Opponents of independence have got a new argument against independence. It’s not much of an argument, but then the British establishment is increasingly clutching at ever more desperate straws. The argument goes that Brexit has shown how difficult it is to leave a union, and therefore Scottish independence is likely to be even worse as Scotland is small and weak.
This argument is very like that other Brexit related argument against independence, which goes that we’d only be swapping control from Westminster for control from Brussels and that wouldn’t be independence at all. Serious people who really ought to know better have made this particular argument, but the truth is that if you really don’t understand the difference between the amount and quality of control exerted over a country by membership of the EU with the amount and quality of control exerted over a constituent part of the UK by Westminster, then you’re really making an open declaration of your political illiteracy and ignorance. If you think that those two things are the same then you really ought to refrain from commenting on either.
It’s like equating the wildlife roaming in a national park with animals locked up in cages in a Victorian zoo. It’s like saying, “Oh well, a national park isn’t *really* free is it. It’s got boundaries. So let’s just keep the animals locked up in cages.” And it is indeed true that being a part of the UK is very much like living in a Victorian zoo. You’ve only got to look at the House of Commons to appreciate that.
This latest argument, that leaving unions is oh so terribly difficult and so we shouldn’t attempt it is just like the previous nonsense argument in that it’s equating two very different phenomena. Hint, just because different things are called unions doesn’t mean that they are identical political beasts.
Leaving the EU has proven to be extremely difficult for the UK for a number of simple reasons. Firstly there’s the complete and utter unpreparedness of the British establishment. All the way through the Scottish independence referendum, independence supporters were told to come up with a Plan B, yet here we are two and a half years after the Brexit vote and there’s still precious little which passes for a credible Plan A from those who want Brexit.
This approach to international negotiations isn’t new for the UK. For centuries the UK was the big boy and could get its way by force or the threat of force. It didn’t need to learn how to negotiate. That lack is still very much a feature of how the UK deals with the rest of the world. When writing in his memoires about negotiations about Northern Ireland between Westminster and Dublin in the 1980s, the then Irish taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald wrote that the British delegation would make a proposal, which the Irish would consider, then the next day the British would suggest something totally different. Fitzgerald wrote that at first the Irish delegation thought that the British were engaged in some clever Machiavellian strategy to wrong foot the Irish, but after a couple of days they realised that it was just that the British didn’t actually have a clue what they wanted. The UK has approached Brexit negotiations in exactly the same way.
This lack of preparation and clarity has been compounded by the unrealistic expectations of the Brexists. They believed that they could continue to enjoy all the benefits of EU membership without any of the downsides. We see that in discussion of freedom of movement, it’s entirely about preventing EU citizens from moving to the UK. Brexit supporters are silent on the fact that this means that UK citizens will no longer be able to move to the EU. They demand free access to EU markets, while at the same time insisting on their right to negotiate trade deals with the rest of the world and import chlorinated chicken. And above all they want to leave the customs union and the single market and control immigration and the UK’s borders while at the same time being bound by a treaty obligation to maintain an open and invisible border with the Irish Republic. Brexit is the political pursuit of mutually incompatible goals by people who were utterly unprepared to begin with. No wonder it’s proving so difficult.
Unlike Brexit, independence isn’t a political novelty. There are many tens of countries all around the globe which have declared independence from the UK, indeed three of them are currently EU members. There is a tried and tested path towards independence. Other countries have done it. Indeed the very EU state which is creating the greatest reality check for the fantastists of Brexit is the Irish Republic, a country which itself declared indepenedence from the UK. It is one of the greatest political ironies of our age that the British border artificially imposed by the UK across the island of Ireland is now the instrument of the downfall of the UK’s imperial fantasies.
Another difference, one which should not be underestimated, is that Brexit has taught us that the only political grown ups in the room is the Scottish Government and SNP MPs in Westminster. They’re the only ones who have had a principled and realistic view. The Scottish Government published a series of impact papers looking at the effects of Brexit on the Scottish economy while the UK government was desperately trying to pretend that there were no studies at all. Scottish independence would be approached with the same realism. We might not all agree on the details but there is no lack of planning. There is no lack of discussion. There is no lack of preparation.
Breaking up is only hard to do when you have no idea what you want, when you have unrealistic expectations and beliefs about yourself, and when you have traditionally relied upon threats and bullying instead of negotiating like a grown up. In Scottish independence negotiations it will be the Scottish delegation which knows what it wants, which has a realistic set of expectations, which has a plan, which has friends and allies in Europe, and which will be the grown up in the room.
The greatest difference between independence and Brexit is that Scottish independence is not based upon a delusion like that of the British exceptionalists who have driven Brexit. Returning a country to the normal and usual state of affairs for a nation is a very different proposition from trying to attain an impossible dream based on a fantasy of imperial power and glory.
Scottish independence is not an attempt to pursue mutually incompatible political goals. It’s not about the quixotic pursuit of special favours, special deals, or an unrealistic and nostalgic vision of Empire 2.0. Brexit is the attempt to establish and assert British exceptionalism. Scottish independence is the attempt to establish and assert Scottish normalcy. Scottish independence means making Scotland into a normal European state just like all the others.
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