Lesley Riddoch: Holyrood can steer a different course

Jean-Claude Juncker and Nicola Sturgeon.
Jean-Claude Juncker and Nicola Sturgeon.
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No matter what the SNP reveals in its bold new summer plan (and you’d hope the final version is bolder than the weekend statement promoting fairness and social equality) the behaviour of the UK government is still likely to make the strongest case for independence in the months and years ahead.

As the realisation dawns upon all but the most stubborn UK Cabinet members that a two- to three-year transitional period is needed for trade with the EU to continue, Nicola Sturgeon’s timetable for a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal appears to be back on track. The prospect of enduring several more years of the four acquis may infuriate Dr Liam Fox, but it also means a Yes vote would let iScotland move seamlessly from EU membership via the UK to full EU membership in its own right – if Scots decide to give themselves that option.

According to Dr Kirsty Hughes, director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, a “standstill” Brexit transition encompassing the single market and customs union, (the option Ms Sturgeon long advocated as a permanent arrangement for Britain) makes arguments about an independent Scotland re-joining the EU much easier.

She says: “If a second independence referendum were held in 2020 for instance, and the UK did not complete its standstill transition until 2022, then the chances of Scotland — if it voted yes — having a smooth transition to becoming an EU member state would go up sharply.”

Of course, a move to join the European Economic Area (EEA) instead of the EU would also need that extra time. The EEA is effectively the “halfway house” of single market membership whose members pay hefty access fees (92 per cent of the full whack in the case of Norway) and comply with EU regulations but have no say in forming them. On the other hand, EEA members are not governed by the EU Customs Union, common agricultural or fisheries policies. In short, EEA membership is no panacea but a mixed bag of benefits and disadvantages and Scotland can only join if her application is approved by every single member of the EU plus the existing EFTA 4.

Is that the better course?

The main point is that Scotland has options that aren’t open or politically desirable to the Brexit-or-bust UK. To acess those options though, Scots must first decide whether we want to actively choose the right path to follow or will happily bump along like a half-forgotten dinghy behind the erratically steered Good Ship Blighty, arriving at whatever destination most appeals to a conflicted and profoundly inexperienced Captain.

To choose or not to choose – that’s the real question facing Scots.

It’s just ironic that the gift of extra time to make a considered choice on going it alone in Europe is the unintended outcome of Westminster’s failure to plan for the consequences of a Leave vote.

But what about the possibility of a Labour UK government? Jeremy Corbyn insists Brexit will go full steam ahead if he wins any snap autumn election, so the need for Scotland to actively decide its own future is unlikely to evaporate. Of course, the prospect of a Corbyn government at Westminster may cause some independence supporters to peel away in the (probably forlorn) hope he can win a big enough majority to exert discipline over his own party and transform the EU’s most antiquated, top-down, centralised and undemocratic member without scaring an already petrified market.

It’s a reasonable enough hope – but like independence or abiding the chaotic Tory status quo, it carries risks as well as possibilities.

The biggest risk is that it doesn’t happen and those tempted to give “one more push” only undermine the case for independence.

The second risk is that Labour voters realise too late that Scotland’s economic interests and political culture are similar to the rest of the UK – but far from identical.

Scots are exercised about the powers of the Scottish Parliament but Corbyn is “relaxed” about constitutional issues and drops factual clangers each time he mentions Scotland.

UK Labour supports nuclear power while Scots back a renewables-based energy future and Labour still believes in paying £100 billion to renew Trident even if Corbyn says he will not push the nuclear button.

Most importantly, the majority of Scots want to stay in Europe and understand that means embracing freedom of movement and immigration. That open, modern, social-democratic, pro-European outlook is the “settled will” of Scotland but will never become the settled will elsewhere in the UK, because an irrational fear of “being run by foreigners” and an over-weaning belief in the power of the market have been allowed to run too long and too deep by both of the main Westminster parties.

Meanwhile, union-supporting commentators have started to vent their despair at the current Brexit debacle.

Veteran commentator Matthew Parris wrote a damning column in the Brexit-supporting Sunday Times this weekend, headlined; “The Conservatives are criminally incompetent.”

The former Tory MP predicts the coming years will be “a permanent stain on the reputation of the Conservatives” and observes: “Even in the bad times I felt proud of my party but this scarcely believable Brexit shambles has left me deeply ashamed. Do we (the Conservative Party) understand that we and we alone have led the whole country into the predicament it now finds itself in?”

On the same day a devastating critique of Britain’s delusions of grandeur was published in the New York Times.

Columnist Jenni Russell wrote; “Britain is not an economic powerhouse waiting to be liberated. We are a country of mediocre education and limited skills, whose preening vanity has prevented us from seeing our failings. Our membership in the European Union is not a set of restraints; it is what has been propping us up. If we insist on cutting ourselves off, parts of our economy will start to die.”

These strong words reflect the fact that rational English folk – from both Remain and Leave camps – now despair about Britain’s future. Scots alone can take a different course. So a moment of choice is looming.

Is the Brexit debacle a fixable fault by a party that can easily be replaced at the next election or is it the inevitable outcome of a self-deluding British political culture kept alive by all the main players at Westminster?