How Salmond is using EU uncertainty to boost Scottish independence

The Scottish First Minister is encouraged by a new poll showing that support for independence dramatically increases when the prospect of UK withdrawal from the EU is raised.

While Westminster has fixated on an EU referendum that may or may not take place in 2017, rather less attention has been paid to a referendum that is certain to happen, that on Scottish independence next year. 

With the Yes campaign behind in the polls, the SNP is attempting to regain the initiative by launching a new paper on the economic case for independence. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pointed to six areas in which she claims Westminster is "is hindering Scotland's potential". They are:

- The decision by the last two UK governments to cut capital spending, which would have supported an extra 19,000 jobs in Scotland. 

- Westminster's failure to store oil revenues in a sovereign wealth fund, comparable to that in Norway, now worth an estimated £450bn.

- The debt and credit boom presided over by the last Labour government. 

- The increase in income inequality witnessed under every government since Margaret Thatcher's. 

- The concentration of economy activity in London at the expense of the rest of the UK. 

- The coalition government's decision to pursue austerity, rather than a growth-led economic strategy. 

After seeing off Nigel Farage last week, Alex Salmond was in ebullient form on the Today programme this morning, rattling off statistics showing that over the last five years, an independent Scotland would have been £8bn better off and that over the last 30 years, Scotland had contributed more per head in taxation than the UK average. 

The First Minister went on to offer a clue to his improved mood when he cited a new poll showing that while the Yes campaign trails the No campaign by 44 to 36 points (a smaller gap than in some others), when the prospect of UK withdrawal from the EU is raised the two sides draw level on 44 points each. The poll showed that while the issue of EU withdrawal has little effect on those Scots who have already made up their mind, among undecided voters three times as many support independence as oppose it under those circumstances. "I would say it's all to play for," Salmond concluded. On that point, he is right. The biggest advantage that Salmond has is time. By September 2014, he hopes that the full force of the coalition's spending cuts, less than half of which have been introduced, will have persuaded Scotland that the time is right to go it alone.

Incidentally, on the EU, it's worth noting an important story in today's FT, which reports that Germany plans to avoid the full scale renegotiation that David Cameron hopes to use to repatriate powers from Brussels. It notes that while Merkel is sympathetic to Cameron's desire to improve Europe's economic competitiveness, "she is convinced that this can only be done by improving the process of European decision-making and not simply by repatriating powers to national capitals." So long as this remains the case, it will be difficult for Cameron to persuade his ever more eurosceptic party that is should vote to stay in. And that, as Salmond knows, plays into his hands. 

Scotland's First Minister and Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, attends a Commonwealth Games event at Glasgow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.