Will the Severn Bridge become an international border, too? Photo: Getty
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Operation disintegration: has the Scotland debate made regional parties smell blood?

Time for a separate Cornish state, or an English First Minister? How about a breakaway Wales, or resurrecting Wessex? The UK's regional parties reflect on what the Scottish independence debate means for them.

Only a few weeks ago many were convinced Scottish independence was a impossibility. But a shock YouGov poll at the weekend that put the Yes campaign in the lead for the first time, published by the Sunday Times, has meant everyone is waking up to the idea that the people of Scotland could very well choose to leave the UK on 18 September. The other regionalist parties of Great Britain are particularly keen observers.

“There is a growing recognition that the extremities [of the UK] are beginning to move away,” Richard Carter, leader of the Yorkshire First party, tells the New Statesman. “But independence is the wrong solution – an argument about borders doesn’t make sense in our interconnected world.”

Yorkshire First was only set up in March of this year, but two months later it won over 19,000 votes in the European elections in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Clearly it has managed to capture the anti-Westminster, localist mood that has become prevalent across swathes of the UK.

The far more established Plaid Cymru, which, in the long term, seeks full independence for Wales, are watching the referendum intently. Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, is currently in Scotland helping out with the Yes campaign. She tells the New Statesman: “What’s incredibly interesting is that the Yes campaign is a truly grassroots movement. People are really informed – I’ve never seen this level of engagement before. Chatting to taxi drivers about polls in the FT is a common experience!”

Wood is partly there to see what tactics she can take back to Wales. She highlights the cross-societal aspect of the Yes campaign as particularly effective: “There’s been a deliberate attempt to have people involved who aren’t aligned with political parties. It’s not just the same old characters.”

The Scottish referendum is being greeted with similar interest by Dick Cole, leader of Mebyon Kernow, a centre-left party that campaigns for a National Assembly for Cornwall: “What’s happening in Scotland gives us hope, even though we’re campaigning for devolution, not independence. For us, it’s about getting some devolution to the Cornish people – at the moment where there is devolution, it’s to LEPs [Local Enterprise Partnerships] and quangos, and that’s not very democratic.”

Cole has also recently been on a trip to Scotland: he was invited to speak on the implications of the referendum at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August. He likewise came back surprised by how involved so many Scots are. “The impression I got was that there’s such an engaged debate, and we’re really jealous of that.”

Membership enquiries for the Wessex Regionalist Party are on the increase, according to general secretary David Robins. “It’s affecting us very positively. Scottish independence will cause a rethink of British politics – whichever way it goes, we feel we’ll be able to benefit from it.”

The Wessex Regionalist Party, formed in the Seventies, campaigns for powers to be devolved from Westminster to Wessex, an area it defines as the southwest of England, excluding Cornwall, but including Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. “I don’t think we’d ever want independence,” Robins says. “We value the English context.”

The most dramatic sentiments come from Robin Tilbrook, chair of the English Democrats, a party that once campaigned for the establishment of an English Parliament and First Minister in imitation of the Scottish and Welsh models. It now fights for England to become an independent country – “over time we’ve become jaundiced at the idea the UK could be reformable as a proper democratic country.”

Tilbrook, a practising litigation solicitor, says that the dissolution of the Act of Union, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland in 1707, would mean not just that Scotland left the UK, but that the UK would no longer exist. “As a lawyer it makes no sense to speak of the UK if Scotland leaves.” The 1801 Acts of Union, which joined Ireland to Great Britain, would also become invalid: “Great Britain was a term invented to include Scotland, legally and linguistically.”

“The referendum debate certainly justifies much of what we've been saying,” he says, happily. “England will be almost independent as a consequence of this, although the union with Wales isn’t dissolved.”

Tilbrook has also been on the lookout for Yes campaign tactics that could be used by the English Democrats. “A couple of their supporters gave £5m to the Yes Campaign,” he says, referring to Chris and Colin Weir, before continuing with a chuckle: “If we had £5m, that would do no end of good.”

Alexander Woolley is a freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter as @alexwoolley4.

Photo: Getty
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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.