“We will not just bounce back, we will bounce forward. Stronger, better and more united than ever before.”
Sometimes it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Boris Johnson is a sort of rubbish wizard, someone who believes (or wants the rest of us to believe) that just by incanting some uplifting mottos about the future they will then miraculously come true, just provided it is done with sufficient flourish.
It’s all wearing thin. As thin, in fact, as the fraying fabric holding Scotland within the UK. The twin crises of Brexit and coronavirus have served only to demonstrate, rather painfully, to many in Scotland what a useless and unhappy marriage the UK in fact is. Now the latest polls show that there is a clear majority of Scots who want out.
It is hardly a surprise after these past couple of years that the majority of Scottish people believe they can order things better than the clowns in London, who treat Scotland, at best, as a troublesome afterthought. No wonder the Scots want independence – just the same as the British (though, of course, not the Scots) wanted their “independence” from an unaccountable EU in 2016. They are still being governed by Conservatives in London that few of them voted for. It’s becoming intolerable. The Scots would rather like to take back control.
Still, like Brexit, the break up will not be easy. The parallels with Brexit, especially about leaving the UK’s single market and customs union, come into sharp relief after the debates and continuing experience of the last four years. Here are just a few of the tricky questions advocates of Scottish independence would have to answer with more clarity than was demanded the last time there was an independence vote in 2014, when 55 per cent voted to stick with the UK.
If Scotland votes to leave the UK (Scexit), what, then, will it be like? Will there be a hard border or soft border with England? Will there be freedom of movement for workers, or a common travel area, as with Ireland? Will there be tariffs on goods? Will there be restrictions on professional work and cross-border service activities such as financial services? What will the currency be: sterling, a Scottish pound or the euro?
Who controls Scotland’s fisheries? What happens with any post-UK shortfall in tax revenues? What would Scotland’s EU budget contribution be? How would shared UK assets, from the BBC to the NHS, be carved up (that is, the ones not geographically on Scottish territory)?
Will Scotland hold its own referendum on joining the EU? And on what terms? And so on.
Some of this depends on the UK-EU talks now currently heading towards a hard Brexit and hard borders. That would make Scottish independence more popular, but also a harder sell – who wants customs posts on the A1, or passport control officers patrolling the trains and coaches?
If a vote for independence was ever conceded by the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – a Scotsman never much of a fan of devolution in the first place, by the way – would it also have some Article 50-style deadline attached to talks? Would it mean reopening the UK-EU relationship to better suit an independent Scotland? If the time for negotiation runs out would there be endless extensions or a crash out of the UK? Could Scotland join the EU the day after independence, or be made to wait? Would Holyrood or Brussels be driving the talks with London?
Will the Scottish people be inclined to believe Nicola Sturgeon if she reassures them that being such close neighbours for centuries means it’ll be the easiest deal in the world because it’s in everyone’s interests. If she said that, although there would be bumps in the road, it would all be fine in the end, then that would sound very familiar.
It’s often said that the last Scottish bid for independence, six years ago, was defeated by economics; that is to say, the financial arguments used by “Project Fear” worked. They’ll work again, in particular pitting money “wasted” on independence against giving it to the Scottish NHS instead (again, sounds familiar).
Yet Project Fear and economics very nearly in fact lost the Scottish referendum; it was arguments about identity and culture that saved the union – and, in particular, a spirited late intervention by Gordon Brown. In his memoirs, Brown relates his struggle: “As I spoke about the benefits of sharing and cooperating across the United Kingdom I reminded people that we had fought two world wars together. When young men were injured in the trenches they did not look to each other and ask if they were Scots or English – they came to each other’s aid because we were part of a common cause ... Scotland was not owned by the SNP, the Yes campaign or any politician. You could be as proud and patriotic a Scot by voting No [to independence] as you could by voting Yes. I implored the public to ‘tell them this is our Scotland’.”
More concrete, Brown offered Scotland “The Vow” – a “devo max” deal of enhanced autonomy and respect if they stayed in the UK. Some of that was delivered, but some was not.
Since then the idea has grown up – with some justification and force – that Scotland can still be helplessly pushed around by Westminster, just as Brexiteers rage Britain used to be by Brussels. The Sewel Convention was supposed to be a guarantee against such legislative bullying, but was set aside by the UK Supreme Court, rather like the European Court was (supposedly) used to dismiss British wishes.
After voting 62 per cent to remain in the EU, Scotland is being taken out, and with a hard Brexit at that. And of course it is governed in major areas by a bunch of populist incompetents dominated by a very posh public school sort of English gang, who disdain the “bloody wee Jimmy Krankie woman”, as Johnson calls her, up in Bute House. Hardly a partnership of equals.
The joint ministerial committee of the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with the prime minister of the UK hasn’t met in years. More vitally, Johnson and his ministers ignored Scotland in the public messaging and the running of the Covid-19 crisis, pathetically pretending that the devolution settlement hadn’t ever happened.
Scotland, in other words, has not been treated with much respect by London in recent years. The Vow of 2014 has not been fully honoured. Brexit and coronavirus have brutally exposed just how little say Scotland has over its destiny, and how little politicians in Westminster (especially the Tory ones) care.
Indeed, the Conservatives portray Scotland like an alien enemy, and like to threaten the English with the idea of some wicked Labour-SNP conspiracy, with Jeremy Corbyn (and perhaps yet Keir Starmer) firmly in Sturgeon’s top pocket.
Johnson and Gove think that so long as they just say no to requests for Indyref2, as they’re legally entitled to, then Sturgeon can be marginalised. They say 2014 was supposed to be a “once in a generation” vote. Well, a lot has changed since then, and Sturgeon isn’t going to give up. The Scottish elections next year will give the first minister a revised, stronger mandate for a fresh referendum.
The democratic world’s most successful, but now most unhappy, marriage will just get even more sour and acrimonious. It cannot go on like this with no sustainable basis, no sense of “Britishness” holding it together, no shared national endeavour, as building an empire once was (and even that historic mission is now derided).
Divorce is often bitter and invariably it makes couples much the poorer. But it can be a happy release all the same.