The UK’s impending exit from the European Union has shifted the ground underneath Scottish politics and reframed the constitutional debate. In their impatience to agitate for a second independence referendum, the SNP have latched onto Brexit and its aftermath as the fruitful territory from which to launch their latest separatist drive. For the SNP, the injustice of seeing Scotland taken out of the EU, despite voting 62% in favour of remaining, means Scotland must now be free of the UK so that it may stay within the EU.
The constitutional question is therefore no longer a straightforward argument between Scotland in the UK vs Scotland as an independent country. The central debate is now between Scotland in the UK vs Scotland in the EU and has become a contest about the merits of two contrasting political unions and what place Scotland will have in them.
It will always be a struggle to sell the positives of a 300 year old political union against the idealism and optimism of independence. When the choice is to vote for the status quo or to break free and embrace the world in an act of national liberation, the latter will always exert greater emotional pull. However when the debate is framed as a contest between two political unions, the very best attributes of the United Kingdom are able to come more easily to light and the most appealing aspects of independence are diminished.
For instance, will Scotland’s voice be heard louder in the UK or the EU? Scotland has 9% of MPs in the UK Parliament (59 out of a total of 650) vs 0.7% of MEP’s (6 out of a total of 766). The UK Parliament is the sovereign legislative body of the UK and is entirely elected. The European Parliament cannot initiate nor repeal legislation as this is the responsibility of the wholly unelected Commission. When viewed in this way it is clear which union is the more democratic and in which Scotland will have most influence.
The United Kingdom guarantees equal social and economic rights to all its citizens, including access to fully funded healthcare, education, help when unemployed as well as rights to minimum protections at work including a UK-wide minimum wage. These rights are taken for granted but the UK is the only multinational state to achieve this feat, as neither the EU, USA nor any other arrangement of neighbouring countries comes close to providing the rights of citizenship the UK has created.
The UK uses automatic fiscal transfers to support its less-well off constituents. Scotland may have been a significant net contributor to the UK during the 1980’s but the recent collapse in tax revenues from North Sea oil has seen Scotland’s budget deficit balloon to nearly 10%. However, this has not led to any reduction in public spending in Scotland. By UK-wide pooling and sharing of resources, Scotland is able to weather economic downturns with no lessened capacity to fund vital public services and support its most vulnerable citizens.
In contrast, instead of providing support, the European Union punishes member states that run budget deficits over 3% by fining them hundreds of millions of Euros. For indebted EU states with unsustainable budget deficits, the EU imposes harsh austerity conditions on them involving massive internal devaluations of wages, pensions and benefits. Due to EU austerity policies, Greece has seen its youth unemployment rise to above 70%, its GDP shrink since 2008 by over 40%, and is not expected to reach its pre-crisis GDP height for decades. The Greek economy is the fullest example of the perils of being part of the European Union and using the Euro. The level of economic sadism the EU has imposed on Greece is conscious, cruel and avoidable and belies any pretence anyone may have regarding the progressive nature of the European Union.
If Scotland were to leave the UK to join the EU, it would not only be at risk of the fate of Greece befalling it, as are all countries in the Eurozone, but it would also become complicit in imposing such conditions on other member states through contributing to bailout funds and assenting to their terms.
Public spending per head of population in Scotland is 16% above the UK average. Scots receive £1,500 more public expenditure per head of population than people in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. This is due to Scotland’s sparse population and allows for the delivery of quality public services to remote areas. This level of spending is protected via the Barnett formula and at present Scotland benefits from a £9 billion fiscal transfer from the rest of the UK.
However, if Scotland were to leave the UK, the Barnett formula would be replaced by a Brussels formula where Scotland would go from being a net beneficiary of the UK to being a net contributor to the EU. Without Margaret Thatcher’s rebate, Scotland’s EU contributions could total £3 billion per annum. At the next referendum, instead of considering how best to use Scotland’s money to build hospitals and schools, voters would instead be asked to subsidise landowning farmers in France and to prioritise infrastructure projects in Eastern Europe.
The UK is on a trajectory of devolving greater power to its nations and regions and Scotland now has one of the most powerful devolved assemblies in the world, whereas the EU is on a continuous drive towards extracting ever greater levels of sovereignty from the democratic parliaments of its members. Post-Brexit Scotland can also expect to have greater control over a large array of policy areas such as farming, fishing, procurement rules, state aid laws and employment legislation that it will never have as a member of the European Union.
According to the latest official figures, Scotland sells £49.8 billion worth of goods and services to the rest of the UK, compared with £12.3 billion to the EU. This means the UK single market is worth 4 times more to the incomes, prosperity and pensions of Scots than the EU single market. The UK single market is also fully developed in terms of goods, services, capital and labour, whereas the EU single market is half-formed with no single market for services and an incomplete one for goods and labour.
In the 2014 referendum, above and beyond concerns about the economy, the currency and the NHS, the surest indicator of voting preference was identity. People who identified more as Scottish tended to vote Yes and those who identified more as British favoured No. A recent Yougov survey had the number of Scots identifying as either British or some combination of British and Scottish at 67%. By contrast a 2014 poll showed just 9% of people in Scotland chose ‘European’ from a list of various geographic or national identities that might describe them, compared with 15% of people in Britain as a whole. Furthermore, less than 15% of voters in 2014 considered EU membership to be an important factor in making their referendum decision.
Scots’ sense of European identity is wafer thin and whatever reasons 62% of Scots felt for voting to remain in the EU, a strong emotional identification with Europe was not one of them. Running a pro-EU referendum campaign seeking to convince Scots to choose Europe over Britain is on unsteady ground from the very beginning.
Scotland also has shared cultural, linguistic and historical links forged over the preceding hundreds of years with our fellow countries of Great Britain that invites no similar comparison with any place in continental Europe. There is simply no way to argue that the EU is more important to Scotland than the UK on any political, social or economic level and by framing the Scottish referendum in this way the SNP appear to have handicapped their cause.
The SNP may have found their trigger to demand a rerun of the 2014 contest but by attaching the cause of Scottish independence so strongly to membership of the EU, they have undermined their entire prospectus for Scotland’s life outside the UK and damaged their chances of winning any second referendum.
The SNP now believe Scotland should separate from the UK for the purpose of submerging within a much larger political union where Scotland will have less influence, less economic prosperity and will have to legally commit to joining the macroeconomic abomination of the European single currency. The SNP will have a difficult job convincing wavering 2014 No voters of this prospect, never mind the 500,000 Yes voters who also supported leaving the European Union.