BY EFFIE DEANS
I have been writing less since the Scottish Parliament election. The mood has changed. It is partly because it is summer. I have been more interested in using the sunshine to travel around Scotland than write about Scottish politics. But it’s not just me. Both sides of the constitutional divide spent the year or so before the election building up to the vote only to discover that we had reached a sort of stalemate with neither side able to move forward.
During the early stages of the pandemic support for Scottish independence increased, because Scots saw Nicola Sturgeon on their TV screens every day, but since April this year it has become clear that neither Brexit nor the pandemic is going to push support for Scottish independence above the critical 60% mark which would give the SNP a good chance of winning. The stalemate is that enough Scots support the SNP to guarantee them permanent government in Scotland and the vast majority of seats at a General Election, but political support for the party of independence does not fully translate into support for independence itself.
The reason for this is the economic situation that Scotland finds itself in. Many Scots have concluded that they want independence theoretically, but they do not think for the moment that we can afford it. If Scotland was running a surplus, breaking even, or even perhaps running a small deficit, then it might be possible for the SNP to be confident of winning a poll on independence. But we are not.
Scotland’s economy is worse than it was in 2014, partly because of the pandemic, partly because of the decline in oil. But the strategic situation is worse too. Brexit increased support for independence because of Remainer Scots seeing independence as a route to rejoining the EU. But it is not accidental that neither the Lib Dems nor Labour will campaign to rejoin at the next General Election and the same argument applies in Scotland too.
Brexit has not been the disaster that Remainers predicted. It is unimaginable that Britain would have gone it alone over vaccines if we had still been part of the EU. Scots benefited from this. The EU’s Pandemic Recovery Fund will be used by the EU to increase political control and bring the 27 member states closer to political union. If the UK were to rejoin the EU it could only be on condition that we fully signed up to Europe, Schengen, the Euro and the loss of our previous rebate. We would therefore pay more for an EU membership that we have discovered in the past years that we do not need to be prosperous and successful. We would have to discard any trade deals we will make in the years ahead such as with Australia only to have to accept those aspects of the EU such as federalism which have never been popular in Britain even with Remainers.
But the same argument goes for Scotland too. Scots may have wanted to remain part of the EU that existed in 2016, but that is no longer on offer. The contradiction inherent in “independence in Europe” is going to become ever clearer as the EU makes clear to Hungary and Poland that they will have to change their ways or not receive anything from the Recovery Fund. The Scottish Parliament would have less power if Scotland were an EU member state, because it would have to give up control over those areas that the EU controls.
The dilemma of Brexit is that if Scots choose independence in the EU, it would lead inevitably to a hard border with England, tariffs and trade controls at the border, because Scotland could not have an independent trade policy within the EU. But we trade far less with the EU than with the other parts of Britain and would have to use English roads and ports to get our goods to the continent. The loss of membership of the UK internal market would not be compensated by membership of the EU’s Single Market, not least because English customers might be reluctant to buy Scottish goods and services if they were no longer domestic.
But the alternative of not joining the EU looks even less attractive. Scotland would start life as an independent state with no trade relationship either with the EU or the former UK. There would be no recovery fund either from the UK or the EU if there were another crisis.
Scotland in its present economic state would be brave indeed to vote next year or the year after for complete independence. Both the 2008 economic crisis and the pandemic have shown how we rely on the Bank of England’s ability to borrow and how we have relied on the British Government to pay our wages, keep our businesses going and supply us with vaccines. Nicola Sturgeon may be on TV, but it was not her government that supplied the money or the medicine needed to keep us well. She may say that Scotland could have done just as well in the pandemic if we had been on our own. But how? Scotland does not have a central bank with a track record of paying back debt and we live beyond our means to such an extent that markets would only lend to us at a high rate of interest.
Yet support for independence remains high. Support for the SNP that continually threatens a vote on independence, that would be a coin toss, is if anything still higher. The SNP uses its power to spend ever more UK tax payer’s money, which means Scotland is ever more dependent on Britain and ever less ready for independence, but perversely uses this money to increase its own support and support for independence. The result is stalemate. Independence supporters want independence with present levels of public spending, but that level depends on a British Government they reject. It means like Augustine they pray “Lord make me independent, but not yet.”
How to get out of the impasse? Independence supporters ought to focus on the economic fundamentals. Scotland must spend less and earn more. But this project would take years and they are impatient. Worse if the SNP did try to live within its means, support for both the SNP and independence would fall. So, we are left with Scots wanting independence, but not wanting what it would involve. No wonder support for it decreases whenever the prospect of a second independence referendum increases.
The Pro UK side of the argument must focus on two things. Polling organisations still use the 2014 question with a Yes/No answer. It must be made clear by the British Government that if there were ever to be a second referendum, the question would be Leave/Remain. We must also argue that the franchise for any referendum would involve all those people who would be citizens in an independent Scotland.
The SNP proposed in 2014 that all British citizens habitually living in Scotland would have the right to Scottish citizenship plus anyone born in Scotland or with a Scottish parent or grandparent. Logically if someone were to have the right to a Scottish passport in an independent Scotland such a person should have the right to choose if he wants one.
At present the SNP has extended the franchise in Scotland so that everyone with the right to live in Scotland would have a vote. This means that people who would not intend to become Scottish passport holders, have the right to chose whether Scotland should leave the UK, but Scots who would become Scottish passport holders living outside Scotland would not have that right. This is unjust for a variety of reasons.
In 2014 Theresa May made it clear that there was no guarantee that Scottish citizens could remain British citizens. There is a very good argument for the British Government going further than this by ruling out dual Scottish/British citizenship. Irish citizens who had been born British citizens like my grandfather had to chose in 1948 whether they wished to be British or Irish. Citizens of the Soviet Union are not automatically citizens of Russia and leaving the EU meant that British citizens lost their EU citizenship and with it free movement in the EU.
Independence involves a choice and Scots cannot expect to have free movement both in the EU and the former UK. Minds need to be concentrated and independence supporters must accept that it would involve both gains and losses.
But it is for this reason that Scots living outside Scotland should be asked if they want independence. If a Scot living in Bath campaigns for independence, we can assume that he would want a Scottish passport. But if the British Government refused to allow dual Scottish/British citizenship, this would mean he would lose the right to live in Bath unless he obtained leave to remain in the former UK. No doubt this would be granted to long time residents, but he would not necessarily have all of the rights that a British citizen had, because he would now be a foreigner living in Bath. Other Scots living in the former UK might decide that they preferred to be British citizens, but this would mean that they would have no automatic right to live and work in Scotland. But clearly an issue that might lead a Scot not to have the right to live in Scotland, should be a matter that he has a say over.
At the moment polling about Scottish independence is skewed in two ways. The question is unfair and only Scottish residents are asked their opinion. It is completely unjust that someone living in Scotland who may have arrived very recently and who doesn’t even speak English, should be able to decide Scotland’s future, while someone born and raised in Scotland, but working in England cannot.
If all those who would become Scottish citizens were allowed a say on independence it would change the argument, because it would involve those Scots who have particularly benefited from their British citizenship because it gave them the right to live and work anywhere in Britain. If independence meant losing the automatic right to live and work in the other parts of the UK, far fewer Scots would vote for it. They would no longer be able to take over London without a visa.
This would break the stalemate because it would show that the overwhelming majority of Scots, as defined by the SNP in 2014, wanted Scotland to remain a part of the UK. With independence off the agenda, it might be possible for Scottish politics to focus on making Scotland a more pleasant and prosperous place for all of us.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.