The UK is careering towards a Brexit for which its zealots have never deigned to make a plausible economic case, preferring to insist on severing from Europe at any cost.
So, as the clock ticks down inexorably to departure from the European Union, the real lesson for Scots facing an uncertain future is that there’s perhaps a case for breaking up the British union which isn’t purely economic.
The debate is needed urgently, and yet the question of Scottish independence – inside or outside the EU – has virtually disappeared from the national radar over the past fifteen months. It’s as though Scotland had been struck dumb first by the EU referendum result, and then by Theresa May’s extraordinary conduct of UK politics ever since.
The ominous geopolitics of Brexit oblige these to be times, not for a mass crisis of confidence, but for dealing constructively with a moment of inevitable change. It’s hard to see what future awaits Scotland in a UK outside the EU, other than as part of a deregulated, low-wage economy. If the status quo is no longer an option, then citizens north of the Border must insist on change that’s in line with Scotland’s cultural and social practices.
A study of recent Irish history should be both informative and encouraging. The two countries are physically the same size (a united Ireland would be bigger), the populations are comparable and their gross national products are roughly the same in recent years as offshore oil has fallen in value.
Irish independence has transformed the country. And it isn’t the common Celtic heritage linking Ireland and Scotland which should cause Scots to look carefully across the Irish sea, it’s the enriching evolution of Ireland to modern and mature statehood, with the significant assistance from its clear-eyed European perspective.
The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole comments:
bluntly, Ireland has evolved a complex and fluid sense of what it means to have a national identity, while England has reverted to a simplistic and static one. This fault line is a crack into which the whole Brexit project may stumble.
No mention of Scotland, ignored and taken for granted by May’s Tories and misunderstood by Corbyn’s Labour. This is not an oversight; merely the result of O’Toole’s view that Brexit is purely an English nationalist revolt.
The self-absorption of English nationalism makes clear how urgent it is for Scotland to take a position on its own contemporary national identity, confident enough, like Ireland, of it to be able to deal with other nations in a realistic way.
Nicola Sturgeon, on the day after the referendum, was right to focus on the Scotland’s need to remain. The majority with which Scotland affirmed EU membership was emphatic – much more so than the slim margin favouring withdrawal throughout the UK as a whole.
As Colin Imrie commented here earlier, withdrawal negotiations with the EU and the UK continually underline that the UK as a whole, and Scotland within it, can only secure the benefits of continuing trade in goods and services with the single market if a commitment is maintained to key European values like freedom of movement, food safety and low carbon technology.
Not just the economy, stupid
Ireland’s EU membership has brought benefits going far beyond the economic. The EU stage has provided a wider perspective for its place in the world, a yardstick for a realistic sense of national self-worth, as well as a shop window for Irish goods and services.
The country has risen to the challenge of leading the EU on several occasions through its rotating presidency and provided able personnel for key jobs. Occasionally, the international dimensions of the EU’s institutions have proved a useful counter to domestic claustrophobia. In an early indication of rapprochement to come, the European Parliament in Strasbourg proved a place where John Hume and the Reverend Ian Paisley could sit down discreetly together and talk, away from the straitened confines of their native heath.
The steadily growing number of Irish political parties represented in the EP chamber is a healthy measure of the country’s increasing diversity.
The Parliament provides Gaelic interpretation during debates and one Gaelic saying is perhaps apposite to the European spirit:
“Ar scath a cheile a mhaireann na daoine”
Under the shelter of each other, people survive
Reaching for the world
But the economic returns alone are worth examining by those currently asking whether Scotland possesses the means to go it alone in Europe. On joining in 1973, Ireland trailed the other member states in economic terms with wealth levels at 60% of then EU average. Today, in an EU that’s grown threefold, Ireland’s wealth is well above the EU average.
EU status has brought substantial inward investment, from companies who appreciate its membership of the single market. It’s hard not to conclude that a Scottish economy remaining rooted in the EU would not expand likewise.
Before joining the EU, Ireland was heavily dependent on the British market and exported a relatively narrow range of products. Forty years later, trade partnerships have diversified: the EU takes roughly 40% of all exports, the US 20%, and the rest of the world (20%). The UK’s share has halved to 20%.
But while the UK has also benefited from EU membership, those benefits have clearly not impressed a majority of its population. It’s hard not to conclude that perhaps the Irish have come to be more more appreciative because their media and political climate lack the persistent and implacable anti-EU faction found in British public life.
A country now led by its ftrst gay Taoiseach has become more tolerant, and multi-cultural. It’s certainly more comfortable than most of the British islands with the key concept of shared sovereignty. It faces no real popular resistance to workaday cooperation with other countries to the benefit of one’s own. Significantly, Ireland does not have a Eurosceptic or anti-immigrant party. Immigration, perhaps because of the Irish diaspora, does not provoke such vigorous debate as elsewhere in Europe, although the country is now home to significant numbers of other EU (and non-EU) nationals.
Membership has been central to Ireland’s economy and society over the last forty years. Reaffirmation of this has just come from Irish Europe minister Helen McEntee in a speech setting out Brexit priorities for Ireland. She stressed commitment to the EU, even while adjusting to the new reality of a nearest neighbour no longer at its side in Brussels.
Leading Scottish politicians of all parties, Ruth Davidson, Kezia Dugdale and Nicola Sturgeon, all believe continuing EU membership is also crucial for Scotland, but the British union allows no way of articulating the decisive Scottish referendum vote to stay in the EU.
And while England’s Brexiteers prepare to sign a blank cheque to gain their version of independence at any price, what are the chances of Scotland gaining control over its own post-Brexit destiny ?
Main image: John Quincey via Wikimedia Commons
Secondary image: courtesy of Scottish Government CC BY SA 2.0