Brexit is like boiling a frog alive

frog boil photo
Photo by DonkeyHotey
The boiling frog is a fable describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that a horrible and destructive Brexit is happening – and quite possibly in Scotland, too – because it’s happening so slowly that the public never thinks it’s time to jump out and stop it.

My point is that the government and most of the media are only admitting very slowly how Brexit will be, and the companies leaving are also doing so quietly. This will probably continue after Brexit – things will slowly get worse, or growth will just be much less than it would otherwise have been.

If the government had announced within a few months of Brexit that they were planning to take the UK out of the Customs Union and the Internal Market, and that this would lead to a recession that’s likely to be five times worse than the financial crash, there would have been an uproar.

However, by this point people are scunnered and hardly pay attention to the Brexit horror stories. I’m starting to think it’s only by the time the transition period is ending (or perhaps not even then) that people will realise what has happened, and by then there’s no easy way to reverse the process.

I worry the same is happening in Scotland. If the Titanic were sinking faster, I’m sure we’d launch the independence lifeboat in time; however, a lot of people are advocating waiting till the ship has fully sunk before thinking about escaping it.

I’m hoping there’ll be a new independence referendum in time, but I’m not seeing any indication that the SNP leadership are making any preparations for this – and I’m sure this is because they’ve sussed people are scunnered and can’t be bothered with a new referendum at this time. They might also think that people will realise after Brexit what has happened, but will they? Will they not simply see that things are bad, but not fully understand why? Will they necessarily think that independence will improve matters?

If you see a frog being boiled alive, should you not provoke it into jumping out of the water while it can? Or should you just leave it to boil and assume it’ll come to its senses afterwards?

My story

Like Steve Bullock, I’m getting a bit fed up with people not understanding how normal people are affected by Brexit, so here’s my story.

I’m also not looking for sympathy or anything here. I just want people to understand that we’re normal folks whose lives have been built here, and who want the rights we have and have exercised legitimately to be preserved.

I come from a small village in eastern Jutland in Denmark where my mum was the village minister.

My dad had moved to Denmark from Württemberg in West Germany five years before I was born when he got a job teaching dogmatics at the University of Aarhus (he met my mum there when she was in the final year of her MDiv).

In those days, you got the citizenship of your dad, so I was West German from birth. When I was six or seven years old, my dad applied for Danish citizenship.

(I think he was getting tired of getting hassled by the police every now and then – although Denmark joined the EEC in 1973 together with the UK and Ireland, things weren’t completely smooth in those days before the EU was created).

When he became a Danish citizen, so did I (and my sister), and we lost our German citizenship at that point. (Denmark and Germany didn’t make it possible to have dual nationality till later.)

Fast forward to 2002 when I had just finished my degree in linguistics and computer science. (Danish degrees used to be much more time-consuming that British ones, so I was 29 when I graduated in spite of studying full-time for most of the time.)

I was looking for a job that would allow me to use both linguistics and IT, and I was lucky enough to get a job at Collins Dictionaries in Bishopbriggs, first as analyst programmer, but soon afterwards as lead developer.

I shared an office with a lexicographer (hi Phyllis!), and after a few years we fell in love and moved in together, got married, and we now have two daughters together (aged 8 and 10) – they’re dual nationals (British/Danish).

My wife also has three kids from her first marriage to a French programmer. They’re 12, 18 and 20 and are also dual nationals (British/French).

In 2009, I was made redundant (thanks, financial crash!), and Phyllis and I started up our own company. As is often the case, the first couple of years were tough, and we only just scraped through.

The whole family campaigned for Scottish independence in 2014, not least because we were worried about the increasingly shrill Europhobic voices emerging from England – we believed our future would be more secure in an independent Scotland inside the EU.

But Scotland voted No, and two years later, the UK voted Leave. I was distraught, but when Nicola Sturgeon reassured us EU citizens the next morning, it really helped (I even wrote about it in Bella Caledonia at the time).

I didn’t put much thought into getting Permanent Residence etc. for the first year, because it seemed quite certain that Scotland would hold a second independence referendum and remain in the EU.

However, when Theresa May said “Now is not the time”, and many SNP MPs subsequently got replaced by unionists, it felt like the SNP lost its mojo to some extent, and we’re now planning our future on the basis that Scotland might leave the EU with the rUK.

If we’re staying, I need to get UK citizenship – I don’t want to fall into the clutches of the Home Office’s hostile environment. To get that, I need PR – and that requires five years’ worth of employment records.

(It would have been much easier to get PR and citizenship back in 2009, but Denmark only recently made it possible to acquire a new nationality without losing your Danish passport, so it wasn’t an option before 2015).

My most regular employment period is 2002–2009, but I cannot find all my payslips and P60s – they must’ve got lost in our last house move. (After 2009, it gets more complex because we set up our own company.) So it’s a hassle.

And it’s not a case of just sending in what I’ve got and hoping the best. If the Home Office aren’t happy, they’ll tell you to leave the country almost immediately. So until I’m confident the paperwork is perfect, I won’t send it in.

And once I’ve got PR, I still need to sit a language test to prove that I speak English and pass the “Life in the UK” test. Working with dictionaries in Scotland for 16 years doesn’t count at all. Oh, and it’ll cost a lot of money.

If we’re not staying, we have two problems: (1) Phyllis (my wife) has only British citizenship, and she isn’t eligible for anything else. Annoyingly, she could easily have got French citizenship when she was married to a Frenchman, but that’s too late now. (2) My youngest stepson (12yo) has technically speaking got both British and French citizenship, but he doesn’t have any paperwork documenting the latter, and the French authorities want his father to go the embassy in London with him for that purpose. However, he’s moved back to France, and my stepson hasn’t seen him since 2012, so that’s not a great option. Perhaps we’ll find a way, but in the worst case we cannot prove that he’s a French citizen.

If we cannot prove that he’s a French citizen, post-Brexit it might be practically impossible for me to move the EU with him. I’m not entirely certain, but it’s definitely not anything we’ll want to test out.

So if there’s any chance that we’ll want to move to the EU after Brexit, we need to do so before Brexit to be on the safe side. If the transition agreement gets signed, that pushes the deadline to December 2020, but it could still fall through.

In other words, we currently have to assume that we might need to move to the EU before March 2019 – and we’ll probably know this by October this year.

If we move, we’ll have to discontinue our company, throwing away all the work we’ve put into it for the past nine years, given that most of our clients are in the UK. And we’ll need to find jobs in the place we’re moving to.

If we stay, we might then not to able to move later. And if my elderly parents (who have retired to Italy) get frail, we probably cannot bring them over here post-Brexit, as we had always thought we could. And we’re giving up our own chance of retiring somewhere else in the EU.

Furthermore, our daughters (the ones with dual British/Danish citizenship) will lose their Danish citizenship if they don’t live in Denmark for a while before their 22nd birthday (it’s a silly Danish law, but it is what it is).

When the UK was a full EU member, that didn’t matter too much, but it’s now their right to travel and work in the EU that they’ll lose together with their Danish passport.

So if we remain, we’ll probably have to convince them to do a gap year in Denmark before going to uni, although that really isn’t the time people do gap years in Scotland.

I’m currently looking into getting my German citizenship back, because the girls would be able to keep that for life. However, a lot of the paperwork has been lost, so it won’t be easy.

By the way, one thing that is stopping us from moving to the EU is that we don’t know where to move to. Denmark is about as xenophobic as England, and it’s not IMHO the best place to bring up a multicultural family. Scotland is much nicer.

Our three youngest kids are bilingual (English/Danish), so I’m sure they could cope fine with Sweden or Norway, too. Germany, the Netherlands or Belgium would be harder for them, but they’d probably manage. Not sure about other places.

So there we are. Ideally we’d just wait and see how bad Brexit gets, but for the reasons I’ve listed above, we might need to escape before it happens. It’s so frustrating, tiring and emotionally draining.

PS: You might also want to read my wife’s take on this here.

Danish fishermen and Brexit

thyborøn photo
Photo by kmardahl
I’ve seen some people on Twitter suggest that what the EU are doing when they insist on keeping access to UK waters is that the UK is trading banking for fishing, but that’s really not the case – it’s not about banking at all.

What happened was that Barnier recently met up with Danish fishermen – who catch almost 50% of their fish in UK waters – and he promised them the British fishing industry would lose access to the European market if EU fishermen lost access to UK fishing waters. According to The Guardian, he said the two things “are clearly linked: Our access to British waters and the British access to our market.”

Because so many of the fish caught in Scotland are sold in Europe, it’s clearly not in anybody’s interest to be able to catch more fish but not be allowed to sell them to their usual customers.

I reckon this would also be case after Scottish independence: If Scotland opted for EFTA in order to stay out of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFA), it’s quite likely the EU then wouldn’t make it easy to sell Scottish fish in the EU.

The best option for Scottish fishermen is for Scotland to become an independent country inside the EU – in that case, the Scottish Government would be included when the quotas get allocated, and I’m sure they’d do a much better job than the UK ministers (who very often never focused on this at all).

Scottish fishermen should perhaps also recognise how the EU are now doing a great job protecting their counterparts in Denmark – perhaps being outside the CFA suddenly doesn’t feel so attractive after all.

Does independence come to those who wait?

gasmask photo
Photo by Père Ubu
Peter Arnott has an article in Bella Caledonia today, suggesting that it’s likely a pro-independence consensus will emerge by 2028:

My guess, for what it’s worth, about the next few years, is that there is no avoiding the realities of Brexit, despite the concerted efforts of Corbyn on one side and May on the other to clamp their hands over their eyes as they walk us off the cliff. My second guess is that we will have another UK General Election which will elect one more UK government to try to “make a go of it” no matter what “it” turns out to be. And that meaningful constitutional change, a decisive transfer of sovereignty from London to Edinburgh, which may or may not be called “Independence” will happen as part of the recovery from this catastrophe, and not, as we hoped, as Nicola Sturgeon hoped, in its anticipation.

[…]

In short, that all this will come, if it does, will not come as part of the UK’s exit from the EU in 2021, but as part of the process of getting back in somewhere around 2028. And it will seem as natural as did the referendum to establish the Parliament in in Edinburgh in 1997 that the UK will be reconfigured. As natural as rain.

This might indeed happen. Sometimes history does repeat itself, and this sounds similar to what happened in Scotland between 1979 and 1997: The pro-devolution referendum was lost, then the Scots had to endure more than a decade of Tory rule they never voted for, but during those years a consensus was formed that independence was needed, so when Labour got into power in 1997 and called a new referendum, nearly 75% voted in favour of the creation of the Scottish Parliament.

However, it’s only one of many possible futures. Here are three other possibilities:

  1. The Tories enact a hard Brexit, but only after a transition period lasting longer than originally envisaged, from March 2019 until December 2024. Because very little changes during transition, they manage to get reelected in May 2024. However, shortly after the election, lots of businesses realise transition is ending, and they leave the UK. The next couple of years are horrendous, but then a number of Tory MPs defect to Labour (led by Chuka Umunna since the election), and they trigger a new general election. Umunna’s Labour wins a huge majority on a manifesto that promises to take the UK back into the EU. Scots now flock to Labour again because it offers the best hope for getting back into Europe, and independence is not on the agenda at all by 2028.
  2. Brexit becomes very hard, and many aspects of devolution get sacrificed to give the UK a lot of leeway to sign trade deals. As a consequence, the deal with the US includes health services and agricultural products, as well as the abolition of protected geographical names such as Scotch Whisky. Most Scots aren’t happy, but apathy has set in, and nobody is prepared to call a referendum on independence when it’s clear it will mean a very hard border with England, as well as destroying those new companies that have sprung up to benefit from the new trade agreements. In 2028, there’s a lot of people wishing they had had the courage to call an independence referendum ten years earlier.
  3. During 2018, it becomes clear that Brexit will become an utter disaster, and in January 2019, 350 MPs from all parties win a vote in the Commons to reverse Brexit. The letter is sent to the EU the following week, and the EU accepts it. Brexit is now cancelled, and the UK remains. However, many companies have already relocated to the continent because the change of heart happened so late in the day, so the finances are tight, and austerity continues for a number of years. In Scotland, these economic measures of course get implemented by the SNP, and this causes a lot of anger, so in the 2021 Holyrood they lose power and get replaced by a Tory–Labour coalition. In 2028, the SNP have still not managed to get back into power, and a new independence referendum is at least five years into the future.

I’m not saying the scenario outlined in Peter Arnott’s article is impossible, just that it’s only one of many possible futures, so betting the house on it seems very dangerous to me. We must act while we still can, rather than leaning back and dreaming about tomorrow.

Francis Fukuyama’s children

The historian Robert Saunders tweeted a great thread yesterday about the world view of the Tory Brexiteers. Here it is:

One of the stranger assumptions of the Brexit debate was that we live in an age of permanently low tariffs, guaranteed by a liberal world trading order. It’s indicative of a wider problem in UK politics: the near-total absence of historical & prudential considerations.

When Britain joined the EEC, in 1973, the world looked very different. A liberal trading order based on the Bretton Woods System had collapsed. The world seemed to be breaking up into hostile trading blocs, which, like OPEC, could use their power to devastating effect.

There was serious anxiety in government about food shortages: British shops ran out of sugar in 1974 and there were queues outside bakeries in London. Newspapers debated a return to the ration book.

Europe seemed dangerously exposed to Russian power, with the United States retreating into introspection after the horrors of Vietnam and the internal convulsions over Watergate. Harold Wilson told the Cabinet in 1974 that “American leadership had gone”.

Joining the EEC was a response to all three. It bound Britain into a trade bloc that could stand its ground against the superpowers. It gave Britain preferential access to European food supplies & encouraged domestic production. It provided an economic foundation for NATO.

By the 90s, when modern Euroscepticism was incubating, the world had changed. The collapse of the Soviet bloc, the lowering of tariff barriers & abundant food supplies weakened the case for membership as it had been made in the 1970s – and pro-Europeans failed to respond.

But what if those conditions returned? What if trade wars became the new norm? What if cheap food became harder to access, for political, economic or climatic reasons? What if a resurgent Russia threatened Europe’s security? That world seems less alien now than 2 years ago.

History only really teaches one lesson: that the world we live in is contingent, not fixed; that things we take for granted in the present have been different in the past – and will be different again in the future.

States have to balance the needs of the present against future contingencies. The armed forces maintain in times of peace weapons that would only be necessary in the most apocalyptic of wars. We are less good at building contingency into our political and economic thought.

This role used to be played by “conservatism”, injecting the political system with a scepticism of precipitate change to institutions inherited from the past. Yet one of the strangest features of modern British politics is the “strange death of conservatism” on the Right.

The Conservative Party today is not in any meaningful sense “conservative”: its thinking is almost entirely ahistorical, grounded in a universalist creed of marketization that must be applied to all institutions, relationships and organs of civil society.

Ironically, that means it struggles to adapt to “change”, because a contingent world of liberal markets & global trading rules is assumed to be the universal state of humanity. These are not Thatcher’s children; they’re Francis Fukuyama’s. We may all be poorer as a result.

The last bit of course refers to Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man”, in which he argues that the advent of Western liberal democracy may signal the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government.

I think this is a really insightful thread. I’ve been trying to figure out for a while what on Earth the attraction of Brexit really is to most Tories. The multimillionaires may be disaster capitalists who are planning to buy up the NHS and other bits of the public sector once it becomes unaffordable after a cliff-edge Brexit, but I’ve been struggling to understand the attraction for the rest of them. I think this explains it.

berlin wall photo
Photo by gavinandrewstewart
When Communism collapsed, they saw that borders and trade barriers were coming down, that freedom and prosperity was spreading all over the world, and they thought that the EU had simply become superfluous, or perhaps even had become a hindrance.

However, history doesn’t seem to have ended at all, and it’s looking like the EU is needed more than ever. I wish the Conservatives would try to conserve the relationship with the EU, instead of trying to prepare for an end of history which isn’t happening.

“Waiting for Godot” vs. “Carpe diem”

godot photo
Photo by SiYH
The National recently published an interesting interview with Alex Salmond. Amongst other things, he said this:

[Jeremy Corbyn] wonders why he can’t get a lead in the opinion polls – well you can’t stay fuzzy on the big issue of the day and expect to beat the Government. That might tell the SNP that time is short to provide a different Scottish solution.

That’s exactly it. The SNP seems to be busy triangulating in New Labour fashion between Remain and Leave, trying to create some sort of fuzzy middle way that will keep both sides happy, but the result is utterly uninspiring, and it means Scotland is very close to going down with the Titanic instead of launching a lifeboat.

In the same article, Alex Salmond points out that “depute leadership elections in the SNP have been quite significant, [such as the one in] 1987, which was basically the classic face-off between the fundamentalists and the gradualists.” I think that what he means is that the current election in the same way can become a way for the party’s members to choose between two fundamentally different ways forward:

  1. The SNP can, as suggested by Pete Wishart, focus on keeping the party together, getting through Brexit (probably spending a lot of energy on getting as many powers as possible transferred to Holyrood rather than Westminster), and waiting for the most opportune moment to call a new referendum. In the following, I’ll refer to this strategy as “Waiting for Godot” (slightly unkindly, I’ll admit).
  2. Alternatively, the SNP can go back to saying that a hard Brexit simply is unacceptable to Scotland, given the outcome of the referendum here, and if this cannot be avoided by working together with other parties at Westminster, Scotland will need to organise a new independence referendum to limit Brexit to a very soft version in the immediate future, probably followed by full EU membership later. This means that campaigning needs to restart asap in order to achieve a majority soon enough. I’ll call this the “Carpe diem” (“seize the day”) strategy in the following.

Personally I believe that the “Waiting for Godot” route will be an utter disaster. The hard Brexit that the Tories are planning will be horrendous for Scotland, and I don’t believe for a second that voters will respond to a massive recession (and the resulting cuts to the Scottish NHS and other public services) by voting SNP in even bigger numbers than before – as the party in power, the SNP will get blamed as much as the Tories. So even if opinion polls at some point in the future show a massive majority for independence, it’s unlikely that there will be a majority of pro-independence parties that can call a referendum.

It’s also interesting that this strategy is exactly what the SNP Leavers were calling for immediately after the Brexit referendum (see my old fisk of Alex Neil’s article in The Telegraph for details on this). In other words, the “Waiting for Godot” strategy means giving in to the Leavers, although Remainers dominated in both the SNP and Scotland as a whole. It is not a compromise, but a way to ensure that Brexit doesn’t get rolled back in Scotland.

Of course all Yes—Remainers worry about getting the timing of the next independence referendum right, and it would be disastrous to lose it. However, referendums are never predictable, and starting with a strong lead in the opinion polls does not guarantee a win. Surely it’s much more important to have a strong campaign that inspires hope (for instance by allowing voters to escape Brexit).

Finally, it will almost certainly not remain the case that Scottish independence is the safest way to stop Brexit. At some point – and whether this will before or after Brexit I don’t know – a party will emerge in England that will fight wholeheartedly for the UK to remain in the EU, or to rejoin. At that point Scottish independence will not look like a lifeboat any longer, and it will become almost impossible to inspire an electorate that is fed up with change and upheaval.

I do wish that the SNP had seized the moment a year ago, but there’s still time. The first step is for the SNP’s next depute leader to belong to the “Carpe diem” faction, and I shall most certainly be voting for those candidates (such as James Dornan).

Waiting for Godot could easily lead to a very long wait – perhaps for more than a generation. This is the time to act. We need to campaign against Brexit, and for independence in Europe.

Falling between two stools

two stools photo
Photo by Rennett Stowe
The Herald has a story today about Scotland getting many more powers post-Brexit (but see also James Kelly’s reasons for doubting it here).

However, I really don’t care, and I think the SNP really have to decide whether they are serious about stopping Brexit or not. It feels like they’re trying to be all things to all men – aiming to become an independent EU member state while talking up EFTA membership and trying to get as many powers as possible after Brexit – and the result is they’re falling between two stools. (Well, more than two stools actually.)

For instance, if they’re serious about stopping Brexit from happening in Scotland (whether by declaring independence or by working together with Unionist parties to reversing it altogether), it’s completely irrelevant whether Westminster were planning to hand over all powers or none post-Brexit.

Alternatively, if they don’t think there’s any chance of stopping Brexit, they should tell the grassroots – many of whom are waiting impatiently at the starting line because they believe ScotRef is imminent. And they should perhaps also tell the EU citizens in Scotland that they should prepare for a Brexit that will give the UK Home Office enormous powers to throw them out of Scotland.

As far as I can tell, the SNP are sending out mixed messages because they’re trying to please all the camps inside the party – the pro-EU mob, the EFTA gang, and the Leavers who don’t really want to discuss independence till Brexit is done and dusted. The result is confusing, and it makes the threats they regularly make about holding a new independence referendum if Westminster don’t behave sound rather hollow.

(My point here is about the messaging: It’s obviously good governance to tell the civil servants to prepare for all scenarios, but if you talk too much about this, the government looks confused and insincere.)

I’ve been saying for a long time that you simply cannot win over the No–Remainers while holding on to the Yes–Leavers. Because the former group is so much bigger than the latter one, my recommendation was always to focus on winning over the Remainers, but it seems that the SNP leadership have instead decided to focus on keeping the Leavers relatively happy by toning down the pro-EU messages.

Perhaps it’s better for the party in the long run (although I have my doubts), but stories celebrating how wonderful the new powers coming to Scotland after Brexit will be are not making me happy – they’re making me doubt that the SNP are sincere about stopping Brexit – and that comes just a few days after the leak of the UK Government’s analysis confirmed the Scottish Government’s figures showing that a hard Brexit will be absolutely disastrous for the Scottish economy. (And we must be talking about a hard Brexit here – if it’s a soft one, hardly any powers will return to Westminster or to Scotland.)

So what is the plan?

Scottish Independence with a Scandinavian Slant