Brexit and the drive for a second independence referendum

Brexit and the drive for a second independence referendum

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 7, December, 2020

GLOBAL HISTORIANS ARE very interested in what they call ‘The European Miracle’, the title of a famous book, which has gone through several editions, by Professor E.L. Jones. The miracle referred to is not the rise of the EU but the exponential rise, primarily economic, technological and commercial, but also political, intellectual and military of Europe from an equal start in the eleventh century ahead of the great Asian Empires (Ottoman, Mogul and Chinese). How could Europe overtake, indeed virtually take over, these empires?  

The answer – or at least the most important one – is that whereas they became centralised, bureaucratised, and united – often under a single religion – Europe never became united. Disunity was the key to her success. Christianity split between Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism while the Holy Roman Empire failed to unite the Continent politically. Instead Europe became a state system not a state, which meant that people in one state could copy ideas, technological and commercial advances, even military ones, from neighbouring states and apply them at home. 

Think of Peter the Great and his ‘great embassy’ to the West studying the latest maritime and other technologies with which to transform Russia. Think of the academies set up during the Enlightenment reporting on advances in other countries and spreading knowledge of them. Think of Voltaire and Montesquieu spreading knowledge of Britain’s parliamentary institutions and limited monarchy to the rest of Europe. Think of Voltaire in Prussia or Diderot in Russia. Think of the technology of Britain’s industrial revolution (steam engines and railways) being exported to Belgium and then the rest of Europe. Think of Bismarck’s welfare system being poached by Lloyd George. Think of the Jews, expelled from England but moving to Spain or the Huguenots, expelled from France but moving to England and Prussia.  

Think too of the balance of power between the separate European states, now so loathed by European federalists. Whenever it broke down and Europe faced conquest, domination or unity under Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Kaiser or Hitler, Britain took the lead in organising alliances and coalitions of the other states to prevent this. And fortunately she always won. Europe owes its freedom to British independence, not the EU. 

After 1945 the old system continued. Supply-side reformers – Erhard, Rueff, Thatcher and Schroeder – stimulated economic growth in individual states with reforms that were copied elsewhere. 

The EEC meanwhile had a very small budget most of which was devoted to agriculture. Its policies, in any case, turned out to be a disaster. The Common Agriculture Policy raised prices for ordinary consumers to the benefit of rich ‘agro-barons’ creating so-called beef and butter mountains and wine lakes. Surplus produce was then dumped on the third world ruining local farmers. Later on, after ‘reform’ money was just given away to landowners depending on the size of their farms to do pretty much what they liked with it. Today agriculture still takes up about 38 per cent of the EU budget. The Common Fisheries Policy was even worse. It destroyed British fishing communities and the British fishing fleet and by developing a system of quotas for different species of fish led to hundreds of thousands of dead fish being thrown back into the North Sea. 

Failure became worse when the EU’s centralising ambitions increased and it went in for a monetary policy, first with the EMS (European Monetary System) and EMR (Exchange rate Mechanism), of which membership of the latter cost Britain billions and ruined John Major’s career. Then the euro was launched with great fanfare in 2001. Yet Europe’s single currency, to put it mildly, failed to live up to expectations. It failed to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, failed to increase intra-European trade, failed to boost Eurozone growth, caused the longest-recorded depression in modern times in Greece, has seen the Italian economy stagnate, has necessitated bailouts in several states, and has caused two states – Greece and Italy – to question EU membership. By effectively providing an undervalued currency for Germany it boosted that country’s goods exports to their benefit but at a cost to most other member states. 

Today the Eurozone is in permanent crisis with negative interest rates, constitutional and economic divisions over quantitative easing, and even threatened with the veto of its latest budget and Covid Reconstruction Fund by Poland and Hungary. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the brilliant economic columnist of the Sunday Telegraph, has thus rightly described the EU as “a stagnant regional bloc, unable to grow, saddled with a failed currency, and at the mercy of the global economic cycle”. Many see its fundamental weakness in its having a single currency but lacking financial or fiscal union. If this is true, there is little prospect of that situation changing any time soon.  

Evans-Pritchard’s point about it being ‘unable to grow’ is well borne out by statistics. According to IMF data released by Bloomberg, between 1997 and 2017, Eurozone growth was 26 per cent, Italian growth 6.7 per cent, Greek growth 1.3 per cent, US growth 42 per cent and UK growth (outside the Eurozone of course) 44 per cent. China, Israel and Singapore all registered 98 per cent. Meanwhile the UK, was helping to subsidise EU failure by paying billions of pounds every year to an unelected Commission whose policies, as has been seen, brought no obvious rewards. It was little wonder therefore that the country voted for Brexit in 2016.  

Scotland of course, which was not Itself a member state but only part of one – the UK, voted to remain in the EU by 62 per cent to 38 per cent, 1,661,191 votes to 1,018,322. There was very little of a Vote Leave campaign in Scotland and no vocal support from any MSP at Holyrood, so that its million plus votes, almost 40 per cent of those cast, was a very respectable achievement. Moreover these votes apparently included about one third of SNP voters who could not persuade themselves that their party’s slogan ‘Independence in Europe’, made any logical sense. 

Indeed, it made even less sense considering the experience of Greece and other small states during the EU’s financial crises between 2009 and 2015. The brutal crushing of Greece which was forced to agree to German terms within three days before being told the details of its bailout was mirrored in the brutality with which Germany treated Ireland and others. The details of the Irish budget for example circulated in the Bundestag before Irish MPs even saw them. Meanwhile Professor Ulrich Beck’s best-seller of 2012, ‘German Europe’ began by quoting the notorious German radio announcement of February 2012: “Today the German Bundestag will decide the fate of Greece.” According to Beck, the debtor states of Southern Europe had become ‘the new underclass’ of Europe whose fate at best might be federalism but was more likely to be German neo-colonialism. Beck thought this would be fine: Germans had become ‘model democrats, model nuclear drop-outs, model savers and model pacifists... Measured by our own history, this is the best Germany we have ever had’. He concluded: “...because Germany is the wealthiest country, it has the only real say in the centre of Europe.”  Lucky Southern Europe! How then could a bankrupt Scotland, if it achieved independence and was allowed to enter the EU, ever hope to avoid becoming part of this  ‘new European underclass’? 

There can be no doubting  the truth of Beck’s analysis and even worse of German popular acceptance of it. One of Merkel’s closest colleagues boasted “now Europe speaks German”. The German magazine Stern on 17 July 2015 had a picture of Merkel on its front cover under the headline: “The Ice Queen. How Angela Merkel became the most feared woman in Europe”. Inside an article was headed “Schmerzdame (Dominatrix). Angela Merkel has taught Europe to fear. Once again the Chancellor has saved Greece, albeit it on German conditions. And they are hard, perhaps too hard.” Merkel’s friend, the British Ambassador, a pro-German and pro-European (he was formerly our man in Brussels), Sir Paul Lever, naturally entitled his memoirs ‘Berlin Rules. Europe and the German Way.’ The French news magazine L’Express in 2020 ran an article describing German policy in Europe as “Deutschland uber Alles”. The British and Scottish media of course scrupulously avoid this truth. 

Smaller states are still being exploited by the EU. After this summer’s EU summit meeting to decide the next EU budget and establish a Covid Reconstruction Fund, the largest per capita losers in terms of contributions according to the official data were Luxembourg (€ 5,537), Ireland (€ 3,201), Denmark (€ 2,101), Netherlands (€ 1,797), and Sweden (€ 1,623).  Similarly, Ireland had to agree to contribute € 15.7 billion to the Reconstruction Fund, while Italy and Spain took out € 56.7 billion and € 82. 2 billion respectively. All this at a time when Ireland was in deep economic crisis. 

This led one distinguished Irish journalist to ask: “Why then are we happy to borrow money and transfer it to an Italian state that is in trouble because of its unwillingness to prosecute tax evasion? It amounts to the Irish taxpayer subsidising Italian criminals.” Most Irish media, of course, ignore the true plight of Ireland within the EU. They are used to EU domination. After all they have seen two Irish referendum votes overturned and acquiesced in German terms for their bailout during the financial crisis. And even Sinn Fein (‘Ourselves Alone’) have become good Europeans. 
The SNP is in the same camp. The political and diplomatic realities of the EU are overlooked. So too are the economic realities. The degree of self-delusion is phenomenal. 

Before the Brexit referendum took place the SNP had made it known that any material change in circumstances – meaning Brexit –  would necessitate a second Scottish independence referendum, despite all Salmond’s and Sturgeon’s statements that the previous one would represent a once in a generation or even lifetime decision. When the results of the Brexit referendum then revealed that over 62 per cent of Scots had voted to remain in the EU, Sturgeon, first minister since 2014, demanded Scotland should be allowed to do just that – despite the fact that the UK had voted to leave and that Scots had voted to remain in the UK while knowing there would be a referendum on EU membership (David Cameron had made his commitment in January 2013).  

Rational arguments about an ‘independent’ Scotland in the EU having only half a dozen MEPs and no Commissioner were ignored as was the recent history of the EU described above. Even Merkel’s huge mistake of allowing over a million migrants to enter Germany in 2015 was dismissed since Scotland, according to the SNP, was friendly to immigrants and was more cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse than England. This was sheer nonsense of course. Attitude surveys and opinion polling demonstrated that Scottish attitudes towards immigration were much the same as those of any English UKIP supporter. Meanwhile it was abundantly clear that whereas several English towns had very substantial immigrant minorities, this simply was not the case in Scotland which was 96 per cent white. 

Even less convincing were claims that Scots were more European than the English. References to the ‘Auld Alliance’ in this context merely demonstrated historical ignorance since – as was demonstrated in a previous chapter –  the Auld Alliance was a disaster for Scotland. More convincing were the claims of the English in this respect since five of their kings had died on French soil and English literary figures like Chaucer and Shakespeare were more European in culture than any Scottish equivalents. In any case, contemporary Scotland was showing no practical evidence of Europhilia.

The BBC, for example, in November 2012 covered a study by the British Council, funded by the European Commission, entitled ‘Language Rich Europe’ which reported that ‘there was a tendency among Scottish firms to limit their export markets to English-speaking countries’. It also pointed to a ‘wholesale decline in foreign language study in schools and higher education.’ Its chapter on secondary schools in Scotland described the current position as ‘a matter of concern’. Whereas in 2001 almost all Scottish schoolchildren studied a foreign language for four years, by 2010 that figure had dropped to 67 per cent. The report claimed that a belief by employers and skills forecasters that “English is enough” negatively affected language teaching in schools and higher education. Finally, Scotland’s National Centre in Languages reported that entries at higher level between 2012 and 2019 had dropped for French from 4691 to 3417. For German the figures dropped from 1122 to 787. So Scotland was neither obviously cosmopolitan nor even European in culture. 

Worse still, for SNP cultural pretensions even its claim that Scots are well educated was at risk. For a start, Scotland has a great problem with functional illiteracy. According to comparative figures published in 2019 by the National Literacy Trust, more than one in four adults in Scotland  – 26.7 per cent or 931,000 – are  functionally illiterate. This compares to 12 per cent in Wales, 17.9 per cent in Northern Ireland and 16.4. per cent in England. Moreover, the figure represented an increase. In 2008 an article in The Herald had quoted the Trust putting the figure at 800,000 or 23 per cent of adults with low levels of literacy and numeracy.  Ominously it had added: Nearly one third (of adults) could find their skills “inadequate to meet the demands of the knowledge society and the Information age.” In 2008 the Scottish Government set up a Scottish Adult Literacy and Numeracy Survey. The Herald commented: “The Survey could help Scotland catch up on its European neighbours after the country’s literacy levels slipped below European averages in recent decades.”

If adult literacy and numeracy was one problem, falling standards in schools were another. On 16 December 2016 the BBC reported that “Scotland’s schools have recorded their worst ever performance in an international survey of pupils.” In maths reading and science it was the first time since 2000 that all three subject areas were classified as ‘average’ with none ‘above average’. Education Secretary John Swinney said the results made uncomfortable reading and showed that ‘radical reform’ was needed if Scotland’s education system was to become world class again. But the subsequent 2018 results were the worst ever. Also worrying is the apparently ever- widening attainment gap which exists between poorer and more affluent students. These poorer students also find it more difficult to get university places which are capped for Scots to make room for fee-paying UK and non-EU students. Scottish education in short is not what it used to be. 

Given all this one might think that it would be rather difficult to suggest, as the SNP does, that Scotland is somehow a well educated, culturally sophisticated, cosmopolitan and European society unlike its English neighbour. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

In fact Scotland under SNP government has a very poor record of achievement overall. If its record on education leaves a lot to be desired so, too, does its record on health, with Scotland’s health services also facing serious challenges. There is no room here to offer a comprehensive coverage of the SNP’s record in government but between health and education some indication may be provided of how pedestrian it really has been. 

Leaving aside the huge scandals over the delays and mistakes involved in the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow and the Sick Children’s Hospital in Edinburgh, one has to despair at the record concerning GPs surgeries and hospitals.  

Despite warnings from the BMA as early as 2003 that Scotland faced shortages of GPs, a shortage of 856 is predicted for 2021. And despite calls from the Royal College of General Practitioners that GPs should get 11 per cent of the health budget, in 2019 they were still receiving only 7.35 per cent. This led to a drop in numbers of 160 between 2013 and 2017. In 2018 25 per cent of practices had an unfilled vacancy. In 2019 some 59 practices returned their contracts to their health boards. Today, GP practices are closing down all over Scotland. 

A similar situation occurs with hospital consultants with about 500 posts vacant today. Last year £102 million was spent on agency locums – enough to pay for 1,000 permanent consultants. Reasons why vacancies occur include uncertainty over independence, higher taxes in Scotland, and the freezing of distinction awards – bonuses for clinical excellence which are still awarded elsewhere in the UK. The result of these shortages is that waiting time targets are missed in six out of eight areas including mental health and cancer referrals. Finally, SNP policy on free university tuition has meant fewer Scottish students at Scottish medical schools (51 per cent today compared to 

63 per cent in 2000) as places are capped to make room for fee-paying students. This means in turn that fewer doctors remain in Scotland after graduation. 

The greatest medical challenge in recent times has of course been the coronavirus pandemic. This has created the bizarre spectacle of daily press conferences by Sturgeon praising the efforts of her government while desperately trying to differentiate any policy developments from usually very similar ones in England. Unfortunately, despite remarkably favourable media coverage, her record has not been good. At the start of the pandemic her health minister ordered more than 100 patients with a positive test along with more than 3,000 untested ones to be moved from hospitals to care homes. This practice continued after it was stopped in England. At the time of writing 46 per cent of all Covid deaths in Scotland had occurred in care homes compared to 30 per cent in England. Today Scotland has a higher death rate than England by population density, the third worst on the world per 100,000 – and the worst of any country of the equivalent size of around 5 million.

These figures would be irrelevant save that the SNP made constant efforts to imply Scotland was managing the pandemic better than England, with bands of Saltire-bedecked fanatics at one point harassing English travellers at the border as ‘plague carriers’ who should go back home. In fact, England might yet end up with having the best record in the world during the pandemic. It was bio-medics at Oxford who first demonstrated that a cheap steroid called dexamethasone could reduce deaths in serious cases of the virus by a third. And it is Oxford scientists again who have developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, effective but also cheap and easily transported, that will soon be used to vaccinate the whole of Britain and be exported to the world. The Scottish Government, for its part, simply neglected to use the talents of Sir Hugh Pennington, Scotland’s most renowned epidemiologist, because he was not an SNP supporter. 

There is little point in detailing all the other failures of the SNP in government – the scandal of the unbuilt ferries, the centralisation of Scotland’s police forces, the out of control drug problem, the failure of the police recently to cope with the number of drivers driving under the influence of drugs. One could go on. 

More sinister is the apparent evolution of Scotland into an authoritarian one-party state. Certainly the broadcasting and print media have abandoned any attempt to criticise the Government which is the greatest source of advertising income for STV and others. The opposition political parties are also so small and ineffectual that they totally fail to hold the government to account. They rarely attempt to make a positive case for the Union. This means the SNP has taken the lead in shaping Scotland and has done so in a rather sinister manner. 

For a start the whole, rather formidable party machine is in the tight grip of one couple. Nicola Sturgeon is First Minister while her husband, Peter Murrell, is the party’s long-standing chief Executive (pictured together above). These two ensure their dominance of the party’s MSPs and MPs through the burgeoning party bureaucracy which, ironically, is funded by Westminster to the tune of £1 million annually. The bureaucracy not only instructs MPs what they can say or write but nowadays supplies about one quarter of MSPs itself. The recent party conference showed just how strict this control truly is. 138 branch resolutions were rejected for debate as were all grassroots amendments to the six official leadership motions. In particular the party blocked public debate on referendum strategy, a Scottish currency, and nuclear disarmament. 

The strict control of party members has led to backlash unsurprisingly. In 2017 AUOB (All Under One Banner) was formed as a nationalist mass movement to pressure Sturgeon to move faster on independence. In 2019 it organised a march through Edinburgh claiming 200,000 attending, but this was disputed as 11,000 by opponents. Just recently it has started a new organisation YesAlba to run an independence campaign separate from the SNP. However, it seems to lack leadership and direction.

Any real threat to Sturgeon will come from Salmond who is threatening to expose her in an explosive book about his trial for alleged sexual assaults that led to him being cleared of all charges. Was she behind the charges against him? Her husband certainly put pressure on the police to act. She herself has given different dates about when she first became involved and most suspiciously she is refusing to pass on documentation to the committee of the Scottish Parliament investigating the matter. 

Meanwhile her party’s record on civil liberty is also suspect. This ranges from banning certain songs at football matches to a bizarre attempt to introduce state guardians for every child in Scotland, a practice one might associate with North Korea. Parents could then be forced to do anything under threat that the guardian could remove their child from them. The Act was dropped but remains policy and could still be revived. 

Another strange development was the threat made by Alan Smyth, the SNP MP for Stirling, to a constituent, namely that as a ‘well known trouble maker’ she could be put on the SNP data base for opponents. Does such a thing exist and, if so, who authorised it? What is it used for? Smyth’s boyfriend, another SNP zealot, meanwhile tweeted: “Isn’t it time we started locking up people because they are English?” His tweet was taken down but photographed by opponents first. 

One might dismiss these episodes as political quirks save that the SNP Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, has introduced a Hate Crimes Bill threatening to jail anyone found guilty of ‘stirring up hatred’ against sexual, ethnic, religious or disabled minorities. It doesn’t matter if this is done unintentionally, unknowingly or even inside one’s one home, you can still be reported to the police. Not unnaturally the Bill has been opposed by lawyers, policemen, journalists and religious leaders. The public also opposes it but it has not been withdrawn. Yousaf has so far only hinted that he will accept ‘intent’ as an amendment. However, once again the state is being brought in to intimidate citizens. It is a fascist Bill. The real fear must be whether it might be amended to make criticising either the SNP or Scottish nationalism a hate crime. That would really be the route to a one-party state. 

In the immediate future, however, the key question will be the holding of a referendum. The Scottish Nationalists have been driven insane by Brexit and have convinced themselves, backed up by media support from a British Establishment which, like themselves, hates Boris Johnson and has not yet been reconciled to leaving the EU. Yet Boris has the upper hand. Constitutionally only he can approve a referendum. Sturgeon hints she would enact a Scottish law to organise one of her own should Boris refuse and ask the Supreme Court to decide on its legality. The Supreme Court also hates Boris but his constitutional case that the decision is his alone seems watertight. 

Should a referendum take place one day there is a good chance, however, it will be very different from the last one. Today there are calls for a Canada-style Clarity Act which would lay down the terms under which a referendum should take place. These could require the approval of 60 per cent of voters (the same majority required to amend the SNP constitution); the voting age could be eighteen; only Scots living anywhere in the world could vote; the question could be ‘Do you believe Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom?’. And the vote would take place when the UK Government decided. Under these circumstances the outcome would probably not favour the SNP. 

Earlier this year polling of 1,008 Scots published in the Scotsman revealed that if the pound were not to be the currency, 42 per cent were less likely to vote for independence, if there were to be a hard border, 43 per cent were less likely to vote for independence, while if an independent Scotland were to be outside both the UK and EU, 42 per cent were less likely to vote for independence. Asked their response to the question ‘should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom,’ 56 per cent said remain. 

The Scot Nationalists took victory for granted in 2014 and lost. They should be prepared to lose again. In any case Boris Johnson is most unlikely to grant them their referendum. 

A referendum leading to independence, however, is all that Scottish Nationalists dream about. They despise devolution and are clearly bored running a devolved government which they do very badly. But they are doomed to disappointment. Any referendum would demonstrate the weakness of their economic arguments: what currency would they use? If they choose to unofficially use sterling they could not set interest rates or print money. They would also lose the annual £12 billion from the Scottish block grant and its Barnett formula at a time when the latest GERS report (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) is quite devastating. It puts Scotland’s national deficit at £15.1 billion or 8.6 per cent of GDP. This is three times the UK figure and three times the 3 per cent figure required for EU membership. 

Given lockdowns, the Institute for Fiscal Studies  suggests the figure by the end of this year could be 26-28 per cent and still over 11 per cent in 2024-25. Independence would therefore require savage austerity. The country would in fact be bankrupt. The financial services industry would probably desert to the City, oil tax revenues would no longer exist, Orkney and Shetland and other parts of the country might choose to remain in the UK and there would be no way to stop them. The EU wouldn’t look twice at such a basket case. 

Independence therefore would see Scotland a failed, desperately poor, politically divided state dependent on England to survive, with the expensive EU of little use to it. It would be rather like medieval Scotland, the Scotland of Braveheart, but not quite in the way that nationalists envisage. 

This is the fourteenth part of Professor Sked’s series, here are the others:     

Part one – Mythology in the history of Anglo-Scots relations;        

Part two – From Auld Alliance to creating the Union;       

Part three – Scotland 1707-1914: The Union adjusts and consolidates;       

Part four – A loyal Scotland fights for Britain: 1707-1918;    

Part five – Union survives the War and evolves: 1918-1938       

Part six – United Britain was victorious in war – but fallacies about the interwar peace persist      

Part seven – The political peculiarities of interwar Scotland     

Part eight – Scotland and the Second World War    

Part nine – The rise of the SNP  

Part ten – Scotland under the Conservatives 1979-1997, Part one   

Part eleven – Scotland under the Conservatives 1979-1997, Part two   

Part twelve – Labour’s road to perdition – Devolution for Scotland 

Part thirteen – Alex Salmond’s imperious reign leaves independence denied 

See Also: When Scots enslaved fellow Scots 

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics.    

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