This month we’ve seen the UK government introduce temporary visas for butchers after farmers were forced to slaughter healthy pigs, the extension of cabotage rights (whereby foreign lorry drivers can do additional pick-up-and-drop off jobs within a country) and a move to replace Brexit’s controversial Northern Ireland protocol.
Supply chain problems can’t all be pinned on Brexit – and you could argue endlessly about which factor, Covid or Brexit, is dominant in the disruption we’re seeing – but most people would agree that leaving the EU single market and customs union has not helped matters.
Which brings us to the issue of a Scottish exit from the UK (Scexit). Are there lessons to be learned from the recent Brexit climbdowns and the attempt to re-engineer the Northern Ireland settlement? If you ask the SNP, they’ll say that Scexit must happen and that, unlike Brexit, it will be a success because they’ll be in charge of working out how to leave instead of London Tories, who obviously can’t do anything right.
The idea that the SNP administration are competent implementors of complex projects will come as news to Scotland’s island communities who are struggling with worn out ferries the Scottish government promised to replace, or to the parents of children impacted by new-build hospital failures (including, at one point, a seven figure monthly spend for an empty new children’s hospital deemed unsafe for patients). But lack of proven administrative competence aside, the SNP’s argument is still unconvincing because the problems of Brexit and Scexit are primarily structural.
The most able technocratic fixer could not have engineered a Brexit outcome that gave the UK open access to Europe and the freedom to trade as it wished with the rest of the world. Exiting the trade block inexorably meant disruption and economic damage. Leave meant Leave, which meant embracing the chaos.
Similarly, the problems with Scexit are hard-wired in, but in this case the wiring runs deeper and the interconnections are far more complex. In the run up to the 2014 referendum, the Scotland Office put together a list of over 200 public bodies that serve people and businesses in Scotland which would potentially have to be replicated for a new state to function. It included the likes of the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency as well as less well-known but critical organisations such as the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.
Scotland removing itself from the UK’s state architecture is, structurally, like Brexit on steroids. If you think breaking apart a few decades of top-down single market integration within Europe is risky and uncertain, then try breaking apart an advanced economy and society that has been interconnected since before the industrial revolution.
What would be the unforeseen consequences of ripping Scotland out of an entrenched monetary and fiscal union, which Brexit negotiators never had to consider? If Brexit is a can of worms then Scexit would be a barrel of them. And even if Scexit only amounted to trade barriers, it would still objectively be more damaging than Brexit. Newly published export statistics for Scotland show that in 2019 the rest of the UK accounted for 60 per cent of Scotland’s total exports (in 2019, the EU accounted for 43 per cent of all UK exports).
This is a problem for the SNP. The party’s working assumption is that Brexit can only work in its favour, which is why its campaigning in recent years has focused on the EU. This is also why the party falsely claims that secession is a route back into the EU (in reality, an independent Scotland would be economically disqualified from entry into the bloc, likely for many years). But what if the opposite is true? What if the more Scots see of Brexit, the more it serves as a warning signal on Scexit?
In a logical world this would be the case. The question is whether logic will prevail.
Another SNP motif is that demographics make breaking away from the UK inevitable because a significant majority of young people favour independence. The oldies might be fainthearts, but young bravehearts will ultimately beget the great march of a nation. A recent poll of 16 to 35-year-olds however found that support for independence fell significantly when people saw their prosperity would be at risk. This suggests economic reality has the potential to overcome SNP fantasy.
Brexit has presented the UK with one of its biggest challenges. Scexit would do this for Scotland but on a much more momentous scale. The nationalist’s task is to convince people to embrace the chaos. Brexit could ultimately hinder that effort.