yesterday and today, both  leading contenders to be Prime Minister have confirmed that under their leadership, the Tories will put the principle of free movement to the sword -- however devastatingly this position undermines their wider ambition to crack open the single European market to British firms, capital and workers.

This will be a Brexit, on Brexiteers' terms. There can be no illusions left now, about the emerging character of this United Kingdom and the priorities of its new government, whoever the victor in the Tory party leadership election may be. There must be a snowball's chance in hell of any kind of compromised Norway inspired EEA/EFTA deal now.

Thus, Sturgeon has dodged one bullet, but contemplates another. A second independence referendum now becomes increasingly unavoidable. Much which will be critical to the fortunes of such a poll remains unknown. Europe - clearly - has conflicting currents within it, more and less helpful to the Scottish Government, if they are forced to embrace a second independence poll. Depending on your optimism or your pessimism - I'm currently veering between the two, as the hours tend - the prospect may make you sing with lively anticipation, or shoogle with anxiety.

I still do not have a clear sense about just how far this referendum result has restructured Scottish opinion, and whether - tested under the renewed glare of a serious campaign - a second Yes campaign would carry the day. We all have anecdotes. Individual converts, and changed minds. But the room is still spinning. When things come back into some kind of focus, what then? 

As I wrote in the Times yesterday and in the National last Saturday, the First Minister has been on majestic form. Gutsy. Poised. Reasoned and reasonable. Clear and humane. But Andy Maciver must be right to conclude, in the Herald this morning, that "this is a career-defining gamble by Nicola Sturgeon, and therefore a defining moment for the nationalist movement." This is multi-dimensional chess, played with exploding pieces.

Only time will tell, 

28 comments :

  1. I don't see how Nicola could have handled it any better. At this point, a second referendum looks as near a certainty as can be with Yes starting at a majority opinion, if only slightly. It will be an 'interesting' campaign, but I suspect this time Yes may have at least a few allies in the media (not BBC though).

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  2. Left in the union the Scots would become the whipping boys. Barnet would go a long with any vestiges of fair play. Just look at EVEL and Cameron's behaviour the morning after. We sent 56 MP's and every single SNP amendment to the Scotland act was voted down. Any Scot who can't see what life will be like with a Brexit Conservative government is in denial . Sturgeon is playing the only cards she has and playing them well. Let's hope that the establishment are so absorbed in their own power struggles that they leave their collective opposition till it's too late. We have a wizard at the helm , I just hope she's a warrior when the time comes, and it will

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  3. Would EFTA countries have any say in accepting the UK? Would they necessarily want us?

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    1. I'm sure I read recently that Norway would veto such a bid, as having a country with 64 million folk would totally change the dynamic of EFTA, and they're quite happy with how it is just now.

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    2. The EFTA is Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. With exception of Switzerland, who chose a (verious tedious) course of bilateral agreements with the EU, these countries formed the EEA together with the EU. So the UK wouldn't gain much as EFTA member, if they don't join the EEA. As far as I know membership has to be agreed on by all member states. The EU would certainly comply once they have agreed on a "divorce agreement" with the UK. The position of the Norway could be interesting though and could play a role in negotiations, especially when the UK is offered a deal that is better than the one Norway has.

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  4. This is realistic commentary, though the EU's position strikes me as being potentially far more fluid and unpredictable. The EU will soon have to undergo something like a Vatican II, but only a radical, imaginative change will help it to avoid being annihilated by its own contradictions.

    It has to offer more devolution and democracy, in order to head off the breakaway movements which will be inspired by Brexit; it has to centralise at the same time, in order to make its disastrous currency function. Our relation to this is typically contradictory. We need to get a bad deal if we decide to defy their prescriptions, in order to dissuade other exiters; yet Europe's second largest economy going into recession will deepen the economic malaise across the continent and this will naturally agitate other exiters.

    Hopefully the European demos will use all of the democratic institutions of the EU to choose a wise leade... oh, wait.

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  5. The FM is holding to the line of seeking to bring about what Scottish voters voted for. She has NOT committed to Independence. The SNP will be polling extensively and privately and not moving until opinion moves. Possibly Scots will settle into the an acceptance of the depredations of the Brexit State. But over time the likely rising debt,inflation and unemployment will focus minds

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  6. Brexit, on Brexiteer's terms.

    Margaret Hilda Thatcher contended that all Scotland had to do for independence was to vote in a majority of SNP members.

    As the devolved parliament in Edinburgh is a wee offshoot of *that* parliament, what is the problem?

    I look forward to your explanation just how the British establishment (lawyers) would derail that.

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  7. You like the word 'deuced' don't ya 😄

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  8. Great write up of thoughts and possibilities we've all been trying to pin down. Thanks.

    I presume Norway doesn't receive CAP funds? Would that sway some significant voters?

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  9. What this whole sorry charade has done is to make it clear to many No voters just how precarious Scotland's existence is.
    The UK govt will always pander to England's interests even when it has potentially disastrous results for Scotland.

    I think that's what IndyRef2 should be based on. We already know that just about every promise made during the ref campaign was a lie, so there will be little credibility on the other side.

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  10. The opinion and actions of business in response to brexit will win it for yes.

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  11. Most English commentators on all sides clearly expect Scotland to hold and win an independence referendum. Our neighbours respect cowardice and servility not at all, hence the utter contempt for 2014 pre-ref promises; "if you act like fools, so will you be treated". Another failed ref would essentially reposition Scotland as impotent as current Wales. We'd be reduced to comical region status. It's all or (literally) nothing.

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  12. Mission Not Very Possible: to workaround the free movement obstacle without creating further catastrophes like the destruction of your own party from the right, and the further destabilisation of European States likewise.

    Strategy: put the 44 Magnum economic revolver to the EU head (loss of GDP etc). And in return for not leaving altogether receive EEA/EFTA free trade + a filter on unskilled and semiskilled labour + a British Bill of Rights.

    No-one's happy but they get to fight another day.

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  13. Sturgeon's performance has been incoherent and deeply cynical over the course of the EU referendum and it's aftermath. Grandstanding nonsense about direct negotiation with the EU etc., or the pish about blocking Brexit. All the fundamental weaknesses of the independence offer from before remain unanswered. It seems no-one in the SNP wanted to put the hard work of an argument for Scottish independence and sovereignty from first principles.

    I think the SNP are playing a cynical 51% strategy - just get over the line by playing their version of project fear (the UK out of the EU) verses Unionist's project fear (life outside the UK) against each other and as I suggested hope to scrape over the line.
    I have strong doubts this will work and that would a tragedy. Finally that SNP MEP was cringeworthy in his supine speech. An embarrassment to any political party seeking a sovereign and independent nation.

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    1. I would never vote SNP but Alyn has been an excellent MEP for me, especially on animal rights, and is one of the few SNP politicians non-nats are comfortable talking to (Stewart MacDonald is another; perhaps THE other).

      Alyn's speech is a classic example of impassioned rhetoric playing out in a different way to different audiences. Am fairly sure he got his standing ovation for being a popular guy with a good record - a fine Capraesque moment, but we are in a different movie already.

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    2. I think that speech was embarrassing in its vacuity and lack of substantive content. As for "animal rights" I think the term is an oxymoron. We might have responsibilities to animals (under certain conditions) they do not have rights.

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    3. Well, I don't want to pitch a subcamp on LPW's ground, hospitable as he is, just to say(a)though many prefer to speak of 'duty', Animal Rights is an established term (see wiki)and I honour Alyn Smith for his commitment.

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    4. I take a view along similar lines to Roger Scruton on animals and their 'rights'. Is a thought-crime within SNP circles to read such folk as Scruton? Just asking.

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    5. Apols to LPW & my fellow haunters of his blog, I see I have to come back on this one. Joe, we talk of little else within our SNP inner circle, but we call it 'thocht crime'

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    6. Thocht crime? I freely choose not to read a Tory 'philosopher' who took bungs from tobacco companies to place articles in financial journals, thanks.

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    7. Wheesht Mr Librarian, your application to join the inner SNP circle is still pending.

      I just looked up the fee on wiki, 54 grand a year Scruton got from Japan Tobacco without declaring it - eyepopping in every respect.

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    8. Joe K.
      What planet do you originate from?

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  14. The Fall of Rome, Auden

    The piers are pummelled by the waves;
    In a lonely field the rain
    Lashes an abandoned train;
    Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

    Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
    Agents of the Fisc pursue
    Absconding tax-defaulters through
    The sewers of provincial towns.

    Private rites of magic send
    The temple prostitutes to sleep;
    All the literati keep
    An imaginary friend.

    Cerebrotonic Cato may
    Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
    But the muscle-bound Marines
    Mutiny for food and pay.

    Caesar’s double-bed is warm
    As an unimportant clerk
    Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
    On a pink official form.

    Unendowed with wealth or pity,
    Little birds with scarlet legs,
    Sitting on their speckled eggs,
    Eye each flu-infected city.

    Altogether elsewhere, vast
    Herds of reindeer move across
    Miles and miles of golden moss,
    Silently and very fast.

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  15. Enter the discussion over the Barnett Formula...now that seals the deal!

    Trust Westminster? No chance. And I don't care if Gove is a blood relative.

    I would agree that it's all or nothing. And if we reject indy for a second time, then we deserve all we get. But we will do it differently. This will not be about him (Salmond) trying to get his way, rather it will be a broader church having a bigger Yes Tent. The figurehead is a shrewd character, yet to be demonised by the press, Ms Sturgeon.

    Our biggest enemies? The timescale dictated by brexit plus the BBC1.

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  16. Why is it necessary to have a second Indy referendum? The EU referendum showed that the union partners, Scotland and England have divergent views on continuing EU membership. + 60% of the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the EU. End the union, it is time for Scotland and England to follow their chosen, separate paths.

    Rules, and laws, are for the guidance of the wise, and the obedience of fools.

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  17. Why assume independence was the end game here.

    What are our assets in Scotland worth if we have no power over the disposal of them

    What are our fishing grounds worth in any UK/EU negotiation

    What say would we have over how they are divided out in any GB/EU deal without the threat to remove them making them a valuable asset to get something we want

    Say that something might be Federalisation?

    I believe that our assets have often be used against our will as deal sweeteners in the past - reduced cap payment / fishing grounds

    Not this time thanks to NS

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