Bought and sold for English gold

How Scotland has yet to be consulted over the Treaty of Union that established the UK

On the 1st of May 1707, Scotland’s shotgun wedding to England came into force through the Treaty of Union, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain was established. News of the decision was met with rioting across Scotland and the backers of the union were forced to hide in an Edinburgh cellar to escape the rocks and chamber-pot contents that were being thrown their way.

As Robert Burns so eloquently put it: “bought and sold for English gold; what a parcel of rogues in a nation”. It was a union that the people of Scotland did not want, secured by bribing Scottish parliamentarians with lands and titles while English troops stood ready on the border. This was far from a marriage of willing and equal partners.

Fast-forward 300 years, and the people of Scotland are still waiting to be asked what it wants its relationship with England to be. The constitutional question has been central to Scottish politics since the 1960s, yet at no time have the people of Scotland been given the opportunity to decide their future in a referendum. If those who argue in favour of the continuation of the union truly believed in the strength of their argument and that the will of a majority of Scots backed their views, then what better way would there be for the legitimacy of Scotland’s marriage to finally be underpinned with a clear and demonstrable example of public support?

The fact of the matter is that the unionist parties are all too well aware that if Scotland were to be asked what it wanted in a fair manner with balanced arguments presented by both sides of the debate, there would only be one outcome: Scottish independence.

No matter what the historical causes of the union, the question of what Scotland’s relationship with England and the rest of the world should be is one that is firmly rooted in looking to the future, not the past.

A forward looking, independent Scotland would allow us create a business environment that is responsive to the particular needs of Scotland rather than those of the South-East of England. It would allow Scotland to harness the resources available to it in terms of its educated population, its huge renewable energy potential and it’s oil supplies and couple it with a business friendly environment to emulate the success of Ireland, Norway and Iceland, all three of which are in the top six of the worlds most wealthiest countries.

A forward looking, independent Scotland would grant us a seat at the table in a European Union where power firmly resides in the hands of the member states. This would allow Scotland to fight to protect her interests, particularly fishing, in a way that is not possible as long as the UK as a whole regards the industry as expendable.

A forward looking, independent Scotland would mean an end to Scotland’s involvement in bloody and illegal wars and would allow us to use our armed services to protect the fundamental values that Scotland believes in, such as human rights, rather than to protect the oil interests of neo-conservatives in the United States.

But most of all, a forward looking independent Scotland would mean an end to the illegitimate sham of a marriage that exists between Scotland and England and would allow us to cooperate on an equal footing. Where we agree England would have a new partner on the world stage and where we differ Scotland would be able to do so without antagonising her nearest neighbour. More and more it is becoming clear that it is time for Scotland and England to become ‘just good friends’.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear