Sunday 21 February 2016

Should I stay or should I go now?

I began writing about Scottish politics as soon as it became clear that there was going to be a referendum on independence. This issue mattered to me in a way no other issue in politics ever had. I began writing even when the referendum was a long way off and when only a few of us were really actively involved in campaigning. Most people I know only really thought about the decision we were going to make when there were a couple of months to go. But everyone in Scotland in the end was caught up in the event. Everyone will always remember the tension. Many nationalists think of this time in a positive way. For them the campaign had a joy that it lacked for me. Worse I view Scotland now as before and after the Referendum. I don’t really recognise the place and the people to me are often strangers. Although I was born near Aberdeen, it no longer quite feels like home. I live and work here for the present, but I begin to look for somewhere warm to escape to. I find Scotland very frosty and not only in winter.

I don’t feel the same way at all about the EU referendum. I expect in the end that we will vote to stay. If that happens, life will continue more or less the same. It hardly seems something to get worked up about. There is a chance however that we will vote to leave. It depends partly on the campaign and partly on how things go in the EU over the course of the next few months. Electorates all over the world are rejecting established/establishment wisdom. I don’t think it likely that the UK will vote to leave, but then again a year ago I would have said it was quite impossible for Jeremy Corbyn to become Labour Party leader. But in the end, if we vote to leave, life also will more or less go on the same.

There is a false dichotomy between the choices to leave or remain. The UK will not gain independence by leaving the EU for the simple reason that we already have it. It is the UK Parliament that has the power to decide to hold a referendum. The UK Parliament is sovereign and retains fully that sovereignty even if it chooses on the one hand to devolve to the parts of the UK and accepts regulation from a supra-national body like the EU. The likely result if we vote to leave will be something similar to membership of EFTA (European Free Trade Association). This allows access to the EU single market and maintains free movement of people and labour. Someone from Iceland or Switzerland has the same rights to live and work in Germany as does someone from the UK. There is just as much free trade between Iceland and Germany as there is between the UK and Germany. Whatever happens this is not going to change.

Whether we vote to leave or remain we will be a semi-detached part of the EU. We are not going to join the Euro, nor are we going to join Schengen. If the other EU countries, especially the Eurozone countries, choose over the coming years to strengthen their political and monetary union, we will not be a part of it. How or even whether this happens is completely uncertain. It is equally possible that Schengen will cease and that one more crisis will see the breakup of the Euro. But whether we choose to be in or out we will simply observe these matters.

Many people seem to think that voting to leave will enable the UK Government to cut immigration. Mr Cameron has apparently made some sort of deal with regard to paying benefits to EU migrants. This is completely wrongheaded. We should on the contrary pay Poles to come to the UK and we should get down on our knees and thank God when any of them choose to come here. We should moreover provide unlimited work visas to Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. The UK has a demographic crisis. We are not producing enough babies. The growth of our economy depends on importing labour. One of the main benefits of the EU is it makes it easier for people to migrate. Moreover people moving around Europe is almost completely benign. The descendants of Polish people, who stayed after World War II, are indistinguishable from any other Brits. They speak like us, think like us, act like us. They are us.

The crucial point however is that even if we left the EU, Poles would still have the same right as at present to live and work in the UK. The only way to stop this is to not even be a part of EFTA. But that would mean giving up both free trade and free movement of people.

Unfortunately the issue of migration from within the EU is frequently conflated with migration from outside the EU. The fact of the matter is that we can already limit migration from outside the EU. Nothing is preventing us. It is the UK Government that sets the rules with regard to allowing people visas. The only constraint on how the UK Government can act is that we have to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. For this reason the UK Government is sometimes unable to deport people it would like to and has to allow some other people to live here who it would prefer did not. We have been a signatory to this act since 1950, long before we joined what was then the Common Market. The only European country that is not a signatory at present is Belarus’. Leaving the EU might allow us to join Belarus’, but I think this unlikely. The issue anyway is not the Human Rights Act, but how judges in the UK use it to undermine the will of Parliament. It is the sovereignty of Parliament that matters. The fact that 'we the people' can through elections create laws and kick out governments that we dislike. But there is nothing I believe that prevents us from doing this now. When Eurozone issues are debated it is frequently mentioned that whatever happens has to fit in with Germany’s Constitutional Court. Even if the UK remains in the EU it ought to be possible for the UK’s Parliament to assert or reassert that it is sovereign. Of course, this may be easier to do if we chose to leave the EU. The European Communities Act 1972 plus subsequent case law has made EU law superior to British law. This is one of the very best reasons for leaving the EU. The UK electorate has very little control over EU law. We cannot change it. This is simply undemocratic. But the UK Parliament is still sovereign. It chose to subordinate itself, it could choose to reassert itself. We have the power to repeal or modify the 1972 Act. We would do so if we voted to leave the EU. But here's a question. Is it necessary to leave the EU to assert that Parliament is superior to EU law?

The idea that the UK would not be prosperous outside the EU is ludicrous. I very much doubt that anyone would much notice the difference. Japan is an island off the Asian coast. It doesn’t have to be in an Asian political union in order to be 3rd largest economy in the world. Nor does the UK have to be in the EU to be the 5th largest economy. We will continue to trade with other Europeans no matter which way we vote.

There may be downsides to voting to leave the EU however. The pound is liable to fall sharply on the currency markets. The stock market may crash. The UK’s sovereign debt rating may be lowered. All of these things would have real world consequences for all of us. They would however, be short term. Business and markets do not like uncertainty and leaving the EU would be a source of uncertainty. We just don’t quite know what sort of divorce deal we would get. The other EU members would, no doubt, be rather angry at our leaving. Some might plot a sort of revenge. Relations between our friends might become difficult for a while. But in the end the EU depends just as much on trade with the UK as we do with them. A deal favourable to both sides would be done.

Would Scotland want another independence referendum if the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU while Scotland didn't? It’s impossible to say. Self-interest ought to cause the Scottish electorate to reject independence. Nearly all of the SNP’s arguments for independence depend on the UK being in the EU. Moreover it’s such a paltry issue to make such a fuss about. If the UK gets an EFTA style free trade agreement, the difference to our lives would be quite small. Does life in Norway really feel that much different to life in Sweden?  

I don’t think Scots will vote to make ourselves massively poorer even if the UK voted to leave the EU. Who is to say we would even get the chance. The SNP may vaguely mention another independence referendum in their next manifesto, but all the while they are telling the Scottish electorate that a vote for the SNP does not mean independence. They can’t have it both ways. There may come a point where people might begin to doubt that they even would have a mandate.  The Scottish parliament is not sovereign. Mr Cameron did not have to go to Brussels to ask permission to have a referendum. The SNP may huff and puff, but they will still have to ask. Just as UK law at present is subordinate to EU law, so whatever the SNP want is ultimately subordinate to the decision of the UK Government. Would a future UK Prime Minster say to Nicola Sturgeon “Sorry you haven’t had your generation yet”? It’s just one more of our uncertainties. 

It's always worth remembering however that electorates are not always rational. We cannot necessarily rely on the argument that independence will make you poorer. History is full of countries that could not care less if independence made them poorer, they wanted it anyway. If countries are willing to fight wars to gain independence, they might just be willing to accept a rather large fall in their standard of living. Indeed I've always been of the view that someone who really wants independence should not be deterred by the economics. Better together is the argument of a scoundrel. But the SNP will continue to want independence whether we vote to leave or remain. In that sense we should treat their views as the bit of the equation that drops out. 

I’m not a great fan of the EU, but I’m not massively opposed to it either. Call this mild Euroscepticism. I’ve sometimes in the past argued in favour and sometimes against. I can see plusses and minuses. I can’t imagine that I will get overly excited about the result either way. If we vote to leave, I might see this as an opportunity. If we vote to stay I may very well view that result with something like relief.

Everyone makes choices based on personal circumstances. When I last left Scotland it was a grey, gloomy day in January. There were floods. I was desperate to get away. A few hours later I was in the Canaries. Everything was cheap. There was warmth. There was sun. I have an idea that one day I might like to live there always. I probably could whether we vote to leave the EU or we vote to remain. People from Iceland and Norway can. But I’m not certain about this. The same argument applies as it did during the Scottish independence referendum. There is something dishonourable in expecting to have all the privileges that go with membership of a club, if you choose to leave.