The Growth Commission set up by the SNP reports today on how an independent Scotland would prosper. Their vision is of a Denmark-style Scotland that encourages immigration, invests in growth sectors like technology, and levies higher taxes to create a fairer society. The Commission’s job was to address the questions that the independence campaign failed to answer for too many voters in 2014 – and help kick start the debate.
As the Scottish Conservative and Labour leaders were pleading with the First Minister to stick to the day job of fixing education and the NHS, the Governor of the Bank of England added to the mood music when he told the Treasury Select Committee in the Commons that a currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK was economically possible if there was a lot of matching of fiscal policies. Such a suggestion was dismissed out of hand by then Chancellor George Osborne in 2014. But now, seeking to square the circles to achieve Brexit, the UK Government says high levels of policy conformity between the UK and the EU will be perfectly possible in order to achieve frictionless borders and to maintain trade.
Four years ago the idea of one country, Scotland, allowing big decisions about something as important as its currency to be decided around a table where it did not have a seat was dismissed as absurd. Now, UK negotiators are asking that decisions about our medicines – arguably also quite important – will continue to be taken by the European Medicines Agency after we have left full membership.
In 2014, there was talk of a hard border that would cut Scotland off from its biggest trading partner, England. Now we are told that the much longer Irish Border can operate as a frictionless, virtual boundary.
As an aside, one wonders whether the border between a pro-immigration Scotland and a choosier England would remain virtual or frictionless for very long.
All conversations about Scottish independence inevitably move to the subject of another referendum. Brexit has changed the argument fundamentally. After all, Scots were told voting ‘No’ to independence was the best way to stay in the EU. Interestingly, as Mark Diffley reminded us here last week, polling does not suggest a surge in support for Scottish independence.
The logical next step for the Scottish Government would be to support a referendum: not on independence, but on the EU Brexit deal. Ministers would be on safer ground given the 62% vote by Scotland to remain in the EU, coupled with an inescapable feeling that Scotland is voiceless in Brexit negotiations.
As all constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster, Scotland cannot hold a referendum on independence without the okay of the UK Parliament. Theresa May is clear that that won’t happen. But a second referendum on the Brexit deal might be harder to resist if the opposition parties at Westminster were to unite behind one.
For the Scottish independence movement, if England voted to accept the Brexit deal and Scotland to reject it, Scotland’s status as a ‘vassal state’ would have been confirmed and another important step would have been taken to their destination.