Scottish Labour must not panic in the face of Brexit
Fraser Paterson says while immediate panic in the face of the Brexit vote was understandable, calm heads should now prevail, and talk of Labour backing a second independence referendum is neither realistic nor sensible.
There is some dispute about what Harold Wilson really meant when he said “A week is a long time in politics”.
But whatever his intention, it has been without doubt the most confusing, concerning and yet exhilarating time in politics, certainly since the Scottish independence referendum of two years ago and, given the seismic Brexit result, perhaps in modern history.
As the reality of the result of the 23rd of June began to sink in many, in their desperation for certainty, began to demand answers to huge constitutional questions from their political leaders and parties. One of those demands was for the Labour Party in Scotland to quickly clarify its position on a second independence referendum.
Whilst this was perfectly understandable given the change in circumstances which now surround the United Kingdom, of which we voted to stay a part in 2014, it seemed to me to be symptomatic of our party’s previous missteps when approaching key policy: immediately pivoting to definitively answering the questions that the SNP wanted us to answer, and hurriedly proposing new federal arrangements. A not insubstantial number of activists started to muse online about supporting independence, an independent Scottish Labour party or “home rule”, possibly not because they necessarily thought it best for Scotland, but because they couldn’t immediately see, through the fog of panic and despair at the outcome of the vote, how the Labour Party could retain and build any kind of meaningful support.
Nicola Sturgeon, whatever you may think of her, is an extremely gifted politician. That has been evident in recent days as she launched a charm offensive at Brussels, expertly saying an awful lot without really doing much at all. However, as the unquestionable reality that Scotland will only be part of the negotiations as part of the UK sets in, there are several reasons why I don’t believe a second independence referendum, and all of last week’s furore and panic, will transpire anytime soon.
Firstly, legal opinion still holds that an independent Scotland would have to re-apply for EU membership. The SNP continue to have a credibility issue on this point as they simply refuse to believe anything other than Scotland being somehow annexed within its current terms of membership upon an unlikely Yes vote in another referendum. It is this crucial first point which makes the next independence referendum even more difficult to win than the first for the Yes campaign.
Secondly, any new entrant to the EU would have to make huge concessions, both financial and political, to gain membership. This takes the SNP back to its main stumbling block of 2014: the currency. Membership of the Euro would be a prerequisite of Scotland joining the EU. So, presumably, would being part of the Schengen area and free movement of people within member states. We only have to take a look at southern Europe, and particularly at its young people, to see how difficult a sell that would be to the Scottish people. The SNP vision of Scotland as more inclusive, more tolerant and more caring can be quashed with one glance at a social attitudes survey, and it would be incredibly difficult to see the 38% of Scots who voted to Leave the EU having a Damascene conversion around freedom of movement, let alone passportless borders.
Thirdly, Scotland did not and does not meet the European Union’s debt obligations as a member state, and would undergo a significant period of cost cutting to meet these regulations. Indeed, it would be expected that Scotland would be a net contributor to Brussels, to the tune of £1.5bn. In addition to this, the economic shock we have seen from Britain’s vote to exit the EU, its second biggest market, gives any politician worth their salt a very easy “what if” upon Scotland leaving its biggest trading partner – the UK – in another independence referendum.
On quick reflection the economic circumstances that surround an independence vote are even more difficult to defend for any Yes campaign than they were even in 2014, and that’s without going into the detail of whether the SNP would be happy to give away powers to Brussels, for example around agriculture and fishing policy, that it will gain at Holyrood from the Brexit vote.
Yet you could be forgiven for thinking, despite all of these hurdles, that Scottish independence is signed, sealed and delivered and simply a matter of time. That is the narrative of the current government. After the panic has subsided it is a narrative which should be swiftly rebutted by our party. We have been beaten both by an avowedly Nationalist party and a Unionist party in recent years. That shouldn’t tell us that we’ve taken the wrong position on this constitutional question. It should tell us that we haven’t been good enough in putting forward our position.
Kezia Dugdale was right when she said in the aftermath of the Brexit vote that we should “keep the heid”. But once the fog has cleared and our MSPs return to Holyrood after the summer recess, its time for our party to no longer be reticent about standing up for what it believes in.
We are not in this position because we didn’t back a Yes vote in the independence referendum of 2014, nor because we don’t support an independent Labour Party for Scotland or “home rule”, and the current Holyrood opposition is testament to that. It’s time we as a party stopped running away from the constitutional question or, as has been the case more recently, running into it with our eyes tightly closed.
Let’s unashamedly make our case for Scotland staying in the UK, and then move on to articulate why a Scottish Labour Party is integral to Scotland’s future within it.