In 2014, when the last once-in-a-generation Scottish independence referendum was held, the Scottish government under the then First Minister Alex Salmond published what it claimed was a comprehensive plan for how Scotland’s future as an independent nation would play out. It was, in truth, a rather curious document, a mixture of high constitutional aspiration, a technical document glossing-over most of the difficulties, and a party manifesto, including a fair smattering of comically trivial measures which independence would unlock (“use Scotland’s levy to promote Scotland’s produce”).
Underlying it all, though, was one massive assumption: that independence would not disrupt trade with the rest of the UK, nor with the other 27 EU states. That was based on the premise that Scotland could somehow ‘stay in’ the EU, and therefore remain, with the rest of the UK, as part of the Single Market and Customs Union. Admittedly there was much wishful thinking about the exact mechanics of accession to the EU, but, in the big picture, the SNP were broadly right on this: it was inconceivable that a lawfully-independent Scotland would have been excluded from the EU, some transitional arrangements would no doubt have been agreed, and trade could almost certainly have continued undisturbed. There would have been no need for border controls at Gretna Green, and Scotland’s quite large financial sector would have been able to continue serving customers in England – just as well because it’s a major part of the Scottish economy. In practical terms, nothing much would have changed for Scottish businesses, nor for individuals with pensions or investments or insurance set up in either direction across the Scottish border, nor for consumers.
In this sense, the UK’s membership of the EU was crucial to the entire case for Scottish independence; it was the very existence of the Single Market which would have made it possible for Scotland to break away from the UK and yet remain very tightly integrated with it economically – vitally important since around 60% of Scotland’s exports are to the rest of the UK (£51.2 billion in 2018, accounting for nearly a third of Scottish GDP). In contrast, Scotland’s exports of goods and services to the EU total around £16bn.
This means that Brexit, and in particular the ideologically extreme version of it which the SNP helped to enable by going through the lobbies with the ERG, is a massive problem for the viability of Scottish independence, given that the plan is to seek accession to the EU. Scotland may, as the SNP claim, have been taken out of the EU against its will, but erecting EU-UK style trade frictions with England & Wales, in order to reduce trade frictions with the EU, makes no sense. This is like the Brexiteer fantasy of increased trade with far-flung places compensating for the loss of trade with the EU, but on steroids.
So, are there any honest Scottish Nationalists prepared to level with the Scottish people on the fact that Brexit, far from being an additional reason to leave the UK, is actually a major barrier to independence, and that it would make far more sense to work with other Westminster parties to try to get a close EU-UK relationship before seeking another referendum? Or at least to point out that, if independence is achieved, as things stand it would be much better to seek to enter into a Single Market and Customs Union with the rest of the UK, not join the EU?
It would be nice to think so, but I’m not holding my breath. This is heading towards a major disaster for Scotland.