Brexit: Would an independent Scotland face a hard border with England?

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Independence in Europe. It was a simple message that voters could understand.

Find a copy of the SNP manifesto for the 1992 general election and you’ll see it prominently on the front cover. “Independence in Europe - make it happen now!”

The UK's departure from the EU could complicate how a border between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would work. Picture: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL

The UK's departure from the EU could complicate how a border between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would work. Picture: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL

Alex Salmond and his supporters pushed the party to embrace a more pro-European stance following his election as leader in 1990.

They believed membership of the evolving European Union offered Scotland the chance to move from being part of the UK to joining the EU club of nations.

READ MORE: Second referendum on EU membership “would damage politics”

Under plans drawn up in Brussels in the 1990s, EU nations were about to open their borders and fully commit their economies to the Single Market.

While it was never the intention of the EU technocrats, this move towards integration meant that one of the oldest and most potent arguments against Scottish independence - that it would lead to border patrols at Berwick - was severely undermined. If an independent Scotland retained its EU membership alongside the rest of the UK, the SNP countered, there could be no hard border along the Cheviot Hills.

“Scotland will have open borders with England,” the SNP manifesto for the 1997 general election claimed. “European countries have abolished internal frontiers and our close family and trading ties with England will not be interrupted in any way by Scottish independence.”

This remained one of the party’s core messages on independence up to and including the 2014 referendum.

Along comes Brexit

That changed when a majority of voters across the UK - but not in Scotland - voted to leave the EU in 2016. Suddenly, a key plank of SNP strategy dating back two decades had been removed.

Presuming Brexit takes place as planned, Scotland will leave the EU alongside the rest of the UK. The old certainties of European membership will come to an end. Borders - as the on-going row over Northern Ireland proves - have become a live issue.

If a majority of Scots were to vote in favour of independence at a future date, the new state created will start life outwith the EU. One of the immediate priorities for any Scottish government would then be to secure trade across its only land border.

“An independent Scotland works well if both Scotland and England are in the EU, but with England outside the EU, Scotland probably needs a bespoke deal with the EU rather than EU membership,” said Professor John Kay, a former economic advisor to the Scottish Government, in an interview with The Sunday Times.

“The nature of that deal depends on the unknown trade deal between the UK/England and the EU. As with all of the EU debate, it is actually about the complex detail that politicians and the general public would prefer not to engage with - which is the source of our current misery.”

A hard border?

The Scottish Conservatives believe that the SNP failed to deal with the border question in 2014, long before Brexit.

“It was made perfectly clear during the 2014 campaign that a hard border would be required if Scotland and England had different arrangements in relation to the EU,” a party spokesman told The Scotsman. “Given the UK is leaving the EU in March, and given it’s stated SNP policy for an independent Scotland to join the EU, it’s difficult to see how a hard border could be avoided.”

The SNP believe Brexit - and the chaotic way it has been handled by the UK Government - strengthens the overall case for Scottish independence. They say independence would be the “opposite” of Brexit - putting emphasis on cooperation, not throwing up borders.

“Brexit threatens to take Scotland out of a market eight times the size of the UK market alone, doing massive damage to jobs, investment and living standards,” a party spokesman said.

“In 2014, the people of Scotland were explicitly told that the only way to protect our place in Europe was to vote against independence. That has now been utterly exposed for the lie it always was.

“Independence is the opposite of Brexit – it is about cooperating with friends and neighbours, not throwing up barriers, and that is the principle which will guide an independent Scotland.”

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