50 Shades of May
The ratchet just clicked forward again, irreversibly. Teresa May announced on Sunday that her Conservative government would trigger Article 50 (the mechanism whereby a member state might leave the EU) before the end of March 2017. As A50’s two year rule specifies, this means a strict Brexit date of April 2019.
There’s one burning question for those in the independence movement and parties. Before 04/19, and to quote the immortal snarl of Joe Strummer: Do we cool it or do we blow?
Meaning: does the Scottish government plough through the Brexit process, emerge from the other side, and dispassionately assess its prospects – even though we’d now, constitutionally, be outwith the EU?
Or does it seize the chance, either through a legal or indicative vote, to defend its Remain mandate by going for a “Yes to Indy-in-EU?” And how should the wider independence movement relate to either of these options?
There’s an extremely useful session online from the weekend’s RIC conference in Glasgow online, featuring CommonWeal director Robin McAlpine, the Scottish Greens MSP Ross Greer, SNP MSP Joan McAlpine among others.
The positions, briefly put, were these. Greer is of the view that the earlier we start campaigning for independence, the more likely we are to close the gap and establish a majority, no matter what options are available to us. This is guided by his experience in YesScotland, where the last six months of campaigning driven by the grassroots really closed the gap on No.
Joan McAlpine is convenor of Holyrood’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee, and through that has been talking to European diplomats and academics about how Scotland is regarded in the EU. According to her testimony, they are very clear on the Scottish difference over EU membership.
But Joan’s anxiety is that this second indy referendum has to be won – because it will probably be the last. There is “a case” for a ref before the end of Article50. But our national confidence, so carefully restored since devolution, will be seriously damaged by the knock of another “No” to Indy vote. We therefore must make the most careful considerations before going for it.
Scotland’s Data Deficit
Robin McAlpine repeated many of the points about our “data deficit” on the indy case that he’s made in recent CommonSpace columns. Do we really know what Scots think about independence, the Union, EU membership, immigration, the idea of a viable Scots currency? Are we polling any of this properly? Robin guessed that there had been an equal transfer of Yes voters to No, and No voters to Yes, after the Brexit vote – but who could be sure?
He also bemoaned not just the lack of work on the major policy challenges of indy – currency and pensions primarily – but also our assumption that there was an easy “EU ticket” to independence. Indeed, Robin seemed to be suggesting that holding off the referendum till well after the Brexit dust had settled could reveal new options for Scottish self-government – somewhat echoing Alex Neil’s neo-independence proposal recently.
Clear now? And all this before Teresa May fired the gun on Article 50, and gave us a clear Brexit date on April 2019. I’d expect all of them to be revising their judgements over the next few days.
My own view? Conflicted and troubled. There is no doubt that, no matter how vigorous and effective CommonWeal’s White Paper Project or Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission will be, the independence movement has collectively struggled to respond to the policy deficits of the last independence offer (chiefly currency, deficit and macroeconomics).
This is partly due to the pounding political calendar since 2014 – two general elections and a referendum – each demanding of the indy parties a full-frontal response, leaving little research resources left for an improved #indy prospectus.
But I think it’s also due to a serious failure, by those with resources around the SNP, to have set up serious, autonomous but independence-minded policy institutes.
“I think it’s also due to a serious failure, by those with resources around the SNP, to have set up serious, autonomous but independence-minded policy institutes.”
Instead of the vigour and imagination which entities like the IPPR and Demos (or the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Social Market Foundation) brought to the major parties in Westminster, independence in Scotland has been served by blogs (like this one) and activist platforms (like Common Weal).
We’re all, of course, wonderful and brilliant in our own way. But we just about survive on the grace and favour of individual citizens, not to mention the free mental labour of various pressured academics and thinkers.
The only other source of intellectual power around independence policy is the Scottish civil service – and ask any of the London think-tanks about how much of their activity is intended to blast through the legalistic orthodoxy of Whitehall’s mandarins.
As a complaint, I know this is slightly spilt milk. But I hope someone can pull such an serious policy institution together, sometime soon.
However, the absence of a real policy community around an improved indy offer has meant that we’ve been caught short by an official, UK-nation-state Brexit announced for April 2019. Even if the best we can manage is an indicative-not-legal indyref2 in, say, April 2018, who’s to say that this would be won for Yes?
One factor that could win it is a positive embrace of Scots indy from the EU establishment. Imagine an explicit statement that a Scotland voting Yes to indy-in-Europe could be placed in a constitutional “holding pen”. This would presume our continuity with EU institutions and laws – but would allow us a period of time to figure out our currency, our debts-and-assets split and our defence relations with the rUK.
If that relationship and understanding develops and deepens between Scotland and the EU, it’s of course also possible that we don’t need to scramble the forces for a pre-April-2019 referendum. The ruin and rubble of the final Brexit deal – out of the single market, subject to border controls, and probably humiliated at every turn by a vengeful EU – will be enough to set us up for a conclusive indyref victory.
I still believe that the most robust Yes majority will come from a perception that independence is the most stable system on offer. I wrote this for the Scotsman in 2015: “I want to convince No voters that the case for independence is constructive, principled and will result in a better social and economic system. A good way to do that is to show progressive intent, within a system the majority of Scots citizens have currently voted to remain in.”
Those words refers to the last Westminster General Election – but it also works for the 62% Remain vote in Scotland. If we want to win over fearful Nos, who like the idea of being part of a larger, more supportive Union, we may – may – have an opportunity to placate their worries, by rearticulating the independence-in-Europe case.
“If we want to win over fearful Nos, who like the idea of being part of a larger, more supportive Union, we may – may – have an opportunity to placate their worries, by rearticulating the independence-in-Europe case.”
However, we have to get past the German and French national elections, threatened by xenophobic populist parties. Never mind the ever-threatening Italian deficit crisis. So come back to me in a year’s time, on that image of a “stable European Union”.
In the meantime, let’s keep the heid. And more importantly, stick a independence research bunnet on it.