The Scottish view of the European Union is more nuanced than some in the SNP realise, writes Brian Wilson.
The dichotomy at the heart of the SNP in its current phase was on full show this week. While maintaining the solitary objective of breaking up the UK, its enthusiasm for the European Union verges on the starstruck.
If this was purely a matter of rhetoric and positioning, it would be their own internal business. The problem is that their reliance on a doomed Brexit to revive their cause is preventing any pretence of positive engagement at government level, which Scotland urgently needs.
The Scottish view of the EU is more nuanced than the Nationalist leadership likes to pretend, as is their own party’s history on the subject. Most Scots might agree that the current objective should be to protect the best of what exists but also actively engage in developing the positive possibilities that emerge. There is absolutely no sign of that.
Instead, the contradiction becomes more glaring and absurd. While committed as a matter of high principle to free trade and open borders by remaining within the EU, they would cheerfully disregard these same precious benefits within our own small island, regardless of cost.
Jim Sillars, the party’s former deputy leader, wrote this week of an “unhinged love that paints the EU in glowing colours” and “an unthinking paean of praise”. Unlike Jim, I voted to remain in the EU but that does not blind me to the fact that exaggerated cheer-leading for the status quo correlates inevitably to neglect of other options.
As Jim Sillars pointed out, the EU’s first obligation is still to the free movement of capital, its founding principle. He instanced the ruthless treatment of Greece as an example of that continuing priority. There have been many valuable add-ons which have given the EU a far more human face but it is delusional to assume that all its works are good.
For years, we have heard “Brussels” being held responsible for what government must do or is not allowed to do. I have suspected that a lot of this was questionable and that “EU regulations” became a convenient device in the hands of civil servants. But all these claimed constraints cannot now be airbrushed out.
If you localise it to where I live, much could be done at domestic level to improve fisheries management, to devise a system of agricultural support favouring marginal land, to ease the environmental designations that are scattered around like confetti against local wishes, and so on. In all these respects – truthfully or untruthfully – prevailing conditions have hitherto been attributed to the EU.
It represents a gross failure of political imagination if nobody in the Scottish Government can see anything positive in being able to act more sensitively outside frameworks of EU regulation. Instead of creating a bogus conflict about the process through which powers will devolve to Edinburgh, we need intelligent thinking about how these powers will be utilised.
The same is true of the wider Scottish economy. How often have we heard the “state aids” argument used to thwart useful public intervention? Is it not due to EU procurement policy that we have failed to create a renewables manufacturing industry which was supposed to be the “second industrial revolution” (© A Salmond) but instead has sustained jobs in Spain, Denmark and Germany?
If, by any chance, Brexit disappears into the ether, none of that thinking will be wasted and a lot of it would be useful and overdue in pushing out the boundaries of what is actually possible. Yet there is an omerta imposed on Scottish Ministers about how anything might be done differently or better in a post-Brexit world.
Instead, it is one long cry of woe taken to extremes when my constituency MSP issued a press release claiming the very existence of Stornoway Black Pudding is threatened by “Westminster’s Brexit shambles”. How can they expect to be taken seriously on issues of significance amidst this litany of doom? It is becoming a case of “the boy who cried black pudding”.
I certainly want no new barriers to trade with the EU and I like free movement of labour, which brings lots of valuable people into our society. These same arguments apply elsewhere in the UK and certainly to its economic engines. It is in the Scottish interest to ally ourselves to those who share the same objectives in securing a Brexit which protects benefits, rather than simply hoping the whole thing falls apart.
One irony is that while the SNP is pinning its colours even more firmly to the EU mast, their meddling in Catalonia makes it even more certain that, at some point, they will have to rewrite the entire script. More clearly than ever, Spain would be voting for its own dismemberment by giving house-room to the SNP’s claims.
Furthermore, the Catalonian imbroglio highlights the threat of fragmentation for other EU states which contain secessionist movements. From an EU perspective, Catalonia is not an isolated problem but part of a wider philosophical question – how can progress towards European unity be reconciled with the break-up of member states?
One of the 2014 fallacies was that Scotland would somehow stroll back into the EU after secession. Post-Catalonia, there will be wider understanding that this is non-negotiable hogwash, so any independence case will have to be based on Scotland being outside the EU. If one believed the current Sturgeon script, that would be a catastrophe worse than death so rewriting it will be tricky. Brexit demonstrates the difficulties entailed in breaking up a union. The seceding party does not get what it wants. The prospect of borders creates massive difficulties. There is no easy route out of one union and into another, and so on . . . even before we get to money.
Scottish voters are getting the hang of this even if the SNP leadership is not.
I would have no difficulty answering the question Mrs May avoided – if asked again, I would vote to remain in the EU because the alternative is too much hassle.
But it is the alternative which currently prevails and the Scottish Government should be making the most of it rather than lying in wait for political pickings that might or might not materialise.