There’s a trope in early Hollywood: a girl, bound to railway tracks, an oncoming train. That’s the situation we’re in now: Brexit is the oncoming train, and our Scotland, our Bella Caledonia, is bound to the tracks.
But with what are are we bound? With chains? No: with caution, with timidity. Folk are saying that is isn’t certain that with one bound we’ll be free. They’re right, of course. Folk are saying if she tries to bound free, and fails, we cannae try again for a generation.
Folk – Peter Arnott (‘The Reality After this One’) are saying, there’s no need to worry. We can just let Brexit crash over us. It will cut the non-existent chains, the chains of our timidity, and when it’s passed, without any effort on our part, we’ll be free. Sans arms, sans legs, but free. And what did we care about Scotland’s arms and legs anyway?
Let us be clear what Brexit means to Scotland.
Absent the close trading relationship with Europe, the UK will need very quickly to agree trading relationships with other big, rich markets, and actually there are very few. India and China are big, but not rich; Canada, Australia, New Zealand rich but not big. So the Tories are going to have to do a deal with Trump’s United States. They’ll need it quick. And they aren’t great negotiators.
What does the USA want to sell us? Well, it does want to sell us food, produced to much lower standards than we’ve been used to. It wants to sell us ‘Scotch Whisky’ and ‘Cornish Pasties’, made in Illinois and Nebraska. But most of all it wants to sell us “healthcare”. The Tories will not be averse to this: many of them have existing links to healthcare companies. Selling off the health service will not mean just selling off the English health service; the trade treaty will not be between England and the USA, but between the UK and the USA. So that’s our health service gone. For ever. Independence after Brexit won’t bring it back.
But what did we care about Scotland’s health service anyway?
But then, there’s the economy. Scotland used to be big on manufacturing. It used, especially, to be big on marine engineering. Not any more. Scotland proudly boasts the world’s first floating wind farm – owned and installed by Norwegians using turbines from Germany on towers from Spain. Margaret Thatcher closed down most of our industry for her ‘leaner, fitter Britain’, and it’s never recovered. What manufacturing we have left depends significantly on just-in-time relationships with European partners; and those are going to be savaged by Brexit.
Margaret Thatcher’s big idea was that we switch from manufacturing into ‘services’; by which she chiefly meant financial services. Well, that’s OK, Scotland has always been big on financial services, too! We have the Bank of Scotland, and the Royal Bank of… oh, wait…
Seriously, we do still have some good financial services organisations. But with Brexit, they will lose their ‘passporting rights’ to Europe, which will take away a big chunk of their market at a stroke.
And the one thing that no-one is talking about is this: less than three years from today, every consignment of goods leaving the UK and every consignment of goods arriving in the UK is going to have to go through customs. Where is the customs infrastructure to handle that? When will it be built? Do you think the current British government is competent to build it, in under three years? Aye, right.
You’ve seen what happens to the shelves in our supermarkets after one day of snow. Imagine what they’ll be like after a month of chaos at the ports. Never mind, let them eat fish.
As a communist, obviously I believe that wealth should be shared equally – and obviously, that means equally across the globe. It is not just that workers in Scotland are paid more than workers in Mumbai or Shenzhen. In the long run that does have to change. But after Brexit, workers in Britain, outside the protective barriers of the EU, will be competing directly against workers in Mumbai and Shenzhen. We’re no longer better educated. We no longer have better infrastructure. There is nothing, in a free market, to maintain our historical differentials. If we demand to be paid more, businesses will just move the jobs. Outside the EU, there’s nothing to stop them.
But what did we care about Scotland’s economy, anyway?
And while there is a degree of justice in this, the sudden, drastic fall in incomes and loss of jobs will be very hard for us in Britain.
Scotland cannot be protected from this. The Scottish Government cannot tax more to maintain public services, if its tax base has collapsed. Brexit means the end not only of our health service, but also of our welfare state. We’re going to face a decade of economic collapse – probably two. Civil dissent will be met with repression. In those circumstances, secessionism is just another form of civil dissent, like trades unionism, to be crushed. We saw it in Scotland in the 1980s, we see it today in Catalunya.
I don’t know whether you are old enough to have campaigned in the 1979 referendum, or lived through the industrial conflict of the 1980s. I am; I did. Thatcher’s government was as hostile to nationalism as to the left. I believe the isolated, xenophobic, bankrupt Britain we face post-Brexit will be far more repressive than Thatcher ever was. Such a regime won’t tolerate any further independence referenda. If we do not achieve independence before Brexit, we will not achieve it in the lifetime of anyone now living.
But what did we care about Scotland’s civic freedoms, anyway?
It doesn’t have to be like this.
We can have another referendum.
Yes, it’s true that we don’t currently have a lead in the polls. We didn’t in 2012, when we started the independence referendum campaign. We didn’t in 1979, when we started the devolution campaign. In each case, we swung the polls more than 15% over the course of the campaign.
Yes, of course it’s true that there’s no guarantee we can do that again. But we don’t have to. We’re already much higher in the polls than we were in 2012, and the trend is positive.
All Scotland needs to bound free, to avoid the train, to keep her arms and legs, her health service, her economy, her labour differentials, her civic freedoms, is confidence. Courage and confidence. Yes, of course it’s true that it isn’t certain we can do it. We need to have a long campaign, because we didn’t keep the Yes Movement going after the 2014 defeat. The Yes Movement isn’t like a political party with a permanent membership system and secretariat. But we know from experience that given a long campaign, Yes is a formidable electoral machine.
And seriously, what are you going to say to your starving daughter as you hug her close to try to protect her from the damp and chill of a Scottish winter without fuel, and she asks you “what did you do to try to save Scotland from this?”
Are you really going to say “well, it looked hard, so we didn’t try.” Really?
Nothing comes to those who wait. If we don’t forge the future, the future will go to those who are forging it while we wait. The Brexiteers are forging the future. We may not like the future they’re forging, but they’re doing it very effectively. The climate change deniers are forging the future. The far right are forging the future. They’re not waiting. It’s their future we will get if we wait.
Independence is not the key political issue of our age. Global warming is more important. Social justice is more important. Ecocide is more important. Peace is more important. Independence is important in as much as it helps towards those goals. But independence, like social justice, like an end to war, like a habitable planet, will not come if we wait. We must forge these things. This is no time for quietism. It is time for action.
Now is the time.