Reverse Brexit: Could Scotland Ignite a UK Debate?

Kirsty Hughes | 15 June 2017

St Andrew’s Day London, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, CC-BY-2.0

The UK’s chaotic political crisis continues. Next week, we will be treated to the spectacle of Brexit talks starting – despite continuing confusion over what sort of Brexit the UK wants. And despite the fact that it will be almost impossible for the minority Conservative government to get all the relevant Brexit legislation through the House of Commons, Lords and devolved legislatures, with or without the DUP.

Debate continues amongst MPs of all parties as to whether a ‘softer’ Brexit could now result from our hung parliament. Remarkably, though, in the face of the extraordinary political, economic and social damage the Brexit chaos is doing to all parts of the UK, there are few political voices calling to stop or reverse Brexit.

Merkel and Macron – viewing the chaos on the other side of the Channel – have both said in recent days that the UK can stay, to almost no response from even pro-EU parties on the UK side.

In Scotland, the SNP is emphasising its continued call for a ‘soft’ Brexit, while the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems demand an end to calls for an indyref2 and a return to the ‘day job’ issues of health and education. But there will be no indyref2 in the next year. And given the economic impacts of Brexit – as well as the damaging political instability – Brexit is surely the most important day job, and one that will impact on all sectors of the economy, public and private.

All Brexit options are damaging – ‘soft’ ones too

Scotland voted 62% to 38% to remain in the EU. And some of those who voted to leave would support the Norway option of staying in the European Economic Area (EEA). Along with Northern Ireland, still without a government, Scotland was the pro-EU public voice of the UK. Yet now the talk is simply of a ‘softer’ Brexit.

But all Brexit options come with an economic cost, economic damage to the economy (and so to public services). The Fraser of Allander Institute estimates the Norway option could cut Scotland’s GDP by 2% to 3% and cut its goods exports by around 12%-18%. For the UK as a whole, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research predicts that a harder Brexit with a Canada-style free trade deal would cut goods exports by 35% and services exports by 61%.

The language of ‘soft’ or ‘softer’ Brexit is misleading. There are just various types of damaging Brexit – and, on these estimates, do not expect schools and hospitals to avoid the damage.

Why aren’t Scotland’s politicians calling to reverse Brexit?

So why are Scotland’s politicians, with a majority of Scotland’s public supporting staying in the EU, not arguing to end this costly Brexit chaos now? The answer lies in part in the divisions over independence, in part in the nervousness of all parties to challenge the UK narrow vote to leave the UK a year ago. Public opinion does not appear to have shifted from its 52% to 48% decision to leave since last year – but then there has been no political lead at all on the ‘remain’ side for the UK as a whole.

That nervousness led the Lib Dems to argue for a second EU referendum once there is a Brexit deal, rather than to continue to argue against Brexit and for a second referendum straight away. But on the current chaotic trends of UK politics, there will be no Brexit deal – or at least not one that will get through the Commons. Nor is all the vital domestic legislation, needed in the next 18 months to replace EU legal and regulatory structures so the UK can continue to function once it leaves, likely to get through the House of Commons either.

And likewise, if an indyref2 after a Brexit deal is still on the SNP’s agenda, what happens before that in terms of Brexit chaos and the likelihood of no deal?

The SNP have of course called for staying in the EU – but only for an independent Scotland. For the UK, they suggest the softest of Brexits – staying in the single market and the customs union. Whether this is possible – no third country has ever done both – is an open question. And if it was, why would the UK give up all say on its trade policy and on so many of its domestic regulations and laws that it has today inside the EU?

But the SNP does not want to tell England and Wales (or Northern Ireland) that they cannot determine their own future, since they want Scotland to be able to decide its own path to independence. But for now, Scotland is part of the UK. The SNP, at Westminster, can and should be part of a UK debate on the folly of Brexit.

Labour meanwhile, having abandoned its pro-EU stance within a day of the referendum result last year, remains confused over its current Brexit stance. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell do not want to be in the single market, though they might perhaps support staying in the customs union. Yvette Cooper wants a cross-party commission to run Brexit – but she wants to control migration – so she shares the delusion that there is a ‘softer’ Brexit that gives full single market access while not respecting free movement of people.

What about Labour in Scotland? They supported the Scottish government proposal to let Scotland stay in the EU’s single market and in the UK. So would the seven Scottish Labour MPs support reversing Brexit for the UK as a whole or at least choose the least damaging Brexit of the Norway/EEA single market option? Would they adopt a different stance to Corbyn?

At one level, it ought to be easy for the SNP, Lib Dems and Labour to demand an end to Brexit – all their supporters voted by 60% or more ‘Remain’ last June. For the Tories, whose supporters voted ‘Leave’ – and so, along with UKIP voters, ensured Brexit was the choice – it is more difficult. Ruth Davidson now talks of an ‘open’ Brexit, but so far that does not appear to mean staying in the single market with free movement of people, let alone opposing Brexit.

In all this, it is vital to remember that the EU27 have been clear. There is an EEA option. There is a free trade Canada-style option. There might be a customs union option. And that is all. There is no full access to the EU’s single market while introducing a tougher UK migration policy.

Can Scotland lead a debate aimed at reversing Brexit?

For now, politicians are focused on a frenzied debate on the politics and arithmetic of a hung parliament. But this is a parliament that shows no appetite for saying the emperor has no clothes, that there is only a damaging Brexit ahead.

Instead of getting entangled in discussions of a ‘softer’ Brexit, Scotland’s politicians could take the bold step of looking for cross-party agreement, in Scotland first, on reversing Brexit. For the SNP, Greens and Lib Dems, that ought to be straightforward in policy terms although it would be much much harder, and require politicians to rise to the moment, to abandon tribal politics in a common anti-Brexit strategy.

It would require the SNP to start to think at UK-level, not just Scotland-level for now, on reversing Brexit. And it would need the Lib Dems, now leaderless, to get back to their pro-EU roots. Would Scottish Labour distinguish itself from the contortions of the London leadership on Brexit? Hardest of all for the Scottish Tories to take an anti-Brexit stance, but the other four parties surely could.

But even the votes of all 59 of Scotland’s MPs are unlikely to determine the direction of Brexit at Westminster on their own. It needs a new, cross-party strategy from Scotland’s pro-EU parties to say Brexit is too damaging, we need a new UK debate and we want to kick-start that vital discussion now. To say, Scotland wants the UK to think again. It would need – having created a cross-party consensus – to reach out to Wales and Northern Ireland, to London, to pro-EU Labour MPs in England and the few pro-EU Tory MPs to see if that debate can be ignited across the UK.

It would need a wider public debate, led not only by politicians. It would need to say that on our current chaotic political path we are highly unlikely to get to a Brexit deal, and to the UK being ready for its post-EU future. That we need to debate this now, not in 18 months time. Most of all, it needs real political leadership.

Any role for a ‘soft’ Brexit?

And there could, perhaps, be a very careful second best, ‘soft’, least damaging, Brexit part of this. But pro-EU politicians in Scotland need to be very careful not to be complicit in a very damaging Brexit and a stand-off with the EU. If Westminster did coalesce around an open, but not free movement migration policy and a demand for single market membership – which the EU27 would reject – then which side do the SNP, or Lib Dems or Labour want to be on at that point?

For now, a Westminster majority for a Norway/EEA Brexit looks unlikely – it may be the least damaging Brexit, but it has costs (to Scotland’s and to the UK’s GDP and exports). So if the Norway choice is the back-up, Scotland’s politicians need to be clear that they will not go further down the damaging Brexit route than that. That they will not be complicit in a more damaging Brexit even if it is labelled ‘softer’.

But supporting a ‘soft’, still damaging Brexit, that could mean a 2-3% lower GDP in Scotland, should not be the starting point. It should be, at most, a back-up.

Where is the independence debate in all this?

The independence debate is not going away in Scotland. But Brexit is damaging for Scotland, whether it were to vote for independence, or not, in 2 or 10 years time. Political chaos and economic damage in the rest of the UK will continue to impact on Scotland too.

If the UK reversed its Brexit decision and stayed in the EU, that makes it easier for Scotland to choose independence in the EU without hitting very difficult questions around borders and trade with the rest of the UK. Equally, if the UK stayed in the EU, the arguments for independence in the face of Brexit chaos would no longer be part of the debate. In or outside the UK, Scotland is, and will continue to be, affected – seriously and negatively – by Brexit.

As the most pro-EU part of the UK, all Scotland’s parties and political actors need to take a long hard look at their Brexit strategies. The current political turmoil demands courage, leadership and strategy. And it demands cross-party cooperation, not for a ‘softer’, still damaging Brexit but for reversing Brexit. Scotland’s politicians should start a pan-UK debate now to stop Brexit.

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.