Category Archives: Brexit

A soft Brexit that slowly gets hard

frosty rocks...
frosty rocks….
I’ve been reading a lot over the past few weeks about the potential consequences of Brexit (I can recommend this post on the Jack of Kent blog and especially the many comments underneath), and I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that it’ll be even harder and take longer than I had anticipated (and I was more pessimistic than most people I know).

If the UK government really enacts a hard Brexit in early 2019 – which seems to be what the Brexiters from the Leave campaign (such as Johnson, Fox and David) have in mind – then the consequences will be truly catastrophic, because the new trade agreements and other requirements of being a succesful state outwith the EU simply can’t be put in place that quickly. Some agreements can be in place sooner than others, but the consensus seems to be that some might take as long as ten years to do well.

At the same time, the UK government seems to believe that a soft Brexit doesn’t fulfil the promises of the Leave campaign (in particular because a soft outcome means continued free immigration for EU nationals).

As far as I can see, the only way to cut through this Gordian Knot is by implementing a soft Brexit here and now but to put an end date on it, for instance ten years later. So basically the UK government would ask the EU to remain part of everything for ten years after leaving, including the free movement of people. The UK would also contribute as much money to the EU budget as before, and continue to be bound by decisions by the European Court of Justice. The only difference would be that the UK would pull out of all the decision-making forums, such as the European Parliament and the European Council, and there wouldn’t be a British Commissioner any more. However, after the end date, the UK would be able to pull out of everything.

There would be many advantages to this. From the point of view of those preferring a hard Brexit, it would give them the time to negotiate good deals with other countries; those wanting a soft Brexit could hope to prolong the soft phase indefinitely; and the Remainers would get ten years to reverse Brexit – don’t forget that there’ll be two general elections during the ten years. It would also give Scotland up to ten years to plan a new independence referendum carefully, in full knowledge of what Brexit actually ends up meaning.

Interestingly, Yanis Varoufakis suggested something similar today, although he doesn’t think ten years are needed:

My advice is simple: activate Article 50, use those years as best you can and then strike a deal for the three or four years after Britain should be associated in a Norway-style agreement, and then use that period to have a robust debate on what’s to come later.

It’s all eminently sensible, which is probably why I have my doubts it’ll happen. Most of the tabloid press have been so busy telling their readers that Brexit is wonderful and uncomplicated and that it’ll cause us nasty EU migrants to get sent home very soon, so they’ll have a hard time explaining why suddenly nothing will change for a long time.

The Irish border post-Brexit

Eire N1 Northern Terminus - UK A1 Southern Terminus
Eire N1 Northern Terminus – UK A1 Southern Terminus.
I don’t know much about Ireland, I’m afraid. However, the Brexiters seem to understand even less, and that worries me.

On the one hand prominent pro-Brexit ministers such as David Davis state they don’t want a hard border post Brexit, but on the other hand the very same people are in favour of a hard Brexit, whereby the UK (incl. Northern Ireland) will leave the Internal Market, incl. the free movement of people and the common customs area. Something doesn’t add up here!

Firstly, if for instance the UK wants to control the number of Poles entering the country, how does that work if they can freely travel to Ireland as EU citizens and then get the bus to Belfast, unless there is a hard border?

Perhaps the Brexiters will reply they don’t want to ban Poles from traveling to the UK at all, but that they just want to control the numbers moving here permanently. Fair enough, but that requires a much more thorough system of work permits than what is being discussed at the moment. Different from what they promised during the Brexit referendum, they effectively wouldn’t really control the border, but instead keep a tab on people once they’re here. I don’t have a problem with that, but they should tell us if that’s the plan.

Secondly, if the UK and Ireland aren’t in the same customs area, surely lorries can’t just drive across the border. Even if the UK didn’t care about EU products getting smuggled freely across the Irish border, I have a feeling the EU would have a problem with UK products getting through without import duties. In other words, even if you don’t need to show your passport, you’ll get your luggage checked.

Thirdly, almost all EU countries are part of Schengen, the passport-free zone. The UK and Ireland have so far refused to join, but it’ll become much harder for Ireland not to do so when the UK isn’t an EU member state any longer. If at some point in the future Ireland joins Schengen, a border becomes almost unavoidable unless the UK joins Schengen too (like Norway and Iceland).

The Brexiters often say that the UK and Ireland also had an open border before we joined the EU, which is true, of course. What they forget is the Ireland wasn’t an EU member either at that point. This will be the first time ever that the EU’s external border will divide the Emerald Isle. Stating that you don’t want to create a hard border is simply not good enough when you’re simultaneously campaigning for a hard Brexit.

Is Scotland going for the worst possible solution?

Hard & soft
Hard & soft.
I’m seeing more and more independence supporters saying that we should wait and see what Brexit brings before launching Indyref2, so perhaps delaying it till 2020 or even later.

For instance, Iain Macwhirter wrote the following in The Sunday Herald today:

I don’t think we’ll see another Scottish referendum until well into the 2020s because the implications of Brexit will take many years to sort out. Article 50 hasn’t been declared yet and isn’t going to be for some time. It will take more than two years to disentangle Britain from the EU, and the years immediately after formal departure will be as chaotic, if not more chaotic, than now.

Robin McAlpine has expressed similar thoughts in the past, for instance at the recent Independence Rally on Glasgow Green.

I’m afraid I totally disagree with such ideas. Getting dragged out of the EU and then rejoining a couple of years later is insane, as anybody who knows the complexity of the modern EU will tell you. It means going through enormous amounts of change and then reverting everything immediately afterwards.

Of course it depends what kind of Brexit we’re getting.

If the Tories opt for a soft Brexit (essentially a Norwegian solution, which means that the free movement of goods, capital, services and people will be maintained), I agree it makes sense to take a deep breath and think hard about the timing of the next independence referendum. The main downside to delaying is perhaps that all of us EU citizens will have lost our right to vote in it, but it shouldn’t affect other people or businesses drastically. I still think there would be many advantages to Scotland remaining within the EU when the rUK leaves, but we can sit down and have a civilised discussion about the pros and cons.

On the other hand, if the Westminster government goes for a hard Brexit, taking us out of the Internal Market and all the other parts of the EU in order to restrict migration, we need to get out in time. Sadly, all the smoke signals emerging from Westminster seem to be pointing towards this being the preferred solution.

A hard Brexit will be a like a wrecking ball taken to the Scottish economy, and saying that we might leave five years later if we don’t like it will only make things worse. This is because a hard Brexit will be both a disaster and a business opportunity. Lots of companies are going to relocate to the rEU, shedding a lot of jobs here in the process. However, once that is done, there will presumably be opportunities to create products and services to replace those that suddenly cannot be sourced from the rEU profitably. For instance, if it becomes clear that the UK will slap a 20% import tax on Manchego cheese from Spain, it might become a business opportunity to create a clone here for the British consumer. My gut feeling is that there won’t be enough of these new jobs to replace the ones lost to the rEU in the medium term, but at least there will be a few of them. However, if you’re a business person thinking about setting up a company making a British Manchego clone, will you place it in Scotland if there is a possibility that Scotland will five years later leave the rUK and rejoin the EU? No, of course not. You’ll place the company south of the border. If it’s clear that Scotland will remain in the EU if the rUK goes for a hard Brexit, many of the EU-oriented businesses will potentially relocate to Scotland, but if it isn’t clear what Scotland is going for, we won’t get any of them – they’ll go to Ireland, Germany or some other rEU country instead. We need to make it clear whether we’re going to stay within the Internal Market or remaining within the UK no matter what, or we’ll end up in the worst of all possible worlds, getting neither relocating EU businesses nor new post-Brexit companies. It would be a disaster of Darien Scheme proportions.

I’m not saying we need to call the referendum just yet. But Nicola Sturgeon needs to go out and say that Scotland will remain within the Internal Market, and if Westminster are going for a hard Brexit, Scotland will hold a new independence referendum in time for Scotland to leave the UK before Brexit happens. This would also provide the kind of message control that Robin McAlpine has correctly called for.

The morning after Brexit, when Nicola took charge and promised EU citizens and their families in Scotland that we’d be OK, we were all ready to kiss her. The impression I and others got was that she would explore the options for keeping Scotland within the Internal Market (e.g., whether a Reverse Greenland would be possible), but that she would definitely call a new independence referendum if that was the only was to achieve that. You can always discuss the finer legal and linguistic aspects of her statement, but that was definitely the impression I was left with. Because of this, if she follows the advice offered by Messrs. Macwhirter and McAlpine and allows Scotland to be taken out of the Internal Market just because the opinion polls aren’t favourable enough (and let’s face it, they’re much better now than when Indyref1 was called), she will have broken the promise she made to us that morning, and I will be tearing my SNP membership card apart.

Hopefully I’m just worrying needlessly, and all that is happening just now is that the SNP leadership are trying to ascertain whether the Brexit will be soft or hard before fixing a date for the next independence referendum. Salmond’s prediction that it’ll be held in two years time sounds OK to me, although I don’t like the fact that Boris Johnson has started saying that the negotiations might be concluded in less than two years, in which case we might have less time than we think.

The reason for the lack of movement in the opinion polls, as well as for the laid-back attitude with regard to Brexit exhibited by the Indyref2-after-2020 crowd, is perhaps the general feeling in the UK media that Brexit isn’t going to be that bad after all, based on the fact the economy is still ticking along nicely. However, Brexit hasn’t happened yet, and many businesses will be waiting to find out whether it’s going to be soft or hard before relocating, so we ain’t seen nothing yet. This is likely to change soon, however. I’ve started hearing about the first redundancies due to Brexit amongst my acquaintances this week, and if that continues, the general mood might change abruptly. We need to be ready to seize the moment when that happens.

More about the four tribes of Scotland

As a rough approximation, the Yes movement two years ago was a coalition between the blue and yellow tribes, and the No side was home to both the green and red ones. However, during the Brexit referendum, the Remain side brought together the blues and the greens, and the Leave side consisted of the yellows and the reds.
As a rough approximation, the Yes movement two years ago was a coalition between the blue and yellow tribes, and the No side was home to both the green and red ones. However, during the Brexit referendum, the Remain side brought together the blues and the greens, and the Leave side consisted of the yellows and the reds.
I’ve been thinking about the four tribes of Scotland a bit more.

Let’s first recapitulate how I defined the four groups:

  • The blue tribe consists of the 33% of voters who want Scotland to be an independent country inside the EU [mnemonic: blue as the Saltire and the EU flag].
  • The yellow tribe is made up of the 11% who want Scotland to be a completely independent country outside both the UK and the EU [mnemonic: yellow as the background on the lion rampant flag, which this group in my experience is very fond of].
  • The green tribe is home to the pro-EU unionists who were perfectly happy inside both unions (28% of voters) [mnemonic: green for hope, because they will hopefully vote Yes next time].
  • The red tribe is made up of the 23% of voters who are pro-UK Brexiters [mnemonic: red as the cross on the English flag].

The first point that I don’t think I stressed enough in my first post on this topic is that it’s important to bear in mind that the four tribes aren’t homogenous groups separate from each other. Many voters for instance inhabit the blue-green borderland – they’re primarily internationalists and aren’t actually that concerned about whether they’re citizens of Scotland or the UK. Other voters are found in the blue-yellow area and are primarily pro-Scotland and less concerned with Scotland’s membership of the EU. The interested reader can as an exercise describe the green-red and yellow-red voters.

In Indyref2 the goal for the Yes side is to turn the blue-green greens into blue-green blues without losing the yellow tribe (in particular the yellow-red yellows). And similarly I expect the No side will focus on winning over the yellows without losing too many of the greens.

And this leads me to my second point: I don’t think the opposing tribes have anything in common. The blue and red tribes are complete opposites, as are the green and yellow ones.

It’s interesting that when Better Together (which were of course dominated by green-tribe politicians) talked about the Yes side, they always seemed to describe the yellow tribe and not have any understanding of the blue tribe, and I think the Yes side (which was almost entirely a blue-tribe effort) made a similar error of assuming all No voters were deep down from the red tribe, and we didn’t really understand how you could be a progressive internationalist and still vote No.

If my analysis is correct, the potential problem for Indyref2 is that you can’t create a successful coalition of yellow-blue-green: As soon as you start appealing to the green tribe, the yellows will walk out in disgust, and vice versa. It’s already very clear that the yellow tribe are deeply unhappy about Indyref2 being run on the basis of continued EU membership. On the other hand, if we focus too much on keeping the yellow tribe on board, we’ll be unable to appeal to the green tribe.

The million-bawbee question is how many members of the green tribe we can realistically win over in Indyref2. If we stop appealing to the yellow tribe, we need to win over a significant number of green-tribe voters to compensate.

We badly need an opinion poll to segment the green tribe into blue-green and red-green (and perhaps even finer shades than this). When push comes to shove, how many of them will join the blue tribe rather than the red one? I hope this is something the SNP are doing behind the scenes.

The 173,000 Yes voters that will disappear overnight in 2019

Driving into Scotland after 2018
Driving into Scotland after 2018.
One fact that seems to be overlooked by many commentators is that when the UK leaves the EU, all EU citizens living in Scotland will get disenfranchised overnight because it’s an EU rule that gives us the right to vote in local elections, and independence referendums use the same franchise. So when Brexit happens, we’ll suddenly have no special status and will be treated the same as Americans or Argentinians, which means we won’t be able to vote.

Because voting Yes to Scottish independence this time is a complete no-brainer to any EU citizen living in Scotland (differently from last time, when many thought continued EU membership was secured better by voting No), it means we will lose up to 173,000 safe Yes votes by holding the referendum after the UK has left.

You’d need to feel extremely confident about the result of Indyref2 to discard these safe Yes votes just because you don’t really like the timeframe it imposes on you.

However, there are many other good reasons to hold the referendum before Brexit happens, as explored well by Wings over Scotland today.

It’s an excellent article, and I agree with most of he writes. However, I think he’s wrong in thinking that it’ll happen in May 2019:

So if we assume it must happen by next May, that makes May 2019 the logical cut-off point for Brexit. It’s coincidentally also the date the next European election is due – an event which of course remains on the UK political calendar, precisely because we haven’t even begun the process of Brexit yet.

It would be farcical for the UK to still be an EU member at that point – because we’d still have to hold those elections if there was no clear exit date in place – but in the current UK political climate, something being farcical is no barrier to it happening.

Nevertheless, let’s take it as the closest thing that we’ve got to a rationally plausible outcome. It would make sense to hold a second indyref at the same time. It would massively reduce the costs and admin, and it’s infinitely preferable from everyone’s point of view – Scotland’s, the EU’s and the rUK’s – for Scotland to STAY in the EU rather than to be dragged out then try to JOIN at a later date.

(Honestly, it’s simply not possible to overstate how much that’s the case. For about a thousand mainly pretty obvious reasons the technicalities of the latter scenario, for all three entities, would by comparison be absolutely insanely complex and costly. It’d be a lot less trouble just to go to war with Russia.)

I totally agree that it’d be barking mad to be dragged out only to rejoin a couple of years later, but I just can’t see how it can technically be done in time to ensure continued EU membership if we don’t vote till May 2019. Two years ago we argued that we needed about 18 months to set up an independent state. I always thought it could be done quicker, but the six months it took Czechia and Slovakia to separate is probably the gold standard. I would therefore say that the autumn of 2018 is the latest realistical time for the referendum to ensure Scotland remains within the EU without spending some time outside the door. (Unless, of course, we pre-negotiate everything, but I doubt Westminster will agree to doing that.)

One last note: At the rally on Glasgow Green yesterday, Robin McAlpine seemed to argue that we had to wait till at least 2020 before holding Indyref2 because Westminster won’t let us hold a new referendum before 2019 because they’re too busy with Brexit to allow themselves to get distracted by other matters. Surely that’s an excellent reason to hold it sooner rather than later – it can only help us if Westminster are too busy to interfere, and as somebody who believes in the sovereignty of the people of Scotland I don’t think Westminster can morally or politically block it anyway.

The four tribes of Scotland

Today's opinion poll asked voters to choose amongst four options for Scotland's place in the world.
Today’s opinion poll asked voters to choose amongst four options for Scotland’s place in the world.
Today’s Panelbase poll (coinciding with the 2nd anniversary of the first independence referendum) very helpfully asked the respondents to pick their preferred scenario for Scotland’s place in the world. I’ve put the figures into a pie chart, ignoring the 5% who are undecided, to make it easier to spot the possible majorities.

To make it easier to discuss the four groupings, I’ll refer to them by colour in the following. The blue tribe consists of the 33% of voters who want Scotland to be an independent country inside the EU; the yellow tribe is made up of the 11% who want Scotland to be a completely independent country outside both the UK and the EU; the green tribe is home to the pro-EU unionists who were perfectly happy inside both unions (28% of voters); and finally the red tribe is made up of the 23% of voters who are pro-UK Brexiters.

As a rough approximation, the Yes movement two years ago was a coalition between the blue and yellow tribes, and the No side was home to both the green and red ones. However, during the Brexit referendum, the Remain side brought together the blues and the greens, and the Leave side consisted of the yellows and the reds.

The question now is what happens in Indyref2. The green tribe has just become politically homeless because their preferred option simply doesn’t exist any more. Will they eventually join the blue tribe or the red one?

Wings over Scotland today focuses on the yellow tribe (or the “unhappy 11%”, as he calls them). However, I don’t think that’s a big worry. At the end of the day, they are in favour of an independent Scotland, and even though they might not be very active during the next campaign, I can’t imagine that many of them will actually vote No to independence — surely they’ll just start a UKIP-like party in Scotland post-independence.

The green tribe is our big opportunity. They’re not happy with the outcome of the Brexit referendum, and they need to rethink their political priorities. If Brexit turns out to mean a soft Brexit (a.k.a. the Norwegian solution), they might eventually join the red tribe, but if it seems like the UK is opting for a hard Brexit, it should be easy to convince most of them that joining the blue tribe is the internationalist and outward-looking position, and that will enable us to win a landslide victory in the next independence referendum.

Let’s not get so focused on keeping together the Indyref1 coalition that we completely miss the opportunity to assemble a much bigger Indyref2 coalition.

Beware of sleekit Tories muddying the waters

Beescraigs by Alan Weir.
In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, most sensible people believed the Tories had a plan. Not necessarily a good one, but at least some sort of idea of what they wanted to achieve.

It then dawned on the rest of us that they had absolutely no plan whatsoever, that the Leave campaign had consisted of nothing more than infinite amounts of hot air and wishful thinking.

We then all expected the Tories to formulate a plan and tell us about it. This is clearly what the EU negotiators still are expecting – they’ve lined up their team and their negotiating position, and they’re now waiting for the triggering of Article 50 and to hear what the UK wants to do. The Scottish Government also seems to be waiting to find out whether the Tory plan involves being part of the Internal Market and whether Scotland will have a formal rôle in the negotiations as promised.

However, what if they never clear things up? What if the various members of the UK government continue to contradict each other in public? What if they keep promising to listen to Scotland without ever doing so? What if it doesn’t become clear till the night before Brexit takes place what it actually entails? It could actually be deliberate – if you have a weak hand in negotiations, clarity helps your opponents, so the Tories might think maximum obfuscation is the best way to get a good deal.

So I think we have to brace ourselves for the possibility that we might not know whether post-Brexit England and Wales will be part of the Internal Market till the Tory negotiators emerge in the wee hours of the morning from a smoke-filled room in Brussels in early 2019. Until that point, they might very feasibly keep saying they want to restrict immigration while having full access to the Internal Market.

The problem for Scotland is that if our plan is to use continued Internal Market membership as the way to get a majority to vote Yes in the next independence referendum, we effectively tie our hands because we can’t then call the referendum until we know what the Tories are doing, and that could very well be too close to the actual Brexit date to allow us to hold a referendum in time to ensure that Scotland never leaves the EU.

I’m aware some independentistas would like us to wait till everything becomes clear and the consequences of Brexit are real and felt by everybody, but as I wrote yesterday, I feel that’s like walking out onto thin ice with our partner when we could be standing on the shore.

We need to come up with a plan that works even if the Tories do their best to muddy the waters. Walking onto thin ice in the middle of the night when you can’t see what you’re doing is hardly better than doing it during the day!