“Because we voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom, we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom. There is no opt-out from Brexit.”(Theresa May, last year)
“All has changed, changed utterly” (WB Yeats)
I couldn’t decide today whether to do the long version of this week’s article or the short one. For the latter, I would have borrowed from my favourite Twitter account @angryscotland. Today, Angry writes: “Good morning. Brexit still a mess. Scottish Independence still a brilliant idea”. Yep, cheers Angry. That about covers it.
I’m tempted to say there’s more to it than that but there probably isn’t. But after a year and a half of virtually nothing happening, yesterday was the day when reality finally bit and was the moment when we realised that Brexit didn’t mean Brexit at all, that “taking back control” comes down to being controlled by a minority party in Northern Ireland for which no one in Britain can actually vote for, for which only 28% of Northern Ireland actually did, and which doesn’t hold a single seat along the (for at present) invisible Irish border. That far from “leaving the EU as a United Kingdom” there were, in fact, bespoke deals to be had everywhere – with implications not just for the type of EU withdrawal Britain might face, but for the constitutional future of the union itself. A united Ireland, a bespoke deal for Scotland, a new independence referendum, a general election, border patrols at Cairnryan. Some or all of this may happen but change, at last, is coming. And quickly. So with apologies to @angryscotland, here are my thoughts on the events, issues and ramifications arising from these recent, extraordinary, days.
Every morning, the dog and I walk to the top of the hill behind our house and look towards the ferry port of Cairnryan, just a few short miles from my house. Last week, I took the boat to Belfast without a hitch. But there now is a real possibility that a few years from now, that could change and the dog and I could be witnessing the Innermessan / Cairnryan road which connects the two main routes out of Stranraer being jammed nose to tail with freight as they await border checks at what would now in fact be the border between the EU / ESM and the UK.
The truth is that the Irish border or any other one isn’t really up for negotiation. There is, for example, no such thing as a non-border when the whole point of Brexit was that there should be one. That remains true after today. The question is now not (and has never been) “will there be a border?” The question is “where will that border be?”, because it has to go somewhere. Borders, like financial markets, don’t “do” emotion or politics but simply exist where neighbours have differing custom arrangements, like the one between Norway and Sweden that you never hear about. In the Ireland / NI / Scotland case, it goes to where the crossing point between those in the ESM and those out of it is located. If Scotland stays in the ESM – and the fact that such a deal for Northern Ireland was not only on the table but considered both do-able and politically sellable means that there is no reason whatsoever for Scotland not to have a similar arrangement – there is a frictionless border at Cairnryan. If we leave the ESM in hard Brexit without bespoke deal, and if NI remains in the ESM, then there is a hard border and a line of lorries all the way from the ferries to the A75 turnoff. This isn’t anyone being intransigent or a “sabateur”, but is just what, logically, will happen.
From the hilltop, the dog and I will be watching.
The Irish Question
Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention shouldn’t have been remotely surprised at the third leg of its capitulation over its so-called red lines. Two and a half years ago, absolutely everyone in the EU, and an awful lot of people who were not, knew that three conditions had to be met by a UK government before any future trade arrangements could be discussed. Theresa May’s capitulation over Northern Ireland yesterday completed the triple crown of climbdowns that also comprised the £50bn plus divorce bill and the free movement of labour that her party’s Brexiteers were so strongly against. The truth is that the UK – in its arrogance, its superciliousness, its imperialist bluster – has wasted a year and a half fighting battles that it couldn’t win. It was never going to be a fair fight. There was always going to be a soft border because that was the Republic of Ireland’s position, a stance supported by her 26 friends within the EU. The realpolitik is that the UK is being forced to accept what it claimed to be unacceptable, not because Ireland has suddenly become a global superpower but because it has the total support of EU member states, the European parliament, and the EU negotiating team. This week’s developments demonstrates that this was never, ever, up for question. It also demonstrated that small independent countries with twenty-six friends are infinitely more powerful than big ones with none.
How ironic that the British imperialist project that began in Ireland may see its endgame in the same place. And this raises, for people in Britain, as Fintan o’ Toole suggests, a rather more explosive question. “It is no longer whether Northern Ireland will leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK. It is whether the rest of the UK will now leave the EU on the same terms as Northern Ireland”.
Given what seems to have been conceded, there is only one way for Northern Ireland not to have a special status – and that is for all the UK to remain in the customs union.
There are just two possible outcomes. If Northern Ireland in effect stays in the customs union and Britain leaves, then there will have to be an internal UK customs border, checking goods moving between Northern Ireland and British ports. That border will Be Cairnryan. Unless, of course…
“Stands Scotland where it did?”
Scotland is watching, and so is the world. We see that the way our neighbours are being treated is perhaps a very good indicator of what we can expect. Jings, if the Irish, who are not governed by Westminster, are treated as though they are, what chance has a country that only has a measured devolution that falls short of any kind of autonomy, let alone independence?
Scotland, of course, led the way in exploring compromise solutions through its document, “Scotland’s Place in Europe” last year. The U.K. Govt ignored these, of course, but ironically we are now at a juncture where exactly these types of proposals are very much on the table for another UK country who voted remain – NI. Whether it comes the pass or not, the very fact that it was on the table at all means that there is no reason whatsoever that Scotland, who voted 2:1 to remain, cannot be offered a similar deal. In fact, it would be yet another democratic outrage if we were not.
Of course, a Scotland leaving the EU but remaining within the single market would still be controlled by Westminster. However, an intriguing consequence of a bespoke deal is that we’d be shipping everything out of Scottish ports. This is significant because currently a lot of stuff that we produce – whisky, beef and so on – ships out of English ports and goes onto the UK balance sheet, of which Scotland is then attributed a pro-rata. In a post – bespoke Brexit scenario those numbers come to Scotland and we might discover that we’re not too wee, poor or stupid after all. Also, more activity at those ports means more jobs. It’s the ultimate win/win. For Scotland, continuing ESM membership is a no-brainer.
While the upturn in shipping activity would be welcome, the reality is that by staying in the ESM and under Westminster control, Scotland hasn’t actually moved forward. Indeed, depending on your view, our loss of proxy EU membership status arguably takes us backwards.
However, as my friend and former SNP MP Richard Arkless says, a Scotland inside the single market with the rest of the UK outside is an economic eureka. Scotland is suddenly very attractive to businesses who want access to Europe – and they won’t have that in London. And this isn’t wishful thinking. Already, wealth management companies have started to relocate to Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin. There is no reason whatsoever that Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen cannot join that list. But, as we have learned over the past forty years, it will have little public spending benefits for Scotland unless we have full fiscal autonomy so we can retain the extra taxation from the extra activity.
A few hard Brexiteers apart, there is now a broad consensus that a hard Brexit that would see the loss of 80,000 jobs and £30bn to the Scottish economy would be a disaster for Scotland and that other solutions need to be found. Independence, at a stroke, ends the constitutional crisis, keeps Scotland in Europe and the single market, and gives us the powers and levers denied us for so long to become what I’ve always argued we should be: not outstanding, just a normal, medium sized, grown up country. Even unionists know it’s coming, and most accept that it is, at the very least, their least worst option.
I believe that is the best option, regardless of the omnibouroch that is Brexit. But that is where we are. We have the mandate, the arguments, the motives and the momentum. The Irish Question, for me, settles it.
It must be Indyref 2. Let’s get it on
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News