The Deteriorating SNP Argument

BY EFFIE DEANS

During an election campaign, the last thing the SNP wants to talk about is independence. The core SNP vote is obsessed with this and it is the primary motivation for these voters to choose the SNP. These people will overlook the SNP’s performance in Government. Indeed, they don’t appear to care if the SNP rules well or poorly. If only the SNP will deliver a second referendum and if only Scottish nationalism wins that vote all will be forgiven. But the SNP is reluctant to clearly explain what independence would involve. Although independence is the key issue in the election for the Scottish Parliament the present situation of the argument is not explained. We still somehow think that it would be the same as in 2014. But it isn’t the same. It is quite altered.

It is one thing to be in favour of EU membership and Scottish independence in the context of 2014 when the UK was a member state. It is something very different indeed in 2021 when the UK has left. But the consequences of this change have not been addressed by the SNP.

If Scotland had voted for independence in 2014, it is unlikely that the UK would have voted to leave in 2016. We would have all been too busy trying to deal with the consequences of partitioning Britain. The idea that Scotland would have become independent in March 2016 and the former UK would have had a referendum on EU membership in June 2016 is unlikely at best.

We don’t know how long it would have taken an independent Scotland to obtain EU membership. It would have had to wait until independence to begin applying, but if the former UK had supported the application there is no reason to suppose that it would not have eventually succeeded. There might have been objections from countries like Spain, but given that the former UK supported Scotland’s membership, the 2014 referendum after all was legal, these objections would most likely have been overcome.

If both Scotland and the former UK had ended up EU member states this would have solved many of the problems that would have arisen from independence. There would be free movement of people between the former UK and Scotland. There would have been no trade barriers and no need for customs checks, because both would have been in the EU Customs Union and Single Market. The relationship between the former UK and Scotland would have been like that between Austria and Germany. It would have been possible to travel between Scotland and England and hardly notice.

But this is no longer the case. The Brexit vote in 2016 changed everything for the SNP, but it has never properly addressed the disadvantages of the UK’s leaving the EU for the cause of Scottish independence.

Many Scottish Remain voters were angry that the UK chose to leave the EU and some of them have lent their support to the SNP as a means of achieving EU membership for Scotland. But while the Leave / Remain argument was evenly balanced in 2016, it has decisively changed in the context of the UK not being a member.

The SNP’s independence in Europe argument was never really about Scotland’s relationship with places like France, but rather with the other parts of the UK. The EU was the guarantor that life in an independent Scotland would be much the same as now only we’d be independent. But with the UK not being in the EU, the relationship between Scotland and the former UK would be the relationship between a non-EU member and a member state. Worse it would not be a relationship between say non-EU Norway and Sweden, because Norway is part of Schengen and the Single Market. The UK is a member of neither. The closest parallel is between Poland and Belarus.

If Scotland were in the EU and the former UK was neither in the Single Market nor Customs Union, then a regulatory border between Scotland and England would be inevitable. Scots could no longer rely on EU membership to live, work and receive healthcare and benefits in England, rather we would have to rely on whether the former UK would allow Scottish citizens the same rights as we have today as British citizens. But leaving the EU took away those rights from people in France and Germany. British citizens do not now have the right to free movement in the EU. That was a consequence of leaving. But why would the former UK give rights to Scots that it at present does not give to Italians?

Ireland of course retains the rights of membership of the Common Travel Area, which was set up because of Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK after Irish independence. But we don’t know if Scotland would be allowed to be part of the Common Travel Area. This would depend on whether Scotland were obliged to be part of Schengen and how well or badly the divorce negotiations went with the former UK.

It was possible to argue that EU membership for the UK was beneficial for trade. But it is not possible to argue that it would be beneficial for Scotland, because Scotland trades much more with the other parts of the UK than with the EU. Trade barriers between Scotland and the former UK would not be compensated by free trade with the EU, not least because of the geographic and linguistic proximity of England and the fact that Scottish goods would have to travel through England in order to reach the continent. To leave the UK to trade freely with the EU, therefore make no sense.

What other benefits of EU membership are there? Scots would regain free movement across the EU, but the price of this might be losing free movement in the UK. But many more Scots live, work and study in other parts of the UK than in the EU. We would also have to become members of the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy and we would regain the subsidies that the EU used to give us. But it is hard to see that giving back control over agriculture and fisheries and letting EU ships fish in Scottish waters would give the Scottish Parliament more power. It would rather involve a loss of independence.

Scots may complain about the loss of EU money, but it would only really be a loss if Scotland were a net recipient of money from the EU. But just as the UK contributed more to the EU than we received back, so too would Scotland.  To suppose that Scotland would be a net recipient of EU money is to suppose that we would be significantly worse off than the UK was when it was an EU member. But if that were the case why would we choose to leave the UK?

Scotland in the EU would benefit from having to follow EU law on a wide variety of issues. We would have to promise in theory to join the Euro and we would have to accept that the goal of the EU was to bring member states into an ever-closer union. But it is hard to see how these are compatible with a desire for independence. If you want to see Scotland as region in a United States of Europe in twenty or thirty years, why talk about independence and why object to Scotland being a part of the UK?

Devolution in the UK gives Scots a more powerful Parliament and more influence over the UK Government than we would have making up 1% of the population of the EU.

The SNP argument in 2014 fell apart over currency. Scots wanted to keep the pound. We still do. But it is harder to imagine that we could keep the pound if we promised to join the Euro, not least because that promise would entail eventually setting up a Scottish currency. Even using the pound unilaterally would be harder if Scotland were in the EU and the former UK were not, because monetary policy set by the Bank of England would be still less appropriate for Scotland if we were in a different trading bloc.

Scottish voters who supported Remain must recognise that EU membership is far less desirable for Scotland given that the UK has left. But if EU membership is less desirable then so too is the means of achieving it, independence. The EU has not been behaving in a particularly attractive way since it made a catastrophic mess of vaccinating its citizens. Nicola Sturgeon is unwilling to accept that Brexit has in this respect been beneficial. But there is no question that if the UK had remained a member of the EU, we would have been part of the EU’s vaccination programme. We could have theoretically decided to go it alone, but no EU member state did, and nor would we have.

But if the EU is unable to deliver vaccines to its citizens, it is worth readdressing whether the EU model is the best way to decide issues such as fisheries and agriculture, trade and industry. Is the EU the best way for countries in Europe to interact?

Scotland is a net recipient of UK taxpayer’s money. We receive more from the UK than we pay in. But we would be a net contributor to the EU, and we would have to put up trade barriers between Scotland and our largest trading partner the UK. We would do all this to be ruled by qualified majority voting in the EU with the prospect of losing our independence in the decades to come.

Whichever way we voted in 2016, the benefits of EU membership for Scotland cannot possibly outweigh the disadvantages, given that the UK is not a member. The argument for independence is decisively worse now than it was in 2014. If Scottish voters understood this, they would decisively reject the SNP too.

The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.