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?

The art of the possible

pink unicorn photo
Photo by libraryink
It’s clear that the EU are regarding December’s deal on Brexit’s Phase 1 as an agreement and not just as some sort of cuddly waffle, which seems to have been Westminster’s interpretation. The EU are therefore turning it into a legal agreement that basically says that Northern Ireland will remain in the Internal Market and the Customs Union unless pink unicorns appear out of nowhere.

Nicola Sturgeon has now been suggesting that this means Scotland should be offered the same deal as Northern Ireland. I agree this would be great, but I sadly don’t believe it’ll happen. A special deal is not something Westminster are keen on (and it might yet make the DUP withdraw their support for Theresa May’s government), and it’s only on the table because the EU are protecting Ireland’s interests – and they’re only doing this because Ireland is an EU member state. Scotland is not. There’s also the fact that giving Northern Ireland a different deal from Great Britain is a way to avoid a land border, whereas treating Scotland the same as Northern Ireland would create one (between England and Scotland); I don’t see why Westminster would agree to this unless they have no other options.

Politics is the art of the possible, as Otto von Bismarck once said. At the end of the day, it’s not about what would be the right thing to do, or about what would be sensible, but about what you can get away with.

Catalonia and the Iraqi Kurds had to learn this the hard way. They seemed to think that if only they managed to hold an independence referendum and obtain a Yes vote, then they would automatically get welcomed into the family of independent nations, and their interests and security would be protected by international law. I’m exaggerating a bit, but that’s what it looked like from the outside. They forgot that if it wouldn’t be possible for them to assert and protect their independence, and if it would be possible for the country they were breaking away from to use force to prevent it from happening, then that was always likely to happen instead. In the case of Catalonia, they forgot that the EU is primarily a club of member states, many of which have their own “problems” with independence movements, so unless they were presented with a fait accompli, they would opt to preserve the status quo.

It seems to me that Theresa May and her government have concluded that it isn’t possible for Scotland to do anything. That Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of the SNP will jump up and down and shout that Scotland won’t allow it, but that nothing will happen. That the Scottish Government won’t dare to call a referendum without Westminster’s approval, and that there aren’t any other options. It is therefore possible for them to treat Scotland with contempt and enact whatever kind of Brexit they like without any approval whatsoever from Holyrood.

I hope they’re wrong, because there are many signs that they will enact a very hard Brexit (perhaps even leaving without a deal), and as we now know, this will be an absolutely calamity for Scotland that will be many times worse than the 2008 recession.

I sometimes wonder whether the SNP’s plan is to wait impatiently until the people of Scotland wake up and realise what Westminster are doing to them, and then ride the wave of popular anger. It’s playing with fire, though. The people might at that point be just as angry with the SNP that didn’t do anything tangible to protect them against a Brexit that they knew all along would damage Scotland deeply.

As an EU citizen and a New Scot, I’m definitely starting to feel quite angry. Nicola Sturgeon basically promised people like me on the morning after the Brexit referendum that she would protect us and keep Scotland in the EU (either by stopping Brexit or by organising a new independence referendum in time to keep Scotland in the Internal Market when the rUK leaves). More and more prominent SNP representatives seem now to be saying that this is impossible and that Scotland will leave the EU with the rest of the UK. Given that immigration hasn’t been devolved to Scotland, this doesn’t protect us EU citizens in the slightest, and I honestly feel that we’ve been let down.

I really hope I’m wrong and that Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of the SNP leadership have a great plan up their sleeve that they will enact soon. And I mean a concrete plan – something which is possible and which doesn’t depend on Westminster playing ball. We need to know what Scotland will do if Theresa May keeps repeating that “now is not the time”. (And let’s face it – it worked last time she said it, so why would she ever change her mind?) I know that the vast majority of SNP members are impatient – they want to be out there campaigning for independence. So perhaps the plan is to start the campaign now and try to get the popular support up to a level where Westminster cannot ignore it any longer. Perhaps the plan is something else. But it is high time for Scotland to do whatever is possible to stop Brexit from happening in Scotland. Let us dae or dee.

Brexit & Ireland, and the two elephants in the room

elephants photo
Photo by Turkinator
I’ve just finished reading Tony Connelly’s “Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities, and the Inside Story of the Irish Response”. It’s a good book, even though some bits are highly specific to Ireland, and it’s definitely worth reading.

However, the author almost completely ignored two elephants in the room by assuming the constitutional order won’t change: Scottish independence and Irish reunification.

The book hardly mentions Scotland at all, and Scottish independence is completely absent. Perhaps he simply assumes that it won’t happen soon enough to be relevant, but if it does happen within the next couple of years, the consequences could be extremely important for Ireland, so one would have thought it would have warranted a brief mention at least. I think I also expected an Irish observer to distinguish between the English and Scottish perspectives, rather than treating Britain almost as a uniform entity. But perhaps that’s appropriate – in spite of Scotland’s desire to Remain, it’s not clear that there will be another independence referendum in time to allow it to happen, and Westminster don’t seem to have any desire to grant Scotland a different kind of Brexit from England; so from a foreign perspective Scotland might as well be ignored. This feels very harsh when you’re a pro-indy remainer in Scotland, but sometimes it’s useful to see yourself as others see you, as Burns liked to remind us.

I find it even more surprising that the prospect of Irish reunification gets ignored. It is hard to imagine that it can happen before Brexit, but you never know. After all, the Good Friday Agreement says this about a border poll:

1. The Secretary of State may by order direct the holding of a poll for the purposes of section 1 on a date specified in the order.
2. Subject to paragraph 3, the Secretary of State shall exercise the power
under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to
be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.
3. The Secretary of State shall not make an order under paragraph 1
earlier than seven years after the holding of a previous poll under this

Interestingly, it does not say anything about a majority in the Assembly or anything like that – the way I’m reading it, if a string of opinion polls express a clear majority for reunification, the Northern Irish Secretary will have to organise a referendum, and that might happen sooner rather than later if many people start worrying that their jobs will get lost due to a hard border cutting across the island of Ireland. Of course people had assumed that a border poll would only happen when the Catholic community had overtaken the Protestant one numerically, but there’s nothing preventing Brexit from being the event that creates a majority in favour of reunification.

I guess he didn’t want to speculate too much about hypothetical events, but so many of the negative consequences of Brexit could be avoided if Ireland reunified, so I would certainly have found it useful if he had been more open about it as a possible solution.

As far as I know, Tony Connelly has been based in Brussels for a number of years, so I cannot help wondering whether his approach to these two issues reflects the general feeling on the continent, or whether it reflects the current thinking in Ireland.

Scottish Independence with a Scandinavian Slant