The SNP: A whole new mentality

The Scottish debate is a way of asking what kind of country people want to live in.

The former US president Bill Clinton has entered the independence debate, calling for “respect” from all sides. “How honestly you try to listen to other people and then come to the practical conclusion,” he said, “is sometimes as important as the decision that’s made.”

This is something many Scots have noted, given the litany of scare stories in the press – and from pro-Union sources – about the consequences of independence. But there is little awareness on all sides that the debate is changing Scotland in the process and altering some fundamental perceptions that the UK has about itself.

As things stand, Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party and pro-independence forces look likely to lose the referendum on 18 September 2014. But they and Scotland will be changed utterly. Until May 2011 and the SNP’s landslide victory in the Scottish Parliament elections, independence was thought of by many in Scotland outside the SNP as marginal, or even irrelevant. This is still true when it comes to Westminster politics.

Yet whatever the limits of the SNP’s vision, independence is being normalised by being debated, discussed and challenged, and that, in turn, is having all sorts of consequences. On one side, we are witnessing a crisis of confidence of pro-Union opinion. Once progressive, proud and sure it was creating a shared future, it now seems reduced to a set of grumpy old men warning of the dangers of separatism on every aspect of life, from the lights going out to Scotland being an easy target for terrorism.

By contrast, the SNP’s argument has become much less risky. Salmond is able to present it as a politics of continuity by attempting to reinvent the honourable Scots tradition of “unionism-nationalism”. At the centre of the First Minister’s version of independence is a commitment to the pillars of the British state: Crown, currency, Treasury, Bank of England, even the British welfare state.

What is being offered at the moment by mainstream politicians is two versions of home rule: one side (the SNP) doing so tactically, the other (the unionist parties) in retreat and making concessions. But both sides are acknowledging that beneath the binary nature of much of the debate, there is some shared understanding, and recognition of the complex modern world.

Scotland’s public life increasingly resembles that of an embryonic state rather than the “stateless nation” of old. North of the border, debate now centres on the extent to which that state becomes formally self-governing and how it cooperates with the rest of the UK.

The Scottish debate is a way of asking what kind of country people want to live in. This is influenced by revulsion at the direction of British politics – not just under the coalition but also under Blair and Thatcher before them. It is a reaction to the UK being the fourth most unequal country in the developed world, with power concentrated in London, a redoubt of the global elite.

To talk about Scottish independence is a way of expressing optimism for a different kind of politics, not only for a different country. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, that change in mentality is likely to stay with us. It is history in the making for Scotland and the UK.

Gerry Hassan is the co-editor with James Mitchell of “After Independence: the State of the Scottish Nation Debate”, to be published by Birlinn in August

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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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.