Prepare for several days of pious posturing by the SNP leadership about its plan to keep Scotland in the EU Single Market when the UK leaves the European Union. Apparently it will be a “devastating” disaster if Scotland leaves the EU Single Market, we are told by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Yet even the Scottish government’s own statistics make it clear that the Rest of the UK, primarily England, is by far Scotland’s biggest export market. The latest statistics, for 2014, show the following:
Scottish exports to the EU total £11.6bn
Scottish exports to the rest of the world total £15.2bn
And Scottish exports to the rest of the UK total £48.5bn – that’s 64% of the total.
In defiance of an awkward reality, and in line with the long Scottish political tradition of over-emphasising links with the rest of Europe and disregarding next door neighbour England, the SNP now proposes to put at risk free trade and open borders with Scotland’s biggest market, England, all to make the UK government look intransigent (for which read in touch with reality) and to agitate for another shot at Scottish independence.
If the UK leaves the EU single market then the SNP wants Scotland to stay inside that single market. That would require a “hard border” with customs checks, say the Tories. The citing of the Irish open border by Nationalists as a proposed parallel arrangement is shameful. The arrangements there exist because of a legacy of violence and ethnic warfare. Scotland’s problem – these days – is economic. It cannot expect to maintain free movement of people within the EU single market and then expect England, that outside London is determined to control immigration, to leave the northern border wide open. It is a policy that has no hope of getting past post-Brexit English public opinion.
Even members of the SNP’s expert panel – which it spent the summer hailing as almost divine in its wisdom – have declared Sturgeon’s paper, unveiled today, in effect a non-starter. As the pro-EU Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, told the Daily Telegraph:
“Legally, politically, technically, it’s extremely difficult for Scotland to stay in the single market if the UK as a whole does not, the basic point being that there would have to be one set of business regulations applying to England and another set applying to Scotland. So that would require the devolution of all business regulation matters to Scotland, which clearly isn’t going to be on the cards in the foreseeable future.”
Then there is the problem of objections from other EU states who do not want Scotland to have a different deal from the rest of the UK, because it may encourage secessionist movements in their own countries.
“Certainly that would be the view of the Spanish government,” said Grant. “They would be very unwilling to see Scotland getting some sort of sweetheart deal whereby somehow it could continue to enjoy the benefits of membership while outside the EU. Mrs May would have to push for it and argue for it to give Scotland some special deal vis-à-vis the EU, and I’m not sure why she would think it was in her interests for this to happen.”
Of course, Alex Salmond, former SNP leader, thinks all this hoo-hah is a trigger for another independence referendum which will definitely be won this time, oh yes. But Alex thinks everything is a trigger for another referendum, even the new album by Michael Buble. He is obsessed, seeing everything through the prism of Scottish independence. Salmond, not Buble, I mean.
That is no reason the rest of us should take him and the SNP at their own estimation. After all, the SNP has had a bad year and needs to create a diversion. It continues to dominate in the polls (is it putting drugs in the water supply?) but it is also on the rack in the Scottish parliament and the media because of its miserable failure in Scottish education. The health service in Scotland is doing badly. The trains don’t work. And the Scottish budget fell apart even quicker than George Osborne’s infamous effort to tax the Cornish pasty a few years back. The Edinburgh administration is struggling to use the powers it has, yet now, of course, it wants more to match its demand for EU single market membership.
This is the SNP tactic down ages. The party has one aim – independence – meaning that the curse of Scottish politics has long been a constitutional obsession. It is easier, and more fun for obsessives, than putting in the hard work and hard thinking about improving education, health and the economy.
The UK government must, of course, for the sake of form and politeness pretend to take the SNP proposal seriously. But it will see this wheeze for what it is. With the mess it is making of governing Scotland it has a nerve.