The SNP hysteria over imaginary power-grabs is galvanising the party faithful. But a bad deal as we leave the EU will allow Nationalists to ramp up the rhetoric – and encourage their fresh attempts to tear Scotland out of the UK, Stephen Daisley writes in the Scottish Daily Mail.
Will Britain survive Brexit?
Nestled uneasily within that question are two unknowns. One: Will Britain prosper after leaving the European Union? Two: Will there still be a Britain when Brexit is through?
The first is easier to answer. The UK could become an economic powerhouse outwith the EU – a low-taxed, lightly-regulated trading nation – but it will require political will, fiscal discipline and a windfall of luck.
The second query is an altogether trickier one. If Brexit proves to be the self-mutilation that so many experts predict, it might well mean Scotland is amputated from the UK altogether.
This is why so many Unionists ardently opposed Brexit, including those with no affection for Brussels. They feared a vote to leave the EU would set in motion a chain of events culminating in Scotland’s exit from the Union.
During the 2014 independence referendum, the Better Together campaign played the EU as a trump card. Voting Yes would take Scotland out of the UK and, by extension, the EU. Try as it might, the Yes campaign could not overcome the logic. Out meant out – of everything.
Scotland voted No but, only two years later, the rest of the UK voted to leave the EU. The predicted backlash did not materialise. A poll taken in the aftermath of the June 2016 plebiscite inflated support for independence to almost six in ten but public opinion soon returned to the pre-referendum status quo.
Cue much wiping of brows and sighs of relief from Unionists. The UK Government and the non-nationalist parties at Holyrood have allowed themselves to be lulled into complacency by a long stretch of reassuring polls. These surveys indicate that Scots are still opposed to Brexit but not yet convinced of the arguments for separation.
However, the true measure of Brexit’s impact has not begun to be taken.
For the past two years, Britain’s split from Brussels has loomed like an ominous cloud on the horizon – menacing but inevitable, a cause for alarm and yet not enough to prompt a change of course.
With five weeks left to negotiate a deal between london and Brussels, things will soon shift from theory to practice. Brexit is about to mean Brexit.
Suddenly cracks are beginning to appear in the Unionist facade. The potential for Brexit to wreak havoc on the devolution settlement is sending small but undeniable fissures zipping across the landscape.
Sir Kenneth Calman – he of the Calman Commission on Devolution – is ‘not positive’ about leaving the EU and, as a result, admits he is ‘not sure’ how he would vote in another independence referendum.
When one of the architects of devolution starts to doubt the blueprints, others will question whether the structure is sound.
Sir Kenneth’s intervention has coincided with a series of U-turns by commentators once hostile to independence. Their latter-day conversions put them at odds with the majority of voters but it would be foolhardy to dismiss their change of heart outright. Cassandra, you will recall, was on the wrong side of public opinion, too.
This is what the SNP hopes for: That Brexit turns out to be a catalyst for restarting the independence debate and doing so on terms friendly to the party. Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but as an analysis of these turbulent times, it is not altogether implausible.
A successful Brexit could exile independence to the fringes of the political agenda for years to come. A Brexit that goes awry, especially in its effects on Scotland, could put independence firmly back on the table.
How do we assess the impact of Brexit? There are five tests that can be applied to the proceedings. UK ministers need not satisfy all of them but if they are found wanting in too many, they will hand-deliver a ripe opportunity to the SNP.
1) The UK Government must confound the SNP’s ‘power grab’ narrative.
The Nationalists have whipped up a grievance brew and placed it temptingly at the lips of the voters. This heady draught brims with falsehoods and misrepresentations but it is powerful all the same. It says that Westminster is using Brexit as a pretext to attack the Scottish parliament and steal its powers. It does so on the basis that some powers returning from Brussels will be retained at Whitehall temporarily and deployed, the UK Government insists, purely to prevent disruption to the UK single market.
There is a reason the SNP has made this the central plank of its Brexit strategy. The Scottish parliament, a source of cringing and cynicism in its early years, is now embedded in the national psyche. Scotland is a devolved country not only in political structures but in self-image.
Sixty-four per cent of people say Holyrood gives Scotland a stronger voice within the UK and Scots are five times more likely to want the Scottish Government than the UK Government to have the most influence over how Scotland is run. Posed a scenario in which control over fishing and farming does not come to Holyrood post-Brexit, 62 per cent of Scots said devolution would be undermined.
The exercise of retained powers by Whitehall will require tact and sensitivity.
The potential for gaffes will be sizeable, not least given most UK ministers’ thorough ignorance of Scottish politics and public policy. Downing Street, if it was canny, would require all uses of these powers to be signed off by Scottish Secretary David Mundell and the other ministers for the devolved nations.
Any perception that remote rulers are running roughshod over Scotland’s parliament will only stoke the fires of resentment.
2) No deal is not an option.
The lustiest Brexiteers urge Theresa May to walk away from the negotiating table to send a message to Brussels that Britain will not be pushed around.
The notion of a ‘no deal’ Brexit seems to arouse a romantic nationalism on the Right of the Tory Party. Let’s show Johnny bleedin’ Foreigner that Britannia still rules the waves.
However, a No Deal Brexit, which is to say Brexit without a plan or a safety net, would not be seen as the sign of strength its advocates believe. Rather, it would knock public confidence in the ability of the government to achieve Brexit and the viability of the UK’s economic, commercial and political arrangements in place of a mutually agreed compact.
These fears would be amplified in Scotland, which didn’t want a piece of the action in the first place. Most damagingly of all, the ensuing upheaval would neutralise a reliable argument against independence.
In 2014, No campaigners drew a sharp contrast between the unsubstantiated promises of the Yes side and the known quantity that was the United Kingdom. It may not have been inspiring but you knew where you stood with it.
Leaving without a deal rips those assurances to shreds. Separation would still be a risky proposition but the status quo would suddenly be brimming with danger, too.
Tory MPs should bear this in mind when they consider the Chequers compromise plan announced on Friday night.
3) There must not be an exodus of employers.
One of the most wounding charges thrown at the Yes campaign in 2014 was that independence would cause top financial institutions and major employers to quit Scotland.
It was an accusation that cut through syrupy talk about hope and opportunity. Scots couldn’t work as if they lived in the early days of a better nation if there was no work going.
Headlines about RBS and Standard Life planning for a post-Scotland future in the event of independence made for sober reading.
The nationalists could enthuse about the companies that would rush to invest in this vital new nation but the public was not willing to risk alienating the employers who were already here.
The warning from Airbus that Brexit could make it jet off overseas and take 14,000 jobs with it may come to be written up as a totemic moment in the history of Brexit. It was the first time that Project Fear was vividly demonstrated to be Project Fact. The bluster of government ministers and Brexit partisans collided with the brutal calculations of international business.
And were an Airbus-style departure to be repeated north of the Border, especially from a large or culturally significant firm, it would become a focal point of nationalist agitation and public discontent.
The SNP could, albeit with some hide, present independence as the best way of securing jobs. Mrs May’s new soft-ish Brexit should stand or fall on whether it can secure the confidence of business and ensure a competitive, job-plenty economy in the future.
4) Brexit can make us poorer but not markedly so.
Money is not always the decider. During the independence referendum, both sides issued (dubious) pledges to make every Scot wealthier.
The voters are wise to politicians who come promising bags of gold and neither Yes Scotland nor Better Together got much traction for their respective bribes.
However, if the voters can’t necessarily be bought, they can be driven into the arms of the other side if they suspect their pocketbook is at risk of being picked.
Ten years on from the global financial crisis, the country is all too familiar witages stagnation and price inflation.
Depending on what, if any, deal Mrs May reaches with her European counterparts, the cost of doing business in Britain, including importing goods, expanding into new markets and hiring additional staff, will probably rise as a result. Less so, perhaps, if the Prime Minister can get Brussels to sign off on her free-trading area for goods but even then the road will not be without bumps.
The public does not relish the thought of rising costs but they understand how these things work.
What they would be less broadminded about are noticeable depreciations in their living standards and purchasing power.
Such a development would be lethal in the context of Scottish politics. One of the advantages of the Union – that Scots get out more than they put in – would be at risk of being reversed, something the SNP would exploit mercilessly.
5) The NHS must not be diminished.
As the 70th birthday celebrations confirm, the NHS is Britain’s national religion and voters guard its wellbeing jealously.
The (spurious) promise of £350million a week for the health service from money going to the EU was in all likelihood what tipped the scales decisively for the Leave campaign.
It undoubtedly contributed a few percentage points to the Yes vote in 2014 when the SNP began claiming (just as spuriously) that a No vote would mean the health service would be privatised.
Brexit must not undermine the health service, either UK-wide or specifically in Scotland.
The potential is there in the service’s reliance on migrant doctors, nurses and auxiliary staff, who may fall foul of a more complex and restrictive immigration system after the UK has left the EU.
This is acutely true north of the Border, where a recruitment crisis has rumbled on for years now. The Scottish government has gone round the houses in apportioning blame and Brexit has the advantage of being fresh and topical.
If post-Brexit migration rules contribute to shortages in medic numbers, it will permit the SNP to revive its claim that the NHS will be safe only under independence.
Devolution was meant to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ but instead has buried the UK unitary state beyond all apparent recovery. This simply formalises a fact of history – that Scottish politics has been a contest predominantly between competing shades of nationalism since the 19th century – but the existence of a rival democratic apparatus has caused political legitimacy to migrate north.
It has also established a ready-made state which daily illustrates that Scotland can run its own affairs.
Into this precarious status quo rolls the hand grenade of Brexit, pin out but yet to explode. There are said to be five weeks remaining in which to secure an agreement, after which we begin the final countdown to what more excitable ministers call ‘independence day’.
The next 900 days between now and the end of the transition period are the arena in which the future of the UK will be decided.
If the Government can pull off Brexit with minimal detriment to Scotland in that time, it will have defied its critics and worked a minor miracle. If it cannot, if Brexit proves costly and chaotic, two consequences await.
First, the Scottish Government could demand a second referendum on independence, one it would enter in a far stronger position than it did four years ago. Every poll in the past 12 months has recorded support for independence above 40 per cent and northwards of 45 per cent in half of them.
Second, the SNP could turn the 2021 election into a poll on the constitution – a referendum on whether there should be a referendum.
This would maximise turnout among independence supporters and, with Unionists divided between three rival parties, Nicola Sturgeon could look forward to another five years in Bute House.
If Brexit peels away enough voters from the pro-UK parties, an outright majority, although improbable, is not inconceivable.
Either way, the Nationalists would be in their strongest position to break up Britain since 2014.
Before we reach for our sackcloth and ashes, the SNP has five tests of its own to meet in order to weaponise Brexit to the cause of independence.
One: It must convince Scots to vote for the ten-year extension of austerity its Growth Commission requires to balance the books of a separate Scotland.
Two: The party must improve its performance in Government, particularly in health and education, or assure the nation it is held back by Westminster.
Three: The SNP must get a handle on a huge and unwieldy party which grows more restless and intemperate by the day.
Four: It must appeal to Middle Scotland, the very demographic whose taxes it has been hiking, whose family life it wishes to interfere in, and whose every sip of shiraz and bite of pizza it monitors with head girl priggishness.
The fifth one is the kicker: The kind of Brexit that would make independence more appealing could also make it less plausible.
If leaving the EU turns into a hot mess, voters will ask why leaving the UK Union wouldn’t play out the same way. The SNP must supply a convincing answer to that.
This is a lot to ask of a party 11 years in Government. It is a lot to ask of a movement that has made the case for independence to decades-worth of empty halls and scornful voters.
The restoration of national sovereignty, a principled cause whether you agree or dissent from it, would have been reduced to an escape route from someone else’s nationalism, a way out rather than a way forward. Scotland would not have embraced independence but settled for it.
We did not have to be here. The Tories were warned what potent forces they would unleash by holding an EU referendum.
Brexiteers were cautioned that the price of breaking from Brussels might be Scotland splitting from Westminster. They carried on regardless. We will soon learn if their gamble pays off.
If it does not, if Scots are driven to the exit sign, it will hardly matter if ministers crack Brexit because they will have broken Britain.
Taking back control means taking responsibility, too.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.