Stands Scotland where it did?

Stands Scotland where it did?

by William Ross
article from Monday 30, December, 2019

AFTER THE AGONY of three years, the end came with shocking swiftness. At 10.00 pm on Thursday 12 December, the BBC exit poll was read out. There would be a Conservative majority of about 80 seats! All sorts of end game phrases started to flood the mind of the Brexiteer. The night wore on. How are the mighty fallen? Terrible swift sword. An end to all that. Quiet the trumpets. Unconditional surrender. Washing of the spears. And finally, an adapted Proclaimers theme: Hammond no more, Soubry no more, Allen no more, Bercow no more, (Gina) Miller no more, Rudd(s) no more, Swinson no more, Umuna no more, Gauke no more, Grieve no more, Letwin no more, Remain no more, EU no more, Lochaber no more..............

Remain lies broken. Its battered body will be lifeless by 1 February 2020. All that is left will be “Rejoin”, a completely different proposition. Brexit is now the default constitutional position. Quite unlike before, “Rejoin” would have to make a positive case for joining the EU. Good luck with that Alastair Campbell.

Labour is pulverised. The English working class is now Tory voting. Momentum is now the vanguard of a non-existent class, as Stalin might have said. Awful as Corbyn and McDonnell were, and are, Labour has a far worse problem, its own membership.  Does anyone know what Labour`s purpose is anymore? And remember that by 2024 we will have had boundary reform which will accentuate the Tory advantage in seats. If a question mark hangs over Labour, the Lib- Dems have become a mere footnote.

Above all this, Boris Johnson bestrides British politics like a new young Churchill. In six months of furious action, Johnson and Cummings have resolved the Tory Civil War over Europe which has lasted for half a century. The Tories are now an out and out Leave party. The doubters of yesterweek are silenced. The UK now has one of the most stable governments in the World. And yet, and yet, Boris is not lord of all that he surveys. The SNP now hold 48 out of 59 Scottish seats on 45% of the popular vote. Sooner or later, Boris, like Edward I, must turn his eyes north and confront the Scottish Lion.

So in this my last post of the decade, I would like to ask MacDuff`s immortal question, raised in “Macbeth”, Act IV, Scene III  “Stands Scotland Where It Did?” How do we assess the twin victories of Boris and Nicola? What are the portents for the new decade? The following are my thoughts:

1.     We should never doubt the aptitude, knowledge and connections Boris possesses in his pursuit of power in London and Brussels. But he has no equivalent understanding of Scotland and neither does Dominic Cummings. They have to rely on a Scottish Tory party which is numerically and intellectually weak and defensive by nature. The Tories never wanted a devolved Scotland to exist and it shows. They see themselves as bored adults in the roomful of boisterous teenagers. Boris himself is regarded as a liability by the Scottish Tories.

2.     English commentators like Anthony Barnett and Simon Jenkins still find it hard to accept that Scottish independence has been a mainstream position in Scotland for at least five years. Mainstream yes, but (crucially) not yet a majority. Ironically, the whirlwind of Brexit has done remarkably little to intensify the demand for independence. Nicola`s vote of 45% on 12 December is identical with the Yes vote in Indyref 1. Exceptional, but not exceptional enough. 

3.     And what of the Nationalists? The SNP stands out as the dominant party in Scotland, which is a remarkable achievement after being in power in Holyrood since 2007. It is even more remarkable when one considers that the SNPs governmental record is poor to unspectacular. The party is extraordinarily centralised and on message. Its driving goal at breakfast, lunch, dinner and in its nocturnal dreams is Scottish independence. Might this be called “democratic centralism”? In 2020 however, the party will face one of its greatest challenges in the form of the trial for alleged sexual offences of Alex Salmond, an event unprecedented in Scottish or even British politics. Salmond, after all, is the man who made modern Scotland. As 2019 wore on, cracks could be seen appearing in Nicola`s left and right flanks. Thoughtful though wacky commentators like Robin MacAlpine from Commonspace became openly rebellious. The Sustainable Growth Commission and Commonspace/George Kerevan/Bella Caledonia will obviously not mix. And how can the SNP declare a “Climate Emergency” and simultaneously celebrate new oil discoveries coming on stream? On the right, Nicola is taking brickbats for her stance on trans issues. Her radicals want Indyref 2 NOW!  

4.     If the Nationalists have internal problems, then the Unionists are in much worse shape. The Scottish Tories were simply not ready for Brexit in 2016 and are still reeling. The Left`s Gramsci-like march through Scotland`s institutions has destroyed any coherent right-wing thinking in a Scottish context.  In broader terms, genuine conservative thinkers suffer from today`s rebellion against facts and the fixation on “feeling”. With the (highly) honourable exception of Think Scotland, there is not a single popular right-wing political blog in Scotland, while vacuous left-wing thinking abounds. The Tories cannot hope to defeat the SNP in a straight Holyrood fight. Their former champion, Ruth Davidson, was a big personality/shallow thinker of the type being crushed by the Johnson steamroller in England. Scottish Labour was simply devastated by the 2019 election, being left with a single MP for “Morningside”. Labour tried in effect to be neutral on both Brexit and Indyref 2, or rather neutrality was what the English leadership imposed on them. The Lib Dems are only relevant in very limited specialist geographies. The EU has been their raison d`etre. What happens with its passing? Who on Earth is going to lead the Unionists if there ever is an Indyref 2? Archie Macpherson?  No-one is currently making a coherent intellectual or emotional argument in favour of the Union.

5.     In my view, the result of GE 2019 does not amount to a mandate for Indyref 2 and Boris will be justified in refusing a Section 30 order. What is crucial is one`s rationale for reaching this conclusion. In the UK, constitutional precedent since at least the time of Harold Wilson` second administration (1974 – 1976) is that Scotland has the undoubted right to exit the Union. Mrs Thatcher made it clear that if a majority of Scottish MPs supported independence then that result would certainly have to happen. With the coming of the Scottish Parliament, it was considered that independence would have to be won through a referendum, and in 2011 the majority of Scottish MSPs were elected on an explicit manifesto promise to hold a referendum on independence. David Cameron wisely concurred in this and the Edinburgh Agreement of 2012 and Indyref 1 on 18 Sept 2014 followed. We, therefore, have a solid and clear constitutional convention. A majority of SNP Westminster MPs are not sufficient to ground an Indyref 2 mandate. But a Holyrood majority for Indyref 2 on a clear manifesto promise does constitute such a mandate. While it might be argued that the results of the 2016 Holyrood election themselves give rise to such a mandate, this is doubtful. The 2016 SNP manifesto predicated the mandate on Brexit happening against Scotland`s will (which appeared unlikely in May 2016) and the SNP did not even achieve a 2016 majority. The 2016 Indyref 2 majority was made up by top-up MSPs from the Green Party whose manifesto commitment to Indyref 2 was based on vague grounds.

6.     At this point, I can “hear” a chorus of Unionists objecting to the logic of Willie Ross. Were we not promised that the 2014 referendum would be “once in a generation”? Drop it, Unionists! It will never work. “Once in a generation” does not appear in the Edinburgh Agreement. Political statements made by the SNP leaders in 2014 cannot bind the future will of the Scottish people. You will ignore a Nationalist victory in 2021 at your severe peril. British constitutional precedent will be junked and we will be on the road to Barcelona. Any attempt to maintain the British Union by constitutional fiat will turn the Scottish people decisively against the Union. The heavy-handed, intransigent unionism of a century ago propelled Ireland to bloody independence. Losing one Celtic nation reflected deep naivety, losing a second would be utter crass stupidity. The profound irony is that the Union can only be secure if Scotland`s sovereign rights within it are respected.

7.     It is by no means a given that there will be a properly mandated majority for Indyref 2 in 2021. The Scottish Parliament relies on proportional representation using the D`Hondt system for about half of its seats and majority government was never really envisaged.  The 2021 elections will be after the Salmond trial and, more importantly, AFTER Brexit is over. If in fact Brexit is relatively straightforward with flights continuing, wine in the shops and medicines in hospitals, a lot of Remainers including Nicola, will look pretty sheepish. Nonetheless, let us assume that the SNP win the 2021 elections.

8.     Given an SNP/Green victory in 2021, an Indyref2 will follow, probably in 2022. I assume that as before, this will be based on a straight majority of those entitled to vote with no confirmatory referendum once a final deal is agreed. I assume that former citizens of the EU who have not attained British citizenship would not be allowed to vote but the vote would be available to persons older than 16.  There will be voices in favour of a confirmatory referendum but it should be steadfastly resisted. We have no constitutional precedent for it. In the event of an initial YES majority, it would incentivize Westminster to offer us the worst possible departure terms and its uncertainty would plunge Scotland and the UK into chaos for years.

9.     Beyond vital issues of voting procedure, it will be an enormously difficult task for YES to win Indyref 2. Bear in mind that no state succession has ever happened in an advanced Western economy with high levels of welfare and wealth. You can argue that Brexit itself is the exception, and my view is that the EU is a disguised transnational state run by (benevolent) oligarchs. However, (thankfully) political integration in the EU is much looser than in the UK. Crucially, the UK remained outside the Euro. Consider these issues:

9.1 The most difficult issue for the Nationalists will be that of currency. There is no easy option. It makes me think of the immortal Irishman who is rumoured to have said that if you want to get to Dublin, do not start in Limerick! There are only two viable currency options: sterlingisation (meaning adopting sterling without permission) or launching a new Scottish pound. No significant body of YES supporters argues for the adoption of our own currency on Day 1 of independence. We are therefore going to Sterlingise, with a more distant goal being the adoption of our own currency. Logically, we must first ask where Scotland gets the sterling from? The answer is firstly from our share of UK currency reserves which will amount to less than £10 billion. Secondly, we can keep the sterling which is in circulation in Scotland.  The advantage of sterlingisation is that it looks like a no change option on the doorsteps as all costs and contracts (such as mortgages) would be unaffected.  But sterlingisation is risky. No advanced world economy (with the arguable exception of Liechtenstein) has ever adopted the currency of another country on a unilateral basis. Are we sure that we can retain the sterling in Scotland without imposing exchange controls? Experts have differing views. If we did Sterlingise, we would not be able to print our own money or control our interest rates, and our only source of new sterling (other than taxes) would be through borrowing, which would be done at high-interest rates. Scotland currently runs the largest deficit in the EU and independence would mean that we would lose some £12 billions of UK government support through the Barnett Formula. Sterlingisation means ferocious austerity which looks odd, as the SNP is a virulent anti-austerity party. If we Sterlingise, we will not possess a Central Bank and therefore Scotland will have no-one to act as a lender of last resort. This is likely to drive much of Scotland`s vital finance industry south to London losing tens of thousands of jobs and significant tax revenue.  Lastly, sterlingisation has profound consequences for EU membership.

9.2 If we have no Central Bank and we are using the currency of a non-EU country we will not be eligible to apply for EU membership. Now that does not worry Willie Ross but it should be profoundly worrying to the “Scotland in Europe” fan club.But talking about the EU more generally, we can be sure that Scotland would be admitted some time (if it first acquires its own currency) but we cannot be sure of how long the process would be and we cannot be sure of what terms would be offered. Scotland would definitely have to commit to using the Euro at some time and might have to join Schengen. The EU is likely to see more political integration in the wake of Brexit and one wonders whether Scotland would see this as being favourable. If Scotland did join the EU, there would then be a regulatory and tariff border between Scotland and England. This is not anything that I would find very worrying since modern technology is transforming how borders work and free movement of people would certainly exist between Scotland and England as it will between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. But since the SNP are terrified of “hard borders” this will be a powerful stick to beat them with. If Brexit means we are losing so much access to the EU Single Market how can it be acceptable for us to lose access to the Remaining UK (RUK), which is a market four times as important to us than the EU?

9.3 We should remember than in any independence negotiation, the RUK will be the status quo power. Scotland will need to secure independence, not RUK. In this sense, the situation is analogous to Brexit. Up until 31 January 2020, the EU is the status quo power. But the RUK will be in a stronger situation as status quo power than the EU has been. This is because there is no equivalent of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in the Treaty of Union or subsequent legislative enactments.  Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty provides that the departing state and the EU have two years in which to negotiate a withdrawal agreement. The only legal way for Scotland to exit the UK is to persuade the Westminster Parliament to legislate for that result. Westminster will be in control of process and timing and Scotland will certainly have to take on its population share of UK national debt. That will be a figure in the hundreds of billions.

9.4 Lastly, we can be absolutely sure that negotiating Scottish independence will make Brexit look like a cakewalk.  

10.  It all looks very difficult but the SNP may still win. Willie Ross would probably vote YES again. The really important thing is that there should be an honest debate and politicians on both sides must be prepared to accept the verdict of the people, even if it proves unpalatable. The pressure will be on the SNP, as they absolutely must win this time. Quebec amply demonstrates what happens to Nationalist Parties who lose two succession referenda. If the SNP lose, then Scotland must prosper as a proud autonomous nation within the Union.  

In answer to my question “Stands Scotland Where It Did?”, I invoke the response of the Scottish nobleman Ross (possibly no relation!)  whom Shakespeare has respond to Macduff in these words: “Alas, poor country. Almost afraid to know itself.”  May God guide us in the turbulence and challenges which lie ahead.


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