Time is Running Out for Sturgeon

BY EFFIE DEANS

Nicola Sturgeon thinks time is on her side. Every year the SNP’s control of education pumps out mini nationalists who have grown up since primary school with tartan theme days and the impression that the First World War was fought only by Scottish regiments. Meanwhile the Nat reaper sweeps through the care homes cleansing Scotland of its No voters. Every day Nicola McDuck sits in her counting house totting up the profit and loss. One more independence voter is added to the pile, one more UK lover goes to their just reward.

But oddly in the years since 2014 the basic arithmetic hasn’t changed at all. We are still at 50 plus or minus 5. Sometimes independence edges ahead, sometimes it falls behind. Just as communist education did not necessarily produce communist true believers in Eastern Europe so too Scottish school children grow up to be Scottish adults, who live and work, travel and think for themselves. Some people who once thought independence was a good idea think again.  

The SNP have the best emotional argument. It is grounded in patriotism. Those Scots who have no great love of Britain and actively dislike England support Scottish independence for the same reason they support the Scottish football team. This is powerful, because it is natural. If you think of Scotland as a country just like France then it’s natural to suppose that we ought to be independent like we once were. It seems to Scottish nationalists down right unpatriotic to reject that independence.

The SNP argument is very simple. It is light on detail because it doesn’t need it to convince most of its supporters. But the SNP doesn’t have enough of these to win the day. It has to convince the rest of us.

For many centuries most Scots were perfectly content being both Scottish and British. The SNP has been a serious force in Scottish politics for less than two decades. Are we to suppose that the Scots who lived for the 300 years before that were unpatriotic? So clearly it is not straightforwardly the case that loving Scotland means supporting the SNP or desiring independence.

At the moment there is a dispute between the EU and Poland over whose laws are supreme. The problem is that the EU is ambiguous. On the one hand it is made up of independent sovereign states, which each have their own football teams, on the other it is moving gradually towards political union having already achieved (in part) borderless travel and monetary union. But is there room in such a union for Polish courts to be supreme?

Patriotic Poles universally support Polish independence, which after all was lost for some centuries as Poland was partitioned and shared between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Yet those same Poles support membership of the EU by a huge margin. The EU keeps going because people in its member states hold two opposite ideas at once. They each think that their country is independent and sovereign, but they also accept that the EU is moving towards political union and unity.

While it is fine for the German Supreme Court to challenge EU law on the basis of the German Constitution, this is only because Germany pays everyone else’s wages and because Germany tacitly is the pilot of the EU ship. But if every little Tomasz, Ryszard and Henryk thinks that he is really supreme then the German ship will hit a reef.

The people in the EU member states are 90-minute patriots. They will cheer their teams and wave their flags, but they won’t complain when their referendums are overruled if they are the little people. The ability to live and work abroad was a huge benefit to Poles and they will trade it for a little sovereignty so long as it is lost gradually so as no one much need notice. First one partition then another until you become a region of Russia, Prussia, Austria and then the EU.

This is the same calculation going on in Scotland. If only we could be EU citizens again. We could work in Slovenia. We’d be as independent as Poland.  But shared citizenship in itself implies shared sovereignty. US citizens are only that because they live in a sovereign independent state with a supreme court that is really supreme. Of course, Poles think that they can be both EU citizens and Polish citizens, but in the end, this becomes an illusion unless Polish law is supreme. If it isn’t then your Polish citizenship merges into EU citizenship just as there is no such thing as Texan citizenship or Texan passports despite your fighting for independence at the Alamo.  

This all makes some of the nationalist struggles in Europe rather pointless. If Irish nationalists succeeded in uniting Ireland, they might find that Ireland was merely a region of the EU. Was it really worth so many bombs? If Catalan nationalists broke away from Spain their independence would be the distinction between Sachsen-Anhalt and Niedersachsen. Is it really worth such expenditures of patriotism for the illusion of independence?

Britain left the EU because we thought we were joining a trading group but ended up moving in a direction we didn’t want to go. We didn’t want to join the Euro and we didn’t want to join Schengen. We resented having to follow EU rules and we didn’t want the laws made in our parliament to be subordinate to unelected officials in Brussels. Oddly Remainers didn’t much like these things either.

Scotland doesn’t want to go in that direction either. Very few Scots want to join the Euro. We don’t want to be in Schengen because it would make it impossible to continue in the Common Travel Area. Scottish nationalists resent when Westminster interferes the least little bit in areas controlled by the Scottish Parliament and they think that Scotland already is sovereign, having the right to determine on matters such as an independence referendum.

But this means that Scottish public opinion in reality is opposed to nearly all of the things that would enable us to be guided by the German EU pilot to the safety of the EU port. Every single argument Nicola Sturgeon will make for independence from Britain applies to the EU. Membership of the EU would only be tolerable for Scottish nationalists if we could retain sovereignty and the supremacy of our newly independent courts. But this would just turn us into Poland.

As the EU gradually gets closer, so too Britain is gradually so to speak drifting away somewhere between the Atlantic and the Pacific. We now have trade deals with Australia and New Zealand. Soon more will be added perhaps even the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) which we have applied to join. But these trade agreements are quite different from the EU.

1.     We don’t have to pay a membership fee.

2.     Free trade does not involve subordinating our courts or parliament to someone else’s

3.     Free trade does not involve free movement of people

4.     Free trade does not mean “ever closer union”

5.     Free trade does not involve trade barriers with Northern Ireland.

6.     Free trade involves no loss of sovereignty nor sharing it with someone else

7.     Free trade does not involve giving up control of our waters.

8.     The thing that makes trade free is that you don’t pay for it.

The problem for the SNP is that as Britain gradually drifts further from the EU, the cost of independence becomes higher. To become independent Scotland would have to give up any trade agreement negotiated by the UK. In the years ahead the Scottish economy is going to benefit from these deals. Eventually Britain will hope to have an agreement with every major economy. At some point giving up these agreements will be financially impossible.

60% of Scottish trade is with the other parts of the UK, 21% with the EU and 19% with the rest of the world. But as the years pass Scotland’s trade with the UK and the rest of the world will increase, while with the EU it will fall. But this means that Nicola Sturgeon will have to argue that it makes sense financially for Scotland to give up trade deals with the rest of the world, plus free trade with the former UK in order to gain free trade with the EU with whom we will have gradually decreasing trade.

Worse the SNP will have to argue that the very things we don’t like about Westminster will be replicated almost exactly by Brussels and in fact our courts won’t be supreme and our parliament will be subordinate to the European Commission.

But once people begin to understand that free trade need not involve all the things we dislike about the EU such as giving up sovereignty, then the attraction of paying a membership fee to the EU in order to get the sort of free trade we get with Australia for free will become such that EU countries that can afford to do so may question the benefits of membership. Of course, France wants to keep Germany close to stop it misbehaving. Eastern European countries may see EU membership as insurance against Russian dominance. Spain, Italy and Greece may see it as forcing them to be more like the Germans. But the EU then becomes merely a way to prevent something worse.

The SNP will still have their emotional argument, but I would be surprised if that were ever enough, not least because if the independence of Poland eventually amounts merely to playing football, then the attractions of independence in the EU will be no more than what we have already.

We could go down the fully independent route outside the UK and outside the EU, but we would then begin life with no trade deals with anyone but dependent on former UK roads and ports to buy almost everything.

Time is running out in fact for Scrooge McNicola. She may count her baubles, but they are tarnishing and rusting fast as the nationalist paint begins to flake away. All that’s Sturgeon isn’t gold.

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