In the aftermath of the Scottish #indyref, I announced a hiatus from any overtly political blogging.
In the aftermath of the UK vote to leave the European Union, I suspended that hiatus when I posted some reflections on that referendum. That became my third most popular blog post of 2016.
The circumstances that moved me to somewhat political blogging in the first place were the #indyref and the aftermath of the #EURef. A few conversations – and I suppose that more recent post’s popularity – have made me think for a while that I might want to expand some thoughts into another blog post. Two particular events, namely Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit speech and the more recent UK Supreme Court judgment, have now jolted me back to blogging.
To massively oversimplify those two events: the former directs the UK towards a clean Brexit; the latter says Parliament must be involved in the Article 50 notification process, whilst noting that the devolved administrations need not play any legal part in that process.
Here are some eclectic thoughts on Brexit, which begin as a comment on the UK as a whole then veer into some observations about Scotland and #indyref2. On the second topic, I can see why people are discussing Scottish independence again, but this post strikes a hesitant tone. In my humble opinion it is not (yet) time for another Scottish independence referendum.
My perspective on the UK and the EU
I have articulated some of my views on the UK and the EU before, either on this blog or on social media.
I am lucky to work in an environment where I regularly get to share ideas with people from Scotland, the rest of the UK, the rest of the EU, and beyond. Since the vote to leave the EU, that environment at the University of Aberdeen has benefited from visits from the likes of Professor Sir David Edward and Dr Holger Hestermeyer to offer their thoughts on Brexit. Both gave informative lectures (with tweet chains here and here). Based on Dr Hestermeyer’s talk in particular, I offer two thoughts.
The first is that the UK and the EU have similar but different negotiation goals. To simplify, but also to go back to the basics of negotiation, the UK is after:
- the best post-Brexit deal the UK can make with the EU; and
- er, that’s it.
Whereas the EU desires:
- the best post-Brexit deal the 27 remaining Member States of the EU can make with the UK; and
- the unity of the remaining EU27.
The UK needs to be prepared to deal with a negotiation along those lines. Even if it is properly prepared, the deal the UK wants and what might seem ostensibly in the EU27’s commercial interests could easily rub against the EU27’s unity.
(Of course, the EU might separately disintegrate anyway and won’t this blog post look silly then, but I am working on the assumption it won’t.)
Then there is the fact that, as I understand it, the UK needs to think pretty carefully about securing a deal that includes free trade with the EU. Why? Because World Trade Organization rules operate in a way that dictate any deal short of free trade would then need to be offered on similar terms to all trading partners without a free trade deal. This is something the EU is unlikely to want. “Unlikely” is putting it mildly. This will have huge implications for any negotiation.
Despite what I have just said in the previous paragraph, probably the one thing that I agree with Prime Minister May on is that she needs to somehow position a clean Brexit as something the UK could live with: again, back to the basics of negotiation, think of your best and worst alternatives to a negotiated agreement (per my earlier tweet on the point).
The thing is, I am not entirely sure that this is a good or even an okay option.
What sort of deal can be negotiated?
Brexit is going to be darned complicated. I recently participated in a panel discussion looking at the two biggest issues facing the Scottish agricultural sector, namely land reform and Brexit. Numerous interesting points were made (by others, and I hope by me). Whilst I left the event enlightened, I also left the event with even more questions of my own about how imports and exports will work, not to mention the issues of future support payments for agriculture and access to migrant labour (which is at least transitionally important, given the current reliance of the soft fruit industry on migrant work). People with insights into the financial or fishing industries, to name but two, will no doubt have individual concerns for their sectors.
This is not remoaning. This is trying to make Brexit work and pointing out real obstacles that exist along the way to any Brexit utopia. And I am far from convinced the path taken will be the best for the UK (including Scotland).
My perspective on Scotland
Ah, Scotland. What should Scotland do? Is this the famous “material change” that might allow for another independence referendum? As already noted, I am not quite sure we are there.
Some might argue the UK Supreme Court decision exposes just how weak the devolution settlement and the recent Scotland Act 2016 are. Maybe I have low expectations, but I was not actually surprised by that revelation.
What strikes me as more important are the actual mechanics and implications of Brexit. I still think it is beholden on all of us to try to make this work at a UK level, but I also think the direction of UK Government travel could soon be enough to make the independence option an option again. Some thoughts on Scotland now follow.
Scots and unions
My first thought here is one I owe to several conversations with University of Aberdeen colleagues and others. It is a generalisation, so open to critique, and as such this is perhaps why I have not seen it articulated too much in print. The generalisation is that the Scots, in the main, have a history of “getting” union. (For example, after Darien and all that, it was clear(ish) that union provided a way for wee Scotland to take part in the adventure of Empire.) Perhaps this mindset has contributed to both recent referendums producing Scottish votes in favour of union.
(Before anyone comments, I know there is a danger of pretending Scotland is homogenous block of Remainers: I mentioned that in my previous Brexit blog post.)
Add to that that both referendums were largely accidental. And yes, they really were accidents, even if the hardcore campaigners for either cause might claim otherwise: for the indyref, that “wholly accidental” referendum was caused by the SNP somehow winning an absolute majority in the 2011 Holyrood elections; for the EURef it was because the Tories won an absolute majority in the 2015 General Election and David Cameron’s short termist bid to placate wings of his own party led to a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
Scottish independence: “Why?” or “Why not?”
Time for another generalisation. Harking back to 2014, in my limited experience of arguing for Scottish independence I found people could be crudely organised into two mindsets: those who thought “Why?” and those who thought “Why not?”
Those in the “Why not?” camp were more likely to take a punt. I was one of those, although (as noted in my pro-Yes blog post) I was open to being convinced of reasons to the contrary.
(One reason to the contrary that was bandied about regarded Scotland’s place in the EU. Dame Anne Begg (then the MP for Aberdeen South) ran that argument at an event I attended in Aberdeen. I responded with the counter-position from the audience. Things look a bit different now… But that is a cheap shot by me. I will return to that below.)
Those in the “Why” camp took much more convincing: “this referendum has been sprung on me, convince me.” That is exactly how I felt about the EURef and it was an experience I had no option but to learn from.
Thinking a bit more about the “Why?”, those less inclined for independence might be subdivided into “Why in general?” and “Why now?”
Brexit may or may not have moved some “Why in general?” folk, but it is the latter camp that Brexit suddenly presents an answer to (and I suspect it is this camp that will be considered carefully when thinking of the timing of any indyref2).
The referendum results demonstrated that the Scots electorate wanted both unions. It now seems increasingly clear that Scots literally cannot have both unions.
Not only that, the recent UK Supreme Court judgment indicates that the Scots’ opportunity to shape Brexit is limited to 59 MPs in the House of Commons, Scottish peers in the House of Lords, and a Legislative Consent Motion (which the UK Government can consider then reject without being in breach of the UK Constitution or the Scotland Act 2016 specifically).
If you are not bothered by that situation, you are in the “Why in general?” camp and have not been swayed. Fair play.
If you are bothered by that situation, like this former representative of Lawyers Together, you have your answer to “Why now?”
But haud on…
Right, so we are clattering to independence then, aye?
As Alistair Darling might say, haud on.
Bad things were predicted in the event of a Scottish Yes vote in 2014.
Bad things were predicted in the event of an EU Leave vote in 2016.
Because independence was not voted for in 2014, you can’t simply assert those predicted bad things would not have happened. And that would have included iScotland having at least a re-shaped relationship with the EU (which, at that stage, would have included the rest of the UK without a mandate to Leave).
Then there is the separate point that any aftermath to the Brexit vote or indeed Brexit itself will not insulate iScotland from challenges a new state would face, whether in Scotland’s particular situation or a new state in general.
For argumentation purposes, let me take it as a given that bad things have indeed happened since the EU Leave vote. (People can and will dispute this, that’s fine. I am not arguing either way, I am just using it as a rhetorical device.) To what extent can the Scottish electorate be convinced that more bad things won’t happen with Scotland hiving off? If it is a struggle to answer that, any campaign will also be a struggle.
Then there is the politics of it. Andrew Tickell’s blogged anecdote of a Yes voter who actually voted Yes to leave the EU is one I have shared before. The impermeability of the 45% who voted Yes to Scottish independence in September 2014 cannot be assumed.
There are also those who may have voted Yes for non-EU related reasons in 2014 but, now that they think about it, feel it is far more likely that they would take up a job offer in Newcastle than Nijmegen and as such the Anglo-Scottish (and Welsh and NI) Union is to be preferred. This is another possible seepage from the 45.
Finally, those who voted Remain for the UK in the EURef might not have expected that vote to instantly transmogrify into a Remain for iScotland. To assume the 45 can be swelled with those Remainers is a big leap.
Sure, maybe there has been an element of swelling, and I have seen some tweets to that effect in the social media echo chamber. But maybe Twitter is not the best gauge of all of this. In fact, this blog post is all rather downbeat, compared to the likes of Derek Bateman’s rallying cry penned in the aftermath of the UK Supreme Court decision.
Also, see all that stuff about Brexit being complicated? Yeah, independence might be pretty complicated too.
Um, “so why are you blogging about this?”, I hear you cry? Because it might be useful for supporters of Scottish independence to hear a “haud on” from someone who is not Alistair Darling. If this #StillYes-supporting blogger is saying haud on, that means there is still plenty to think about.
All that said, and with apologies to Tracy Chapman, there will be a moment where the question “If not now, then when?” will resonate. Whilst the last referendum was “wholly accidental”, the level of upheaval caused by some forms of Brexit would be such that another referendum would be entirely justified to this blogger: as the historian Jim Hunter tweeted, it is “Ironic that Scotland, which joined UK in 1707 to boost its trading prospects, is now stuck with a UK bent on shrinking these same prospects”.
And to return to the fact that Brexit and iScotland will be complicated, to avoid ever doing something because it is complicated is the kind of thinking that leads one to never move house. Brexit is coming because voters in the UK so wanted to Leave that the associated paperwork did not concern them. For those in Scotland who were worried about the paperwork of Scottish independence, plenty of paperwork is coming your way anyway. At some point, that could be part of the answer to “Why now?”
And if you still do not want that “now”, the chances are your answer to Chapman’s “when?” is “Not ever.” As noted above, fair play: and if you are in that camp I am pleasantly surprised you have read all the way through this blog post.
For those readers who want Scottish independence, I hope this blog post might just be useful in setting out how a campaign might shake out when we reach the “now”.
Yes, this is all very hypothetical.
And yes, political blogging and nation building are both hard: the latter I have no experience of, but I gather it is harder than blogging.
I suspect I will self-impose another hiatus until we see what sort of soundbite-free Brexit we are getting and/or whether indyref2 is actually happening. Do feel free to comment below though and I will keep the conversation going.