The attainment of Scottish independence is the single overarching goal of the SNP and its achievement is factored into every strategic and tactical decision made by the party. At some level prior to the adoption of any new policy, the question is asked “will this help achieve Scottish independence?”, and if a new policy makes more sense in achieving the ultimate goal then it will be adopted and the previous one jettisoned.
Take the SNP’s currency stance for instance – they are about to go onto their third in less than 10 years, and we can expect their elected representatives and activists now to argue for a new Scottish currency with the same fervour as when they argued for a Sterling currency union in 2014, or the Euro pre-2009, with no self-consciousness that less than four years previously they were advocating for the very UK currency they are now decrying as detrimental to Scotland’s economic health.
It is with this in mind that we should consider the SNP’s entire relationship towards the European Union. It was only in 1988 when the party formally adopted the ‘Independence in Europe’ platform, having campaigned against the EEC in the 1975 referendum. The Independence in Europe strategy has allowed the SNP to present a gradualist case for separation, where, post-independence, both Scotland and the UK will still remain part of the same European Union and single market with no need for manned borders or trade barriers. Crucially, this strategy also allowed the possibility of a Sterling currency union.
Scots could then be presented with a prospectus on independence that involved a great deal of continuity and a minimum of upheaval. Essentially, the UK’s membership of the EU has allowed the SNP to propose a vision of soft independence.
Brexit has brought any chance of a soft independence to an end. The costs, downsides and rupture on offer in the event of any post-Brexit vote for separating from the UK have all increased massively. Leaving the UK now means leaving the UK single market, worth over 26% of Scottish GDP, erecting a hard border with England, establishing a new Scottish currency, and legally committing to joining the Euro in due course – including accepting Eurozone austerity conditions.
Despite the remonstrations of leading Remainers in arguing that Brexit makes Scottish independence more likely, the UK’s exit from the EU actually makes it much more difficult for Scotland to leave the UK and diminishes the prospect of the SNP triumphing in their second independence referendum. The SNP can now propose no other vision of life outside the UK than the hardest of separations.
The UK has many aims when negotiating its withdrawal from the European Union, but maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom and seeing it strengthened long into the future surely ranks amongst the most important. A soft Brexit is desired by Nicola Sturgeon as it keeps the UK in a half-way house with the EU and allows the SNP to present a case for Scottish independence involving a level of continuity. The best sort of Brexit for preserving the United Kingdom is the one that renders any future case for separation as expensive as possible and that also returns the maximum level of sovereignty to be used to refashion the UK into a more cohesive and united country. Only a clean Brexit can offer this.
By leaving the EU single market, customs union, jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and every other major institution of the European Union, Scottish independence is made less appealing.
Leaving the single market is essential because any separatist campaign can no longer present itself as remaining in the same single market as its most important trading partner post-independence, a partner with whom trade is worth four times as much as with the EU. Regaining full control over immigration guarantees a border with passport checks at Hadrian’s Wall. Withdrawing from the customs union is imperative because post-separation, Scotland will be applying to join the European Union as a new member state and will therefore forfeit its right to negotiate its own bilateral trade treaties, meaning Scotland will have no ability to negotiate a specific economic relationship with its most important trading partner – the rest of the UK.
Perhaps most importantly, the UK’s exit from the EU has rendered the possibility of a sterling currency union void as the EU would not allow a new member state to be in a political and economic union with a foreign state that is not an EU member. Alex Salmond was wise enough in 2014 to know there is only so much rupture Scots would be willing to endure if they are ever going to vote to leave the UK and his pledge to keep Sterling was essential to Yes gaining 44.7%.
This is why Theresa May is right not to acquiesce to the SNP Scottish Government’s demand for the UK to pursue a soft EEA-type exit. These demands are made with only one intention and that is to further the separatist designs of the SNP. Sometimes the best way of dealing with the SNP is to simply do the opposite of what they propose.
Since June 24th, the SNP have been using Brexit to escalate support for a second Scottish referendum, expecting to capitalize on the trauma experienced by Scots Remain voters angered at the UK’s decision to leave the EU. The SNP have been focusing on the apocalyptic economic impact of leaving the EU single market and have threatened that a “Hard Brexit” with tariffs placed on Scotland’s exports to the EU would be sufficiently detrimental to Scotland’s interests to warrant a second referendum. However, this has only had the effect of undermining their own rationale for wanting to break away from the UK.
If leaving a loosely integrated European political union with no currency or fiscal union, a half developed single market where the UK is a net contributor and is only worth 6% of Scottish GDP will result in economic Armageddon, then what do the SNP expect to be the logical result of Scotland leaving a highly integrated United Kingdom with a fully developed single market, currency and fiscal union where Scotland receives a £9 billion annual transfer and is worth a mighty 26% of Scottish GDP? If the UK’s exit from the EU is, say, a 2-3 out of 10 in terms of economic impact, then by the SNP’s own logic, Scotland’s exit from the UK is a 10 out of 10.
However, beyond damaging the SNP’s prospectus for independence, the UK’s exit from the European Union also offers an excellent chance to strengthen the United Kingdom and ensure its long-term viability. Whole swathes of legislative competence are due to be repatriated in areas of fishing, farming, environmental and employment policy amongst others. Instead of passing these powers onto the devolved legislatures and continuing the fracturing of the UK, they can be used to strengthen the integration and effectiveness of the UK single market and help bind the UK’s constituent parts closer together.
Developing the UK single market in this way will also allow the UK to pursue effective trading relationships with major economies. Negotiating for access to one single market with one unifying set of regulatory standards will always be easier than negotiating for access to a market with multiple standards. Repatriating powers from the EU in this manner, rather than presenting them to the devolved legislatures, will increase the engagement of the UK with the world’s economies and therefore increase the UK’s economic prosperity. This is why it is crucial that the UK leaves the EU single market and especially the customs union.
Brexit also affords the UK the opportunity to forge a new path for itself and to develop a distinct set of global relationships that it is unable to do as an EU member state. Instead of holding to an identity that rests on being one of 28 members of a protectionist trade bloc the UK reluctantly joined at a moment of national weakness,
Brexit gives the UK the freedom to redefine its place in the world and to develop a more purposeful sense of itself, one that is anchored through new relationships with the English-speaking common law countries that can reunite Britain with its heritage such as Canada, Australia, America and New Zealand but also with the developing economies that will provide the engine for global prosperity throughout the 21st century.
This new ability to engage with the world can shape Britain’s future sense of itself as a positive, open and outward looking nation while simultaneously reconnecting it with its past. This will do as much as anything to encourage a renewed sense of Britishness and confidence in the United Kingdom.
Leaving the EU also rids the UK of a pernicious and understated influence on its constitutional makeup. The United Kingdom is a political union self-consciously composed of four individual countries, each with their own unique identities, cultures and languages. The entire purpose of the UK is to bind these countries into one unified sovereign nation state that is the originator of its own laws and the guarantor of the liberty and security its citizens enjoy.
Submerging the UK within the confines of a greater supranational European Union that seeks to assert itself over ever-increasing areas of the social, economic and political lives of its member states undermines the very reason for the being of the United Kingdom. Why bother looking to the UK to make laws that affect the interests of your community when the European Union now makes the majority of laws that Scots live under? Why be concerned with looking to the UK for security when the EU is busy putting together its own defence capabilities? It is within such an attenuated constitutional environment that Scottish nationalism has been allowed to germinate. A UK that is fully sovereign over its own laws and maintains the means to preserve that which is distinctive to it will always be a more viable and durable polity.
The SNP may well get their wish for a second referendum but if so they start with numerous disadvantages they did not have in 2014. Scots voters are inherently cautious and in three referendums over the past six years have overwhelmingly backed the status quo. A case for Scottish independence now based on EU membership, the establishment of a new Scottish currency followed by a commitment to join the Eurozone and acceptance of EU austerity conditions will leave Scots weighing on the negative and immediate consequences of the hardest of separations.
Those advocating a soft Brexit want to use it as a stopping place from which to launch a future campaign to rejoin the EU or to keep the UK’s sovereignty diluted and make it easier to triumph in a second Scottish referendum. Both should be opposed.
Despite the protestations and against the conventional wisdom, Brexit represents a truly great opportunity to enhance the unity of the UK, not just to permanently disadvantage the chances of Scottish separatists succeeding in their second referendum, but also to refashion and strengthen the bonds between the constituent nations of the British Isles. Brexit may represent the best possible long-term chance for the United Kingdom to endure and prosper into the 21st century.