Reform Scotland

We didn’t vote for it but there may be Opportunity for Scotland in the Brexit Bùrach – Stephen Gethins

Dominic Cummings is fond of telling London-based journalists they need to get out of the Metropolitan bubble to find out what people really think. It isn’t bad advice, often views are formed in capitals that are out of touch with the rest of the country. It is one of the reasons why politicians value time spent chapping doors in their constituencies. It gives you a feel for what is happening that you just can’t get from debates, newspapers or even blogs for think tanks.

Ultimately the disconnect between Westminster politics in London and the population it serves was one of the reasons some believe England and Wales voted to leave the European Union. There is some irony, however, that if Mr Cummings had kept driving on his recent visit to Barnard Castle he would have reached Scotland. Here he could have benefitted from both a free eye test and gained a better understanding of a part of the UK that feels both pro-European and disconnected from the political bubble at Westminster. 

The EU Referendum results in Scotland, taken in context with what happened elsewhere in the UK, were striking. Voters had backed the EU by a margin of almost two to one with every single local authority area backing Remain, including those that had voted against the EEC in the 1975 plebiscite. The results have transformed politics across the UK and exacerbated the political divergence in these islands. Polling at the weekend showed that almost one in five No voters now back Independence and the SNP’s poll ratings remain high as it comes to the end of an already unprecedented third term.

Those results have not gone unnoticed elsewhere. The mood music towards Scotland in the European institutions and in Member State capitals has changed. There is now an understanding and sympathy towards Scotland that didn’t exist in 2014 or in the years when I lived in Brussels during the noughties. Across Europe politicians have expressed solidarity with Scotland, including prominent figures from across the political divide in Madrid.

That sympathy for Scotland in the aftermath of the 2016 vote has not dissipated and if anything has grown stronger given the debacle that passed for decision-making at Westminster in the years after the EU Referendum. All of that could be as nothing with the reputational damage that will be done if many around the Prime Minister get their way and we leave the EU without a deal at the end of this year.

This slash and burn approach would be catastrophic for everyone who relies on that important relationship. There will be a particularly sore impact on smaller businesses and opportunities for young people. It is an economic and social calamity from which it is difficult to see an upside and it is telling that many of those who backed leaving the EU, including the Prime Minister, have failed to set out any tangible benefits of their plans.

In the face of such recklessness there is a palpable sense of frustration. It was easy to sympathise with former Labour first minister Henry McLeish when he called for Nicola Sturgeon to approach the EU to ask for a Scotland-only extension. The truth is however that the Commission deals with Member States. Michel Barnier has always been clear, in public and private, that as sympathetic as he might be the Commission deals with sovereign Member States. The same goes for Scotland. There may be huge sympathy for us but until Scotland is independent its position is an ‘internal matter’ for the United Kingdom. An extension would require acquiescence and compromise from London towards Edinburgh and Brussels. This seems highly unlikely.

As difficult as the situation is for many of us, could this European goodwill be turned into an opportunity? Scotland is unusual in the UK in its relative political cohesion when it comes to the question of Europe. At a time when Westminster ground to a standstill in the aftermath of the EU referendum there was remarkable consensus in Holyrood around remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union at least. The Scottish Government’s approach, in bringing together a group of politicians and inter-disciplinary experts to draft “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, helped take the debate forward here at a time of partisan stalemate in the Commons.

The broad consensus across political and civic life, along with the goodwill generated across Europe, could provide an opportunity. We know we are entering one of the most difficult economic periods that most of us will ever have experienced. Every single sector has a role to play in building the recovery. All of this comes at a time we face the triple challenge to Scotland of a health pandemic, an economic recession and a No-deal Brexit,” as Mr McLeish told The National.

Scotland has a unique and possibly beneficial role to play here. As a pro-European part of the UK we can help re-build those links and position ourselves as a bridge between the UK and the rest of Europe. The Scottish Government can build on the goodwill it has generated by increasing its footprint in the EU. Scotland House is a first-class resource and even at a time of shrinking budgets Ministers should consider further beefing up their presence. The German Lander and other devolved administrations have significant presences in Brussels.

This is not a job for the Scottish Government alone. Local authorities, universities, business, the arts and others have a role to play in building and maintaining those relationships. Scotland House in Brussels is a good model for this, housing the offices of the Scottish Government and others whose aim is to work on “diplomatic engagement, economic development and cultural promotion”.

There is also work to be done in the Member States themselves. Scottish universities for instance have long-standing links with partners, such as that between the Universities of St Andrews and Bonn. Similarly, Scottish business will be able to make use of a national brand that many recognise as being pro-European and an entry point into UK markets.

No-one should doubt the damage that the UK has done to itself in key European markets as a result of the decision to leave the EU and perhaps more so by the way it has been handled since. Scotland has a role to play in re-building that shattered relationship. We could provide a safe space between the EU and rest of the UK and an opportunity for business and the education sector, and for greater diplomatic clout at a government level.

Scotland may not, yet, have the resources of a sovereign Foreign Office or a seat at the top table in Brussels. It does have distinctive branding, a presence and, crucially, the political will to maintain those EU links.

The coming years will be difficult and Brexit will make it more so. There are no easy answers or tartan roadblocks that can be put in the way of Dominic Cummings’ plans. Put simply, Scotland will not get an extension if London isn’t on board. We can however pull together as a pro-European nation and start building a bridge to Europe.

In the immediate term the Scottish Government could start by pulling together key figures from across the political divide and civic society to look at how Scotland uses the levers at its disposal to build those links. At a time of limited resources it also needs to maintain and strengthen the Scotland House network that will be central to that work.

Education, business, the third sector and the arts all have a role to play here in working across Europe and reaching out to counterparts in the UK to help them re-build from Brexit, and also to put Scotland at the heart of the relationship between the two. Even without Independence there is already much that we can do.

Stephen Gethins is a Professor of Practice at the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews and former Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Europe for the SNP in the House of Commons