Lesley Riddoch: Doomsday report exposes Brexit vulnerability

This is how supermarket shelves could look after a 'no deal' Brexit, says Lesley Riddoch
This is how supermarket shelves could look after a 'no deal' Brexit, says Lesley Riddoch
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The leaked Doomsday report underlines how vulnerable Scotland’s economy is to Brexit, writes Lesley Riddoch

Dover collapses within a day. Cornwall and Scotland start running out of food on day two. Ten days later, hospitals are running out of medicines.

Be afraid. This is Britain after a “no deal” departure from the EU as visualised by the British Government’s own Brexit department.

Be very afraid. And the leak of this Doomsday scenario has been brought to public attention by the Brexit-supporting Sunday Times. Be petrified.

Last month, officials from the Brexit, Health and Transport departments of the British Government ‘gamed’ three scenarios for a no-deal EU exit considering a ‘mild’ outcome, a ‘severe’ shock, and one dubbed ‘Armageddon.’ The scenario in which the military must fly vital medicines into Scotland is not even the worst one.

It’s grim for the UK and grimmer for Scots. Nicola Sturgeon has been careful not to gloat at the UK’s Brexit-related difficulties, but she would not be a politician or a leader worth her salt if she did not spell out the dire implications for Scots in words of one syllable at this weekend’s SNP conference. She must also go on to do what she has so far been reluctant to do – outline the independence alternative and the otherwise impossible situation facing Remain-voting Scots.

Should the Scottish Government make contingency plans to mitigate the chronic food and medical insecurity revealed in these Doomsday scenarios? Of course. But how can Holyrood make such plans without control over the cash needed for massive infrastructural investment? Suddenly it’s very evident that Scotland’s economic hands are constitutionally tied behind our backs because of our relatively weak devolution settlement.

The truth is that Scotland will fare worse after Brexit than the “foreign” country of Ireland, even though 80 per cent of their goods currently reach the EU via British ports. The Irish are busy creating the infrastructure to bypass Britain completely, so their goods reach the continent without running the risks posed by transit through irrational, self-harming Brexited Britain.

Yet Scotland, as part of the UK, cannot build the same protection.

And it gets worse. Last week, our prospective post-Brexit trading partner casually applied tariffs to Britain and the EU. Theresa May says she is disappointed by Donald Trump’s “unjustified decision to apply tariffs to EU steel and aluminium imports”. That’s what you call an understatement. In one speech, Trump has wrecked prospects of a “strong and stable” post-Brexit relationship and raised the same question in millions of minds – even former No voters – whaur’s our special relationship noo?

Meanwhile, Home Secretary Sajid Javid told Andrew Marr on Sunday that none of the leaked doomsday scenarios will come to pass. That’s hard to believe when there’s already construction work at Dover to cope with the lorry log-jams bound to occur if we crash out of the EU next March.

So this is where we are. In defiance of official advice, experts and logic, the UK government still paddles headlong towards Niagara with – as one Twitter user commented, the absolutism of a cult. Even though many, many folk saw this coming.

Last year, a survey of 758 businesses owners and directors across the political spectrum showed that a massive 90 per cent didn’t trust the UK government to secure the best Brexit deal for Scotland or the whole UK. Even more revealing though were the frank opinions of some respondents.

A director of one FTSE 100 company said: “When the virtually inevitable car crash happens, the Scottish end of the business will most probably be moved to Europe, which is a crying shame as the expertise at home is unsurpassed in our market segment. However with no likelihood of stability it will be a logical step to move.”

The director of a UK bank simply said: “Absolute bloody shambles.” And a senior manager of a global organisation with 800 employees in Scotland and 80,000 worldwide said: “Appalling incompetence and condescending to the devolved administrations.” In hindsight this was the start of the writing on the wall. But since the poll was conducted by the independence-supporting Business for Scotland, it was largely ignored. Which is a shame.

Labour’s Brexit plans are no better and no more likely to produce a deal acceptable to the EU by March 2019. Two weeks ago, the party’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer rejected calls to keep Britain in the European Economic Area after Brexit – the so-called Norway option – as pressure builds on Her Majesty’s opposition to back closer ties with the EU’s single market. It’s hard to see how Jeremy Corbyn’s customs plan does the job because it founders over the insurmountable obstacle of freedom of movement, the bedrock upon which the European project is built. No bodged lash-up job that avoids this reality has any chance of working. Yet that’s what Labour is still trying to do.

Of course, the Doomsday scenario – where the biggest part of an integrated trading community suddenly erects borders – could also scare voters about Scottish independence. But there’s no precedent for leaving the EU (or indeed any of the world’s regional trade blocs) and Brexit negotiations involve 27 sovereign governments led by EU institutions. Declarations of independence have usually been straightforward by comparison – involving fewer players, precedent and the international law, which already exists around the de-aggregation of shared assets.

This year, for example, a small, mountainous European country of just over five million people is celebrating its 25th anniversary as an independent nation. Slovakia was known as the smaller, less developed and weaker part of Czechoslovakia until its “Velvet Divorce” from the Czech Republic in 1993. Now it’s an active member of the European Union and scores higher in almost every economic indicator than the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Growth Commission has evidently learned from the planning and negotiating failures of the UK government by embedding cooperation and solidarity payments within the independence process. It seems Andrew Wilson and the SNP have understood something Britain seems incapable of learning: in trade as in life, relationships are more important than one-off deals.

Will this weekend become a game-changer? Perhaps, if the SNP leader can overcome her own instinctive caution and spell out the truth. The Doomsday papers do not just reveal a failure of preparedness by British political parties, they represent a failure of the entire British political system.