Open Letter to the Yes Movement

The SNP is a key part, but not the only part, of the Yes movement; but right now it would seem to be the only part setting the agenda on another independence referendum. Some other views are required, and this is one of them.

This letter is not about whether to hold a second independence referendum, but when to hold it. Yes cannot afford to lose again, and lose we shall if the timing is wrong. The rhetoric and hype from Nicola Sturgeon since the EU referendum has been irresponsible. The Scots deserved a composed, factual exposition of the position, but did not get it.

Scotland’s leaders have too often whipped up emotion to overcome reason, with defeat the price. Flodden and Dunbar are examples where emotion driven to a high pitch saw strategic advantage thrown away, delivering Scots into the hands of opponents. Be misled again with emotion brushing aside reason, and we shall repeat the follies of the past.

The Yes movement may be willing to fight a referendum now, but it is not ready. Where is the critical analysis of why we lost in 2014, and what we need to put right? Then there is the crucial geopolitical difference between then and now – the new paradigm - the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Nicola Sturgeon is correct in saying that it changes everything, but I draw a different conclusion from her about how its consequences will impact on the case we deploy for independence, and the timing of the referendum.

The UK is leaving the EU and Scotland with it. The diplomatic dance of Scottish Ministers with the EU got headlines, column inches, tv pictures, lots of twittering, but nothing else. Not a single Commission or member state commitment to the Scottish Government’s claim to be able to remain in the “single market” has been offered. They will do what Spain says, and Spain will always say no. Belgium too has reasons to be antagonistic to any possibility of a secessionist state joining the EU.

According to Nicola Sturgeon Scotland “now faces the prospect of being dragged out of Europe against our will by a right-wing Tory Government hell-bent on a hard Brexit, with catastrophic consequences for jobs, livelihoods and living standards.”I am not a right-wing Tory. I voted leave in a referendum that, according to the ballot paper, was about the UK and the EU (not about Scotland and the EU), as did many SNP members and voters. I expect the UK Government to give effect to the result of my majority vote, which is not dragging us out, but negotiating a deal if common sense will apply in Brussels.

The Westminster Government is preparing to negotiate with a trade bloc that exports 690bn to the UK, and the UK to it of 628bn – a trade advantage to the EU of 62bn. It is a sensible negotiating position to say that if no free trade deal can be had, then the UK will walk away with a WTO trading situation, which also means future EU trade with the UK will be on the same basis. Given those massive trade figures and the 62bn advantage, the real question is whether the EU will walk away without an agreement? If the EU thought the UK would not walk away, then it would give nothing.

When looked at that way, far from being “hell bent” on a hard Brexit, the UK Government has positioned itself skilfully for the coming negotiations.

Those figure-UK trade figures point to a free trade deal as the most sensible and likely outcome. Much has been heard from EU politicians on how they will make the UK “pay dearly” for Brexit, but we have still to hear from the German car makers, Italian shoemakers, and French wine exporters. Will they be happy with their politicians cutting off their noses to spite the UK? I think not. Think of what a free trade deal will do to the Scottish Government’s reputation with its near hysterical claims of catastrophe – egg all over its face. Think of the damage to Yes if such a deal is struck during a referendum while our case is for the “single market”?

Whatever finally emerges from the negotiations, it is now wise to wait until we see the final details before engaging in a life-and-death second referendum; because only when that deal is known will it be possible to answer questions about our economic relations with the most important market that will figure in the referendum debate - England-UK, where Scotland exports goods and services worth 49.8 bn, compared to 12.3bn to the EU.

I don’t know if Nicola Sturgeon understands that access to the EU market is not dependent on remaining in the “single market.” The Scottish Government seems blind to the nature of the “single market” as one of the internal pillars of the EU, with regulations and rules. Rules such as on public procurement of the kind that made it compulsory to put the Western Ferries contract out to tender, thus endangering the wages and conditions of CalMac workers, and enabling the big orders for materials on the new Forth Road Bridge to leave Scotland.

It would be a strange type of independence if, as seems to be the object of SNP policy, we obey public procurement rules injurious to our own people and economy.

It is time SNP leaders stopped dipping into the lexicon of fear. It is in the interests of the Yes movement for the UK to achieve a free trade deal, thus maintaining our ‘ no tariff access’ to the UK and EU markets. That is what we in Scotland should be urging on the EU side as being in their interests as well as ours. A premature call for a referendum weakens the UK's bargaining hand at a crucial time and threatens the long term interests of Scotland, regardless of our constitutional position.

Now I come to what is crucial in these negotiations for the independence movement; what the Scottish Government should be arguing for – a protocol in the final deal recognising that in the event of a change in our constitutional status, as no longer part of the UK, that Scotland would inherit all the rights inherent in the agreement. Such a protocol, guaranteeing right of access to both the UK and EU markets would remove the 2014 negative arguments that we would not know where our trade would go after independence.

Is such a protocol possible? Not just possible but essential. That is the policy the Yes movement should press on the Scottish Government to achieve.

Jim Sillars

PS: What is the proposed referendum question to be? Membership application to the EU if they will let us in? Or seeking membership of the EEA via EFTA? Or plain independence from the UK with no guidance to where and how we shall trade?