On Scotland and Brexit

In the Scottish Parliament and elsewhere this week there has been a great deal of muddy thinking about the EU and Scotland’s relationship with it, so let me try to bring some clarity to the debate. Scotland voted on 23 June that the United Kingdom should remain a member state. Scotland did not vote that it should remain; Scotland is not, and never has been, a member state of the European Union. The vote was a pan-UK referendum. No city, region or nation of the United Kingdom had a veto over its result. The whole of the United Kingdom is going to leave the European Union because the United Kingdom as a whole voted for that.

What Scots now want is for their two Governments to work together to secure the best possible Brexit deal for Scotland and for the United Kingdom. The evidence tells us that Scotland will be able to secure a preferential deal—such as perhaps a “reverse Greenland” model whereby EU law would continue to have greater effect in Scotland than in the rest of the UK—only if it co-operates, and is seen internationally to co-operate, with the United Kingdom Government. Why? Because it is the United Kingdom that is the member state, not Scotland. Scottish ministers have talked about “preserving Scotland’s status” in the European Union but Scotland has no formal legal status in the EU. To quote from a paper by Graham Avery for the European Policy Centre, “In withdrawal negotiations, which are intergovernmental in character, the British government will represent the UK. Scotland will not have a separate voice. That is why EU governments say that only London is competent to conduct the negotiations”.

The Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee made that point forcefully in its report published earlier this week: “European partners would be open to a distinctive Scottish approach to maintaining our relationships with Europe”, the committee found, only “as long as that approach had been agreed with the UK Government first”. Thus, if Scotland wants a distinctive relationship with the European Union, it must first agree that approach with the UK Government.

The most pressing consideration, therefore, is that the Scottish Government co-operates in good faith with the United Kingdom Government in pursuing the best-possible Brexit deal for Scotland and the United Kingdom. It’s not belligerence from Scottish ministers, but diplomacy, that will secure that; not sabre rattling about independence but collaboration; not renewed threats of another indyref but good faith and sincere co-operation with the UK Government.

There is a fallacy—a false antithesis—that is gaining ground in Scottish public debate and which needs to be arrested. It is the assertion that there is some kind of binary divide between “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit”. I know the nationalists like to divide everybody into yes camps and no camps—they like binary divides—but Brexit needs to be understood as a spectrum of options, not as a bifurcated matter.

The softest form of Brexit would be EEA membership. EEA membership requires, first, full participation in the single market, including full free movement of workers—so, in other words, not taking back control of our borders. Secondly, it would require substantial financial contributions to the European institutions—so, not taking back control of our national finances. Thirdly, it would require continued subjection to the supranational case law of the European Court of Justice, including its doctrine of supremacy over national legislation—so, not taking back control of our legislation either. The EEA was designed about 20 years or so ago as a way into the European Union, not as a way out of it. It may work as a temporary transition as the United Kingdom negotiates its way out of the European Union, but it is difficult to see in the longer term that Brexit can mean EEA membership.

Equally, however, being completely outside the single market would, in my view, be contrary to the British national interest. Access to the single market means jobs for British workers, investment in the British economy and lower prices for British consumers. The critical question is not whether we are members of the single market, but what kind of access to or participation in the single market we now want and on what terms.

Last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon castigated the Prime Minister for refusing to answer the question whether she wanted the UK to be a member of the single market. But that reveals not any ambivalence on Theresa May’s part but the First Minister’s lack of understanding of what is now at stake. There is no such thing as membership of the single market. The EEA and the single market are not the same thing. The question is what kind of access to and participation in the single market we now consider to be in the national interest.

This is not a yes/no question. But it is, I concede, a difficult question. It requires us to confront a number of issues that are new because, until now, we’ve simply let Brussels run them for us. What kind of agricultural policy do we want for twenty-first century Scotland? What kind of economic interventions do we want now that, it seems, we may find ourselves free of EU state aids restrictions? What kind of consumer or sales tax do we want if EU rules on VAT no longer apply to us? And—crucially—what kind of immigration policy do we want to run that meets the needs of British employers and service providers?

Thinking through these questions are just some of the opportunities that Brexit brings. Of course, there are challenges to be overcome and threats to avoid, but Brexit brings opportunities as well as risks. Opportunities for exporters, helped by the lower pound. Opportunities for tourism. Opportunities, as just mentioned, for agriculture. Opportunities to think afresh about areas of taxation and inward investment. Huge opportunities for fisheries: indeed, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation describes the EU’s hated Common Fisheries Policy as “distant, centralised and monumentally complex”. They regard Brexit as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”, and they are right. The SNP used to agree. Alex Salmond talked in 2004 of “the dead hand of Brussels mismanagement”. Yet now the SNP are entirely unwilling—or unable—to answer the question why they would rather see Scottish fishing run down by Brussels than run properly by Holyrood. For Brexit will not see the repatriation of our farming and fishing to Westminster. North of the border these powers will come to the Scottish Parliament, not to London (although, given the outrageous mess the SNP have made of administering CAP payments this year, perhaps our farmers would rather they did not).

In Holyrood this week, the SNP minister overseeing Scotland’s role in the Brexit negotiations, Mike Russell, rightly described Scotland as a European nation. Of course we are. But our European role and identity was not created by the European Communities Act 1972 and will not come to an end with Brexit. Our universities were not made great by the European Union and should regard themselves as leading players on the global stage, able to compete and to collaborate with the great universities right across the English-speaking world. The higher education sector has benefited significantly from our EU membership, not least as regards student exchanges and research income, but there is no reason why these cannot continue even as we leave the EU. Indeed, Turkish universities participate in these programmes even though Turkey is not and never has been an EU member state.

To be global players rather than merely European players is perhaps the greatest opportunity that Brexit now brings. So let’s seize the opportunities. Let’s make the most of Brexit. Let’s make it work for the United Kingdom. And let’s make it work for Scotland.