Sturgeon's self-defeating referendum opportunism

The UK single market is far more important to the Scottish economy than the EU single market. Nicola Sturgeon's (unworkable) plan to leave the former for the latter shows her up as an opportunist who will put personal and ideological ambitions above Scotland's interests

UK in or out
Joseph Hackett
On 20 March 2017 05:15

Scotland’s First Minister, the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, has called for another referendum on Scottish independence, to be held in the latter stages of Brexit negotiations – between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019.

In choosing a time when the Brexit negotiations are likely to be at their most sensitive, Sturgeon is, of course, cynically aiming to capitalise as much as possible on the fact that 62 percent of Scots voted against Brexit in last year’s EU Referendum.

Otherwise, this would be a stunningly inappropriate time to hold another vote – for Scotland, and for the United Kingdom as a whole. The SNP might be prepared to fight another independence referendum, but Sturgeon’s blueprint for an independent Scotland is sorely lacking, and appears to still have many questions to be answered, not least, do the Scots want it at this time?

The basic logic behind this referendum is absurd. In a fit of outrage over the Government ignoring their demand to keep the UK in the EU’s Single Market after Brexit, the SNP have decided to try to keep Scotland in the Single Market through independence. This even though last week Spain become the latest EU member state to tell them such a seamless transition would be impossible.

The idea would mean trading one internal market for another – the EU’s over the UK’s despite the fact 63 percent of Scotland’s exports go to the rest of the UK, as opposed to just 16 percent which go to the EU. If leaving the EU’s Single Market would be damaging to Scotland’s economy, then Sturgeon’s independence plan would surely be four times worse.

The SNP’s doublethink is already becoming clear. They are not even waiting to see what kind of Brexit deal the Government can achieve. They insist trading with the EU from outside the Single Market isn’t good enough, and in the same breath, claim trading with the UK from outside our internal market is perfectly fine.

The SNP has long been committed to the idea of ‘independence in Europe’, wanting to abandon the UK for EU membership. This would bring with it other clear drawbacks. Without the UK’s current rebate from Brussels, Scotland would almost certainly end up contributing even more to the EU budget than it currently sends Brussels as part of the UK’s contribution. It is also likely it would lose the UK’s other opt-outs, and have to join the Eurozone and Schengen area.

Small wonder SNP grandees like Jim Sillars have rubbished Sturgeon’s plan to leave the UK only to “go into an even worse union”, and it is unsurprising Sturgeon is apparently walking away from this plan, now suggesting she might settle for Single Market membership outside the EU via EFTA, if only as a staging post towards EU membership.

Single Market membership, however, would of course still involve free movement of people and being subject to the EU’s judiciary. Moreover, Iceland is now insisting Scotland would not be able to transition seamlessly to independence within the Single Market either.

The SNP’s logic makes no sense, because it is nothing more than an excuse for another referendum, at what they consider an opportune moment. They have been so quick to lay the groundwork for the referendum, they have not stopped to consider how they would make their case for a prosperous independent Scotland.

Certainly, their blueprint from 2014 is now well out-of-date. Due in large part to the collapse of North Sea oil revenues, Scotland now runs a deficit of 9.5 percent of GDP.

Last week, the price of Brent Crude was at its lowest in three months – around $50 a barrel – and Scotland’s North Sea oil revenues have dropped from £11 billion in 2011/12 to just £60 million in 2015/16. Scotland’s deficit, larger than that of any EU Member State, would be a major obstacle to Sturgeon’s original plan to have an independent Scotland join the EU.

At present, independence for Scotland would necessarily bring with it a crushing austerity programme. To plug the fiscal gap, Sturgeon would either have to bring in massive tax rises or make swingeing cuts to healthcare, education, and other public services.

The SNP has opposed the UK Government’s austerity, but after independence they would have to implement a much more extreme form of austerity in Scotland.

Sturgeon has rushed into proposing this referendum without even starting to lay the groundwork for what would happen if she actually won it. The SNP has even avoided many of the issues which were also raised last time, such as their NATO membership, and the question of whether NATO membership would require them to drop their long-standing commitment to removing nuclear submarines from the Faslane naval base, near Glasgow.

Both the EU Referendum and the first Scottish independence referendum were decades in the making. They were also, for that matter, wanted by the majority of the public. The timing of Sturgeon’s referendum is, however, cynical and rushed – and mostly unwanted.

Since Theresa May became Prime Minister, no poll has shown a majority of Scots wanting another referendum before Brexit is finalised, and the most recent poll puts support for a fresh vote at just 41 percent, compared to 46 percent who are opposed. A recent YouGov poll also showed that even if another vote was held, 57 percent of Scots would reject independence yet again.

The Government has ruled out a vote before the end of Brexit negotiations, and Theresa May has told Sturgeon “politics is not a game”. She is right to do so. Not only would another vote be bad for Scotland, but it would also be bad for the Brexit talks.

A Scottish independence referendum – right in the middle of negotiations – would distract the Government from that task, and perhaps tilt the balance in negotiations towards the EU.

If Sturgeon got her way and a referendum were held during Brexit negotiations, then, in order to avoid a vote for independence, the Government would need to avoid giving the impression negotiations were going any way other than swimmingly. Having to project this image even at the most crucial points of the Article 50 process would, of course, significantly strengthen the EU’s hand.

The SNP’s cynicism in demanding this referendum now seems to have a hint of desperation behind it. For all the received wisdom, the fact is Brexit has actually weakened the case for Scottish independence – especially for the SNP’s original dream of a separate Scotland under EU rule.

Brexit has given Scotland a choice between internal markets – UK or EU – and the SNP’s choice of the less-important EU market makes no economic sense. Furthermore, with the UK leaving the EU, the possibility of Scotland seamlessly transitioning to ‘independence in Europe’ while retaining the UK’s rebate and opt-outs is slighter than ever – so slight, the SNP might finally be backing away from the idea.

The SNP have done well to begin to unhitch their wagon from the EU, but they need to further rethink their vision for Scotland.

They should now also drop their commitment to the Single Market, and accept there will be no referendum until after we Get Britain Out of the EU.

Brexit has presented Scottish nationalism with challenges they must deal with before pressing ahead with their cause. Better for them to deal with these challenges now, rather than have them exposed in a new independence referendum campaign.

Joseph Hackett is a Research Executive at Get Britain Out

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