Saturday 28 January 2017

Learning from Leave

In Scotland it’s important that Pro UK people move beyond our disagreements.  Keeping up the pressure on the SNP requires us not to squabble among ourselves.  Whichever way we voted in the EU referendum it’s crucial that we learn the lessons of that campaign. Obviously Remain had good arguments that can be adapted to persuade Scots of the benefits of remaining in the UK, but what may be less obvious is that so did the Leave campaign. We must think clearly about past campaigns and focus on what works.  In this way we will be able to develop arguments that may prevent a repeat of the Scottish independence referendum, or alternatively if the worst happens, to win it.

I have made clear on a number of occasions that I don’t think the SNP have a right to break up our country. The issue has been settled. But I am one voice and others such as Ruth Davidson disagree with me. Nicola Sturgeon may ask and she may get. In that case we would have a fight on our hands. Never underestimate your opponent.  History is littered with the example of complacent generals who lost.

Campaigns are won with simple messages that are believed. Not everyone follows politics as closely as you do. Not everyone understands every detail. I’m certainly hazy about certain aspects of Scottish devolution, international law and how the EU works. But a Nobel Prize winner in economics gets one vote just the same as the rest of us.

During the EU campaign the Leave team realised that detailed discussion of the Single Market baffled most voters. Even most MPs were unclear about the various distinctions between the European Economic Area (EEA), the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and the EU Single Market. A campaign that got itself bogged down in a debate about the benefits of these various options would be followed only those who already knew about the issues and who had probably decided how to vote already.  What matters in any campaign is to target the message at those who are undecided and who are persuadable. These are people who usually don’t follow politics closely.

It was for this reason that the Leave campaign had relatively simple messages:

Leaving the EU would mean that we would take back control. Parliament once more would decide everything rather than Brussels.

Leaving the EU would save us money. We would no longer have to pay the subscription fee. This was said to be £350 million a week (the gross figure before any rebates and before anything we got back). This looks like a lot of money to most people.

Leaving the EU would mean that we could control the level of immigration rather than leave it uncontrolled.

These issues were the ones that decided the EU referendum. They were simple and for the most part they were believed. That is why Leave won.

Crucially these three issues work for Pro UK people in Scotland. It is, of course, the case that Scotland voted to Remain in the EU. But this has more to do with the political circumstances of Scotland rather than genuinely different attitudes about the fundamental issues. It’s hard to think of a mainstream Scottish Politician living and working in Scotland who voted Leave. Scotland has a far smaller population that England does. Imagine if three new towns were planned in Scotland to take some of the strain from England. Imagine if tax breaks were given to encourage English people to move to these towns. How would the SNP react? Half a million new Scots with English accents might well change the electoral arithmetic. No doubt Nicola Sturgeon would be most welcoming.

But what is more important is how these three key messages could work in the context of independence.

Leaving the EU is going to bring back to the UK control over a number of issues including fisheries, agriculture and all the rules and regulations that currently govern our membership. People in the UK are going to control these issues. Many of these people are going to be in Scotland.  While at present issues that the Scottish Parliament controls can be overruled by Brussels, soon Scottish politicians will have the freedom to do as they please. This automatically will make these politicians more powerful and more able to control how they run Scotland.  Voting for Scottish independence will on the other hand mean losing control over whole areas of Scottish life, because it will first be necessary to check what Brussels thinks. After we leave the EU someone in the Scottish Government will end up deciding how we fish in the waters around Scotland and how we farm our land. Massive areas of ordinary life that are now controlled by the EU will instead be controlled in Scotland. This is real power and real control.  If on the other hand, Scotland were to leave the UK and join the EU we would, of course, lose control.

Scottish nationalists might argue that by leaving the UK Scotland may gain control over some issues that are now controlled by the UK such as macroeconomics and international relations, but ultimately the Scottish Parliament having become “independent” would have to vote to make EU law supreme. So how much control would independence bring you? We know how little control small EU countries like Ireland and Greece have ended up with. Scotland has a bigger deficit than either of these so what would prevent the Troika of the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank running Scotland instead of the SNP? Independence then could well involve a loss of control.  

The UK will save some money by not having to pay the EU membership fee. A proportion of this money will go to Scotland.  Scottish independence would mean losing this saving and losing the money that Scotland at present gets from the Barnett formula. It would also involve paying money to the EU. Scotland would be expected to pay proportionally more than the UK does at present. There is going to be a bit of a hole in the EU’s budget now that the UK has decided to leave completely. Someone has to fill the gap.

It is not at all automatic that an independent Scotland would even get into the EU. Catalonia is once more trying to break away from Spain. It only needs one EU member to say “No” and Nicola Sturgeon would be sent homewards to think again. It’s hard to imagine then that the EU would vote to allow Scotland a rebate on EU membership fees.

It will be difficult therefore for the SNP to convincingly argue that leaving the UK will save us money. This is not least because we do far more trade with other parts of the UK than with the EU. Depending on how UK/EU negotiations go, Scotland could end up having to pay tariffs on our trade with England. In five years’ time England, Wales and Northern Ireland might have trade deals with India, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. We might be able to live and work in some nice warm places that speak English. Scotland though in voting to leave the UK wouldn’t have a share in these deals. We would quite literally be left in the cold.

Immigration is a controversial issue. No-one should be nasty to anyone who has chosen to live in the UK. But the argument was never about that. It is perfectly possible to be in favour of immigration, but want to limit it. After all there are billions of people in the world. They can’t all have the right to live here.

Again the choice for Scotland will be to be in a UK that can limit immigration or an independent Scotland that can’t. When the UK leaves the EU we will be able to choose who from the EU and elsewhere can come to live here. Perhaps we will have a points system or develop some other method. But it will be Parliament that decides. Those who wish to increase immigration can vote for a party that argues for that. Those who wish to limit immigration can make that argument. But it will be the UK electorate who decides, because the UK electorate will now be in control.

Alternatively we can choose to live in an independent Scotland that will have to be a member of Schengen. It is a condition for joining the EU. This means that there will not even be passport controls between Scotland and the other parts of the EU.

Unlimited immigration into Scotland however would logically mean that England would have to set up border controls between Scotland and England. How else could they control who came over the border. A passport has to be shown somewhere or else the UK will not be able to limit immigration.

The Republic of Ireland is not a precedent here for Scotland as Ireland has an opt out from Schengen. Even then there is likely to be some sort of border checks at the Northern Irish border as the UK will not be in the EU’s customs union while Ireland will be.

Who knows which countries will be able to join the EU in the coming decades? Perhaps Albania will be able to join, perhaps Serbia, perhaps Turkey. We just don’t know. The choice for Scotland will be between limited migration if it remains in the UK or unlimited if it leaves to join the EU.

Of course Scotland could decide to leave the UK and not join the EU. But this would make Nicola Sturgeon’s grievance rather empty.  You can’t very well vote to leave the UK because it left the EU and then decide not to join yourself. That looks like hypocrisy. What’s more you would then have to negotiate from scratch a trade deal both with what remained of the UK, with the EU and in fact the whole of the world. It’s hard to imagine that leaving Scotland more prosperous.

The key lesson in the weeks and months ahead is to think about the new situation that Brexit has given us. We can turn it to our advantage by developing arguments that show how leaving the EU makes Scottish independence harder. This is how we will keep the UK united and see off the threat from the SNP.