Theresa May has ruled out another Scottish referendum before Brexit. Nonetheless, another plebiscite is inevitable and we can now speculate over the likely conditions under which it will be held. The best possible outcome, after two years or so of the SNP bores harping on about a “hard Tory Brexit”, will be for the vote to be held after the UK and the EU have come to a reasonable, amicable and mutually beneficial “divorce” arrangement.
As part of the Article 50 negotiations, the UK and the EU will likely have agreed upon a framework for our future trade agreement and the conditions of the transitional arrangement that will bridge the gap to the ratification of said agreement. Clearly, it won’t be smooth sailing; it will be a hard old slog. However, I still believe this is the best outcome for both sides and the most likely. The politics and economics dictate a need for a carefully managed transition.
So, the Scottish referendum would be held after UK has left the EU and begun transitioning into its new relationship, with talks for a comprehensive trade and cooperation agreement ongoing. These are very favourable conditions for Unionists and it’s about time we realised that and readied ourselves to defend the UK with confidence and gusto.
The case for separation from the UK is weak on so many levels. Even if the trade talks seemed to be in difficulty at the time, or if the divorce terms are less favourable that I have speculated here, that does not make the economic case for separation stronger.
Everyone in the SNP has been briefed to include the words “Tory”, “hard” and “Brexit” in every sentence, but even the hardest of hard Tory Brexits (which, despite the lies, is decidedly not what is being sought by the government) would not make leaving the UK any less problematic. The economic case for independence does not exist, it really is simple as that.
We know the facts. The SNP spends £15 billion more than it receives in taxes, as evidenced by the Scottish government’s own figures. As part of the benefit of the economic and social union, the UK government covers that deficit with an annual fiscal transfer. That deficit can be cut but it would require very severe austerity measures and a radical shrinking of the Scottish state.
Oil revenues can no longer act as the foundation of the case for separation. The SNP dismissed the likely dispute over where territorial lines would be drawn and the risks involved in relying on the price of oil to argue that oil would make Scotland one of the richest countries in the world. From 2015 to 2016, revenue fell by 96% from £1.8bn to 60m. Ouch.
It has now been proven that the SNP based their 2014 campaign on an illusion – their next campaign will be even less credible. To safeguard access to the EU market that accounts for 16% of their exports, Scotland must, according to the SNP, leave the UK market that accounts for 63% of their exports. This argument makes no sense and is based entirely on the UK having no trade arrangements with the EU, which is a very unlikely worst-case scenario. It also relies on Scotland seamlessly continuing EU membership, with shifty Sturgeon continually failing to heed clear warnings that this isn’t possible.
Already the Chief Spokesman of the European Commission has reiterated the EU position that Scotland would have to apply for EU membership after leaving the UK. Referring back to a 2012 statement from José Manuel Barroso, Margaritis Schinas said: “The Barroso doctrine, would that apply? Yes that would apply, obviously.” Oh dear, already slippery Sturgeon’s flimsy reassurances are crumbling under scrutiny.
This was followed by another body blow from Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, who confirmed Scotland could only apply to join the defence alliance after it had legally split from the UK. Who’d have thunk it! Shockingly, NATO isn’t keen on Scotland becoming a one-party nationalist state that expels Trident from its territory and weakens its second most important member and threatens its nuclear umbrella.
The fact is that the SNP will not easily find friends willing to throw them a life buoy. Despite everything, the EU will have zero desire to anger the UK by giving special dispensation to Scotland and encouraging separation. In any case, other EU states, such as Spain, will look out for their own interests primarily. That does not involve fermenting separatism in the territory of its allies which concomitantly strengthens separatist movements within their own borders. It is simply not in the interests of EU Member States or NATO, or any of the UK’s allies, to see the UK split up.
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Hastily, the SNP seems to have haphazardly cobbled together another proposal: Scotland’s “Norway option”. Again, this is clear complacency by a party that believes it can govern an “independent” Scotland into a new golden age. Are we to believe the attractive new alternative idea is for Scotland to exist in isolation outside the UK and the EU, with its own worthless currency, indebted and reliant on the Bank of England and at the mercy of Europe?
The so-called “Norway option” requires the approval of the members of the European Free Trade Association and the EU. For this there are no guarantees whatsoever. On top of that uncertainty is the prospect of a border with England due the necessary acceptance of free movement, and few of the economic uncertainties are solved by this scenario. Everything the SNP says is solid immediately melts into air before your very eyes. Scotland can’t afford its future to be shaped by chancers.
The SNP’s “alternative” to the UK is an “independent” Scotland joining the supposed “partnership of equals”” the EU. So, the SNP’s case for independence would then be founded upon joining a supranational organisation that will have exclusive control over its polices for trade, fisheries and agriculture and very significant and expanding influence over every other policy area, including energy, environment, transport and telecommunications.
The EU will also represent Scotland in every international organisation and conference in the world (Article 34 – Treaty on European Union), meaning an “independent” Scotland in the EU will not speak for itself independently on the world stage; it will be bound by the agreed position of the EU.
Accession to the EU will mean serious fiscal consolidation to comply with the European Stability and Growth Pact. This means £16.5 billion in spending cuts, £15 billion to cut the deficit, and another £1.5 billion to afford annual EU budget contributions. Once in the EU, using the euro as its currency means Scotland’s Central Bank will be in Frankfurt where every year the SNP’s spending plans will be analysed and its budget signed off before they are presented to the public.
Meanwhile, Scotland will still be indebted and reliant upon its biggest creditor and trading partner: the rest of the United Kingdom. Edinburgh would be inescapably stuck in the middle of a London, Brussels, Frankfurt sphere of influence.
I mean not to sneer at Scotland itself, but at the case for separatism on this island. Scotland is an exceptional country and its people have an enormous amount to offer the world. However, I believe very firmly that the inherent strengths of Scotland and England are best harnessed within the Union; and the weaknesses of both are best mitigated by working together. This belief is built on a pretty solid foundation of evidence, i.e. 300 years of success and achievements envied all over the world.
My fellow Unionists, I smell weakness. The starting gun on the next referendum has already been fired and Sturgeon has visibly stumbled. On what the central message of her campaign will be, she seems confused and uncertain. The SNP’s economic case for separation is like a drawbridge made of dust crumbling precariously over a dark canyon.
The SNP’s dogmatic commitment to the EU weakens their cause because EU membership does not represent independence for Scotland. Other than that they have their “Norway option” or the isolation option – neither are attractive. This must be mercilessly exposed, for beneath that façade is the ugly truth that the Nationalist cause is primarily about separation from England at all costs. Truly, it is we Unionists that are making the positive case.
The referendum will be a choice between the Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish people working together to make the next chapter of our Union’s history a success, or, Scotland leaving and joining the queue for EU membership and the subordination that requires. That’s a battle we can win.
Ben Kelly is an Executive Director of Conservatives for Liberty.