Lesley Riddoch: Brexit bungles boost leaving UK

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The massive disruption caused by plans to quit Europe is making many re-consider their views, writes Lesley Riddoch.

Did Nicola Sturgeon goof by not knowing the Growth Commission’s estimate for the set-up cost of an independent parliament? You could ask another question. Was that really the most important or interesting independence-related story last week? Of course not – and that’s doubtless why the FM’s cost “gaffe” gained profile so speedily.

One survey claims 41 per cent of Scots now believe the Scottish economy would improve by leaving the UK. Picture: John Devlin

One survey claims 41 per cent of Scots now believe the Scottish economy would improve by leaving the UK. Picture: John Devlin

Back in the real world, a clutch of polls and surveys conducted by pillars of the establishment were starting to paint a very different picture. British Social Attitudes research found that 41 per cent of Scots now believe the Scottish economy would improve by leaving the UK, against just 26 per cent in 2014. Only 35 per cent now think independence would make the economy worse. That’s a gamechanger.

The same research found that for only the second time in 18 years independence is the most popular option for the governance of Scotland – admittedly not more popular than combining support for devolution and abolishing Holyrood altogether. But it’s a big and symbolic change. In 2012, the combined Unionist positions had 74 per cent support. Now it’s just 48.

As independence blogger Wings over Scotland points out, that means support for independence has doubled in five years but dropped by a third for devolution. It was the redoubtable psephologist, Sir John Curtice (not myself) who quoted the self-styled Reverend Stuart Campbell on Twitter.

It’s a sign of the times. The massive disruption caused by Brexit is causing distant worlds to shuffle together across hitherto insurmountable divides.

Listen to anyone at the sharp end of Brexit. A good friend is opening an office in Amsterdam to keep American customers who fear delays, complexity and tariff wars after March 2019. Post-Brexit, Fraserburgh fish processing jobs are going to Poland. The Dutch have warned manufacturers against using too many British parts which coul soon leave their goods falling foul of EU rules of origin.

Fruit in Scottish berry fields is going d unpicked. A friend has shipped her savings to a Eurozone country after hearing from a City of London friend that sterling (down 15 per cent since 2016) could fall again by the same amount after Brexit.

Leaving the European Union may seem like a fascinating power struggle or high stakes game by political journalists inside the bubble. But outside, people hearing horror stories from friends, neighbours and customers are dropping pre-set positions and banding together to cope with the car crash that lies ahead.

Scotland the Brand held a meeting in Perth, chaired by farmer Jim Fairlie where farming leaders joined independence activists to highlight the danger of losing trademarks like Scotch beef and whisky in any post-Brexit de-regulated, free-for-all. This week, a coastal communities event in Arbroath will see an academic, landowner, farmer and previously Leave voting fish processor gather to discuss the future with a mixed audience of union and independence supporters.

Recently I was one of very few “lefties” invited to a Sustainable Growth Commission event, despite having reservations about the wisdom of maintaining a fiscal cord that will chain Scotland’s new independent economy to an rUK that’s heading over a Brexit cliff-face sometime soon. In fact, I have even bigger reservations about the SNP’s general failure to learn the biggest lesson from the Nordic nations – that economic transformation requires wider ownership of natural assets, which in turn prompts vigorous democratic engagement – vital for any new state.

So I sat tentatively at the back of a room full of bankers, former bankers, Union-supporting academics and establishment figures, ready to feel alienated and unimpressed. But even I had to admit something fairly astonishing was happening. Wealthy Scots who wouldn’t give independence the time of day in 2014 were picking up the ball and playing with it – finessing rather than discarding Andrew Wilson’s template for independence; correcting rather than ignoring his efforts. Now of course their response might be down to naked curiosity or a compulsion to tweak rather than any seismic shift on the issue of Independence. We won’t know which it is until we are in a moment where the disruptive force of Brexit, and the catastrophic ineptitude of the British government are made unambiguously clear, Nicola Sturgeon presses the referendum button and well-heeled fence-sitters (along with everyone else) finally have to choose the best way forward.

On the basis of conversations with No voters who come up to tell me about their grudging, reluctant conversions, I’d suggest a lot of professionals are slowly changing their minds. One business owner and former No voter said that no matter what now happens with Brexit, his faith in the capacity and trustworthiness of the UK government had been irretrievably shattered. He suggested the Yes movement should avoid any triumphalism next time around because the loss of faith in Britain amongst unionists like himself was a matter of profound sadness. Another prominent No campaigner said he felt furious that he would now have to vote for independence because Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn between them had killed belief in the future of a modern and relevant Britain stone dead. He too wasn’t emotionally engaged by the prospect of independence – it now simply seemed the better bet, even though he still didn’t want it to be. I’d guess, neither of these folk will show up as supporters of independence in opinion polls until it’s final decision-time and there are no more credible options.

All of which means the ground is slowly shifting away from the Union – no matter what gaffes and glitches preoccupy Scotland’s headline writers. Throw in the extraordinary changes being experienced by our Celtic cousins. Last week’s BBC survey – which revealed Scots independence supporters and Remainers to be the cheeriest people in Britain – also showed that only 45 per cent of folk in Northern Ireland want to remain in the UK. 42 per cent would vote to join the Republic of Ireland given the chance and a crucial 13 per cent are undecided.

Brexit has laid bare the ugly and out-dated power dynamics of Britain. The Celtic go-getters – nations with clout and cultural identity – are getting up and going. So headlines about the cost of a new independent parliament are important – but they are weather compared to the political climate change that lies beyond. Like its meteorological counterpart though, this deep-seated political and social change will soon command the attention of Scotland’s most ferocious climate sceptics.