Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

UK Gov Leak shows we need a ‘Clean Break’ Independence

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Jonathon Shafi argues the British state has found a real weakness in the official indy case, and argues for a ‘clean break’ independence that can strengthen our hand.

The leaked Tory memo on how to quell rising support for independence and stymie a fresh referendum contains, largely, what you might expect: attack Nicola Sturgeon, and look towards a form of negotiation that may grant Scotland further powers as a means to delay independence. That is not only expected, but relatively straightforward to combat. The independence campaign can grow momentum beyond any politician, and the offer of further powers can reinforce a direction of travel.

As such it has been roundly dismissed by many independence supporters. Delay and obstinate in the face of mounting support for self-determination will only grow support for independence. The union is unsustainable – and its disintegration dynamic firmly in motion.

But there is one element to the memo which really does represent a problem for the independence cause; a much under-discussed facet given the degree to which the official independence case has come to rely on membership of the European Union and Brexit. This is the revelation that the Tories court EU leaders to frustrate Scottish entry to the EU, lessening the appeal to some new converts to the independence cause.

Looked at casually, this seems like a wild proposition. The UK and the EU have, after all, been at war in recent years. Figures inside the EU have given warm words to Scotland.

But could it be that the EU has in-fact been using Scotland as leverage in its negotiations with the UK? Might it be the case that once a trade deal is agreed, the EU has an interest in protecting that new relationship? And doesn’t the prospect of an independent Scotland open up the central democratic crisis in Europe – which is not Brexit, but Catalonia? How long will the SNP leaders bury their heads in the sand about the fact – and it is a fact – that Strelinigisation with the post-Brexit UK, and EU membership, are incompatible? This very real contradiction would threaten the support of even the most sympathetic EU bureaucrat.

Where is Brexit going?

Much of the discourse around Brexit has been presented in the following manner: there are a group of radical Brexiteers, who are intent on a No Deal Brexit. This once fringe cohort now run government, and Boris Johnson is their man. They have interests in hedge funds, and seek to turn the UK into Singapore. They have no interest in a deal, and actively pursue a ‘cliff edge Brexit.’

This popular folk-theory needs a dose of reality in order that Brexit itself, and the impact of the question on independence, can be navigated effectively.

The vast majority of UK capital favours a trade deal, as does European capital. These forces represent a far more powerful, cohesive, and materially integrated system than the eccentrics who propose No Deal. Even the hedge funds themselves are looking towards strategic re-location from London, in part a result of Brexit.

As with anything that involves human relations – which the Brexit negotiations do – there is the possibility of collapse. But despite the posturing a deal still remains the most likely outcome. Not only is it in the interests of the markets and transnational capital, but it is in the political interests of both Johnson and the EU.

As James Forsyth for the Spectator points out: “A deal would cement Brexit, making it nigh-on impossible to imagine any kind of rejoin or EEA movement gaining real political traction. It would also provide a platform from which Johnson could launch the post-Covid phase of his premiership. With a deal, he’d be far better placed to turn his attention to his domestic agenda.”

We should also factor-in the impact of a Biden Presidency. That will have a very specific impact on Brexit, constraining the UK position. While Trump may have been open to a US-UK trade deal after a No Deal exit from the EU, Biden will certainly not. Indeed the whole orientation of the American state, should Biden win, will be to re-establish the Anglo-American order as understood prior to both Brexit and Trump, with the EU representing the convergence of transatlantic interests.

Deploying the same strategy as the EU, Biden has already stated that “we can’t allow the Good Friday agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit.” A stark difference to the words of Mike Pence: “…when the (the EU) are out, we are in.”

It may not seem like it now, but a deal is on the horizon. And even if the deadline were to pass – there are provisions in place to prevent the ‘cliff edge’ apocalypse that has been mistakenly projected by opponents of Brexit.

The EU and Scotland

Since much of the debate around Brexit has broken-down to the level of symbolism, many have come to attribute the European Union with certain moral and philosophical precepts – internationalism, co-operation etc. In reality the EU is a technocratic bureaucracy representing and managing one of the most significant free-trade projects in human history. And it acts – often ruthlessly – in its own self-interest. Just ask the people of Greece, Catalonia, or Italy.

During the 2014 referendum, the EU held a largely disparaging view of Scotland becoming a member. The then president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, said that it would be “difficult, if not impossible.”

In these matters it is vital to be concrete. All of the cries to ‘leave a light on’ in the European Parliament may provide symbolic rallies around which Scottish independence can develop an argument of ill-treatment by the British state and friendship with a wider community. But that is all they are: symbolic. And the EU is only interested in solidarity insofar as it is interwoven with economic interdependency and corporate interests. That – if anything – is the guiding principle of the EU. 

In this way, Scotland has served as a useful staging post for EU negotiators to leverage the UK, second only to the Irish national question (to which they are also tactically – rather than emotively – attached). But Scotland is not going to receive a hearty welcome into the European Union. Not with the currency position that is presently being asserted – which to repeat makes accession an impossibility. And not while inviting Scotland to join opens up the Catalan question. Nor, indeed, if it interferes with whatever trade agreement is come to with London. 

Biden too, should he come to power, working with his European partners, will not only limit the ability of the UK to fully rupture with the EU, but acting in concert, will also seek to underpin and solidify the unity of the vassal British state. 

This is why Sturgeon’s recent ‘plea’ to the EU will fall on deaf ears. Because it weights heavily on Scottish support for the ‘four freedoms’ but lacks a practical policy position that would allow for Scotland to become a member of the economic club.  

For these reasons – and with some irony – Brexit and the question of the EU happen to be the best remaining cards the UK have to play in the independence game. 

Independence beyond Brexit 

I and many others have been arguing since 2016, that the best strategy for the independence movement was not to simply mirror the ‘stop Brexit’ positions of many Westminster politicians, but to rather present Brexit as an example of the dysfunctionality of the UK. To say that the democratic deficit was strained to breaking point, and that Scotland needed to forge its own path.  

To do this, the argument went further, the SNP should adopt an independent currency as its preferred option, and make the case for economic autonomy. This in turn would allow for the Scottish people to decide its relationship with the EU, since having an independently run central bank would allow Scotland the option of becoming a member. Critically, we would have had time to construct a powerful and popular argument for a Scottish pound. 

But more than that, the case for independence had to be made on its own terms. A revamped case in the context of the UK leaving the EU, and now in the context of the pandemic. Because this didn’t happen, the EU has ended up being the weakest element of the whole case – and this is doubly troublesome because the whole case has become so subsumed in Brexit. 

To add to the problem, the SNP are now wide open to calls for confirmatory votes – handing a trump card to opponents of independence who through the power of their institutions can make the process of becoming independent as chaotic as possible. 

What we require is straightforward. A clean break independence campaign, that wins economic autonomy and not just a symbolic ‘independence in name only.’ This will allow Scotland to decide its future relationship with the EU democratically, and can combine with a big vision for rebuilding our society after the pandemic. A vision that the present prospectus will not allow for, as I detail here

In short – the Tories strongest card must be dealt with. But to do that requires clarity about the nature of the EU, a measured analysis of where Brexit is going, and an end to the ostrich-like behaviour when it comes to Sterlingisation.

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