The EU referendum is about remaining or staying in a union. For those of us who live in Scotland there are obvious comparisons with the Scottish independence referendum. But there are differences too. Leaving the EU is not about creating an independent, sovereign nation state called the UK. We are that already. The EU, on the other hand, is not a nation state, though it may be on the way to becoming one. The UK parliament is fully democratic and there are devolved parliaments as well. If the EU were as democratic as the UK is, I would not dream of voting to leave it. But many, if not most EU decisions are made by unelected bureaucrats or people who are appointed rather than elected. In any democracy, parts may be outvoted by the whole, but to be overruled by elites who no-one can remove is not democracy as I understand the word.
When we talk about the Union that brought about the UK, we are really talking of ancient history. The UK is not four sovereign nation states held together by some acts of parliament from long ago. Rather it is one sovereign nation state, with parts that happen to be called countries. Most European countries are made up of places that used to be independent kingdoms. Germany, Spain and Italy can all point to a time when their parts were independent. This is all quite normal. There is nothing exceptional about the fact that Scotland was once an independent kingdom. Rather it would be exceptional if the parts of the UK had not once been independent. The fallacy of Scottish nationalism is to imply that the fact that Scotland once was independent means that it ought to be independent again. Essence is not origin, an oak is not an acorn. To apply the SNP’s ‘logic’ would entail arguing that every part of Europe that once was independent should regain that status. This would lead to hundreds of statelets. Alternatively we can accept that the UK is just as much a single, unitary sovereign nation state as anywhere else in Europe. The EU, on the other hand, is not. Each member of the EU is sovereign as each may choose to walk away from the EU. We don’t need to ask anyone else if we may have a referendum on EU membership. It is because the EU and the UK are such different ‘unions’ that very different arguments apply with regard to leaving one as opposed to leaving the other.
The SNP lost the Scottish independence referendum because they were unable to provide good answers to a number of crucial questions. The most important of these was currency. They were desperate to retain the pound. But this crucially may have proved incompatible with independence. Moreover, other people in the UK said they didn’t want to retain a currency union with an independent Scotland. We had interminable debates about whether these people ought to be believed or not. Some people pointed out that the Eurozone provided a perfect example of the folly of creating a currency union between different nation states. Others pointed to how the UK had maintained a currency union with the Republic of Ireland for many years. All of the options were explored in minute detail, but the uncertainty about currency was the major reason why Scottish nationalism lost. All the other options except keeping the pound are unattractive, but currency union between independent nation states is inherently problematic. This still remains the issue the SNP are unable to even address, let alone answer.
If the UK left the EU, would we have a problem in setting up our own currency or sharing someone else’s? Obviously not. We would keep the pound and use it just as we do now. The main argument that proved so problematic for the SNP is not all a problem for the UK. We could leave the EU and with regard to currency we wouldn’t notice the difference. Of course, the pound might fall. But while that has disadvantages for holidaymakers it has benefits for exporters and foreign visitors to the UK. But whatever the plusses and minuses of what might happen to the pound in the next few months, it can be clearly stated that the main issue in the Scottish independence referendum is a non-issue now.
If the SNP had been able to persuade most Scots that we’d be better off after independence, they might have won. But most of us realised that their figures simply didn’t add up. Scotland depends on a subsidy from the UK Government. If we lost that subsidy, we’d be worse off. This was the case even when the price of oil was at its highest. It’s still more the case now. Until and unless Scotland is more or less breaking even, independence will be a very tough sell for the SNP.
The UK on the other hand subsidises the EU. We pay into the EU every year nearly 13 billion pounds a year. We get back around 6 billion. All those people in the UK who get money from the EU could equally well receive it from the UK Government. Indeed we’d have nearly 7 billion pounds in change left over to spend as we pleased.
EU rules mean that whatever benefit is available to a UK citizen has to be available to each and every EU citizen who lives here. But, if I try to claim, unemployment benefit, housing benefit or child benefit in, for example, Poland, I’ll rapidly find that the amount I receive is very small indeed. Only a very few EU states pay anything like the benefits that we can receive in the UK. Moreover, how many UK citizens even want to apply for benefits in places like Poland, or Bulgaria? Very few Brits want to work in the EU, not least because few of us have the linguistic skills needed to do so. What this means is that the UK pays benefits to EU citizens, which few UK citizens take up in the EU. I fully recognise the usefulness of having reciprocal rights, but the cost to the UK is very high indeed when it amounts mainly to one way traffic. That may be a price worth paying, but once more the UK pays in more than we take out.
If Scotland became independent, there would be rather a lot to do in order to get this new state up and running. There would need to be a system of collecting taxes, a system of paying benefits. There would need to be armed forces, a diplomatic corps etc, etc. Most of us when faced with the prospect of this during the independence referendum just didn’t want to go through the upheaval, nor did we want to pay the cost.
If the UK were to leave the EU, there would be none of the upheaval of creating a new state. This would be for the simple reason that we already are a sovereign nation state. We have all we would need to be such a state immediately. Our pensions would still be paid, just as they are now. The BBC would go on just the same as it always has. For the most part none of us would even notice leaving the EU.
What are the main things that we would need to do upon leaving the EU? Well we’d need to come up with some sort of trade agreement and we’d need to come up with some way of guaranteeing that Brits would still have the right to live and work in the EU. There’s nothing much else of crucial concern that we’d need to do.
Compared to the work of Scotland becoming an independent state, Brexit looks like child’s play. In all the arguments about Scottish independence, hardly anyone mentioned the idea that an independent Scotland wouldn’t be able to trade freely with the other parts of the UK. Nor did anyone seriously suggest that Scots might lose the right to live and work in England. Even in a campaign when both sides resorted to a lot of negativity, no-one thought it credible to suggest that there would be trade barriers or that we’d be prevented from living and working in each other’s countries. The reason this wasn’t mentioned was that it simply wasn’t credible.
There is not a single country from Iceland to Greece, from Finland to Spain that does not trade freely with each other. Everyone in Europe west of Belarus’ can live and work in each other’s country. Most of these countries are in the EU, but a number of them are not. The idea that Brits are going to be discriminated against as some sort of act of revenge and kept on our tiny little island like a prison is simply preposterous.
We already fulfil all the criteria for trade with the EU. We have done so for decades. The EU moreover sells more to us than we sell to them. It is therefore they who would lose out if there were any restrictions on trade. EU citizens are still going to want to live and work in Britain, so who is going to prevent an agreement which allows Brits to continue to live in Spain? This is not least because British expats buy houses and spend money when they retire to Spain and in doing so help the Spanish economy.
It would be difficult and disruptive for Scotland to leave the UK. This is not least because the UK is deeply intertwined. Our populations are mixed and we have a long shared history. Most Brits have a feeling of togetherness with all four parts of our country. We would feel breaking the bonds of the UK far more perhaps than most of us even realise. But which of us has the same sort of feeling about the EU? Europe is a rather arbitrary continent, with odd boundaries. Most Brits would struggle to name more than one city in a Slovenia, or Slovakia. Few of us indeed know a single word of Hungarian or Finnish. We have little indeed that we share with most of the people of the EU apart from geography. These bonds are weak and easily broken.
But anyway Europe is not the EU. There are around 50 sovereign states in Europe. Only 28 of these are in the EU. Leaving the EU does not mean leaving Europe. We would remain exactly where we always have been, an island next to a continent. We go on holiday to Europe. We never quite think we’re a part of it.
There may be some short term disruption involved in leaving the EU. There would be uncertainty. But at the moment, for campaign reasons, the risks of leaving the EU are being exaggerated. There might be short term costs and challenges to be overcome, but long term the UK looks like a more stable bet than the EU, which is struggling with the challenges of open borders and a currency shared between many nation states. This involves uncertainty too. The risks with regard to the breakup of Schengen and or the Eurozone are far higher than the risk of Brexit. Who knows what decisions the EU might have to make to keep these creaking projects together? What price might we have to pay if we are still tied to an organisation that is run so badly that it’s two major unifying projects have led to chaos and poverty? The EU is not a safe haven, rather it’s a port on fire and under quarantine. Anyone seeking to moor there should watch out for both sparks and contagion.
The crucial difference between Brexit and Scottish independence is that the UK is already a nation state. To leave the EU would simply be to become what we already are and what we have been for centuries. There’s nothing scary about that, certainly not compared to what the SNP have to offer. The arguments that defeated Scottish nationalism don’t even apply in the case of Brexit. They need not concern us, because they don’t exist.
This blog was originally published by the author 5 March 2016. http://effiedeans.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/compared-to-scottish-independence.html