Scottish Election 2021: Independence would result in a hard border and do even more damage than Brexit – Alistair Carmichael

Is the Pope Catholic? Do bears “go” in the woods? Does independence mean a hard border?

Some facts are so obvious that they are practically cliches. Just as it is uncontested that ursine mammals defecate in forested areas, it is not a matter of debate that, under SNP plans, an independent Scotland would have a hard border with the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is not a matter of debate, that is, unless you are Nicola Sturgeon. It is not a matter of debate unless you are a First Minister terrified of failing at your second opportunity to secure a Holyrood majority.

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It is not a matter of debate that independence would mean a hard border, with massive disruption to lives and livelihoods and a symbolic division of friends and families – unless your electoral hopes rely on pretending that no such hard border would exist.

Having successfully maintained the illusion for some time of their distinctiveness, Nicola Sturgeon is starting to admit – implicitly – that Brexit and independence are the same idea wearing a different hat.

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That admission reveals itself in the First Minister’s reflexive rubbishing of expert analysis from the London School of Economics and the Institute for Fiscal Studies that she once relied upon to denounce Brexit – because their analysis now shows the harm she intends to do to Scots’ lives and livelihoods.

It shows itself in the cagey, combative, deflective answers she gives when challenged, squirming to avoid comparisons with Brexit while reinforcing the obvious similarities at the same time.

Brexit supporters demonstrate outside the Scottish Parliament shortly after the UK formally left the European Union last year (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)Brexit supporters demonstrate outside the Scottish Parliament shortly after the UK formally left the European Union last year (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)
Brexit supporters demonstrate outside the Scottish Parliament shortly after the UK formally left the European Union last year (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

Her responses to valid concerns people have about the risks of hard borders are increasingly unhinged from reality.

The reality is that if Scotland separates from the rest of the UK and cuts itself off from its “single market” then there will have to be customs posts and officials, checks and barriers between Scots, our businesses and our biggest trading partners.

It is a simple matter of common sense – and for those lacking in common sense it is also a fact affirmed by experts in international trade and economics, the same experts who voiced the same concerns about Brexit and are in the process of being proven correct.

That the nationalists have immediately resorted to sleight of hand and deceptive relabelling of their economic plans tells you all you need to know about their confidence in the real popularity of their hard-border proposals.

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It speaks volumes that Nicola Sturgeon’s statements around independence and trade barriers mimic almost to the word the arguments of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson – that we would somehow be re-engaging with the wider world by building yet another hard border.

It says still more that, in a moment of candour, Emma Harper claimed that a hard border could generate employment. You might think this was just the latest example of a member of the SNP “going rogue”, but the First Minister happily campaigned with her just days later. If your economic plan for independence relies on giving everyone a job as a border guard, it does not inspire a great deal of confidence.

The nationalists have one significant advantage in their fight to put a gloss on the hard reality of a hard border, namely the contortions the Conservatives are forced to put themselves through having backed Brexit trade barriers just a few months ago.

The Tories’ hopeless inconsistency and economic incoherence, however, should not stop those of us pointing out that independence and Brexit are the same destructive and divisive proposition wrapped up in a different flag.

If the reality of Brexit is bad then the reality of independence would be worse. By driving hard borders and trade barriers between families, friends and businesses we would be repeating the mistakes of Brexit in a way that risks being far more harmful to our country and our future.

That the SNP and other nationalists are so willing to barrel towards this destruction – and so eager to deny and dismiss the warnings of experts about the harm to come – is nothing less than a betrayal of the people they claim to speak for.

Perhaps those pushing for hard borders and the destruction of livelihoods are not as bad as those who drove us to Brexit. Or perhaps they are worse, because we now know the real harm that could result – and they are not in the slightest bit humbled by the danger.

But humility in the face of disruption and danger is what we need more of right now. We need leaders who recognise the scale of the harm done in the last year and will seek to put recovery before all else.

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We need a Parliament that knows reality and knows fantasy – and knows that, in order to rebuild our country, we need more working together across all borders and less of the divisive drama.

A debate over the potential harm of hard borders is not, frankly, the debate we should be having in 2021 with a week before a crucial Holyrood vote. We should be talking about a bounce-back plan for education, about improving mental health provision, about putting the recovery of our country – physically, mentally, economically – first. Those are the priorities of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and I believe that they are the real priorities of Scots up and down this country.

As long as Nicola Sturgeon and others – including her former colleague Kenny MacAskill in his Scotsman column – continue to deny the hard reality of hard borders, however, we cannot leave their wild and damaging assertions go unanswered.

We have to demand better. If we are going to rebuild our country after Covid, it will help to back those who can admit to themselves that the sky is blue – and that more hard borders are not the solution to our problems.

Alistair Carmichael is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland

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