25 June 2019

Gordon Brown, Brexit and the real threat to the Union

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The Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is more at risk today than it was even during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign in 2014, according to Gordon Brown. He may well be right, but his typically tub-thumping speech at an even co-organised by the Fabian Society and Hope Not Hate provided few actual facts to support the conclusion.

Instead we got the familiar round of anti-Brexit arguments and the conflating of a desire for the UK to be outside the European Union with British “nationalism”, which in turn is fueling the flames of nationalism north of the border.

Brown’s devotion to the Union is not in doubt, and he played a key role in persuading Scots to reject separatism five years ago. But his “defence” of the Union needs to be recalibrated if it is to have any impact.

It is perfectly clear that moves are afoot to trigger a second independence referendum, a move that might well result in victory for Scottish nationalism. Such attempts have been given impetus by recent political events, but we should not pretend that the intention of the SNP, since the day after the last independence referendum, was to do anything other than trigger a second one as soon as possible.

A year after that referendum, Nicola Sturgeon warned that the UK government’s adherence to austerity and its support for Britain’s nuclear deterrent would justify a second referendum. This was after she had personally signed the Edinburgh Agreement between the Scottish and UK governments committing both sides to respecting the outcome of the 2014 referendum, and before the SNP chose to re-write that understanding with talk of “ material changes in circumstances”.

In other words, nationalists will never stop campaigning for independence. It’s what they’re for. And if the UK had voted Remain in 2016, Sturgeon would be looking far and wide for an alternative grievance with which to justify her never-ending obsession. Would it have hurt Brown to acknowledge this instead of giving political cover to the SNP with his attacks on Brexit?

Similarly, has it not occurred to anti-Brexit unionists to call time on the SNP’s ill-deserved reputation for progressive pro-EU sentiments? Had the Yes campaign won in 2014, an independent Scotland would have left the EU in March 2016 – at precisely the same time it left the UK. And who, today, would predict that with an open border to maintain between the EU (Britain) and a non-EU country, negotiations on an exit deal would have been safely wrapped up within 18 months of the independence referendum?

Could Brown not have pointed out that according to the Scottish Government’s own figures, 60 per cent of Scotland’s exports are destined for other parts of the UK, more than four times the amount whose destination is in the EU? Is the fact that Britain, inside or outside the EU, remains the most crucial export market for Scotland’s economy, not worth at least a mention in a speech about the perils of nationalism?

At the weekend Scottish newspapers reported that a new poll had found that 53 per cent of Scots “would vote for independence” if Boris Johnson became the UK’s prime minister. There is a crucial mistake in that report, and it is this: Scots can only vote, either for or against independence, if there is a second referendum. And the decision as to whether such a referendum is held lies at Westminster, not Edinburgh.

Now, this is an uncomfortable fact for many Scottish politicians. On the face of it, it looks slightly undemocratic. After all, if Scotland wants another referendum, why should the UK parliament stand in its way? The answer, firstly, is that Scotland doesn’t want a second independence referendum, the SNP does. The two are entirely separate things (although most SNP politicians disagree).

Secondly, the greatest argument against the UK authorising an independence referendum is that we’ve already had one. During that campaign, the SNP had an opportunity to warn us that if in future Scotland were taken out of the EU on the back of English votes, they would see that as justification for another independence referendum.

But they chose not to say that. Instead, they simply pointed out the indisputable fact that if Scots voted No in 2014, then Scotland might be taken out of the EU “against its will”. Scots understood that warning. We knew that David Cameron had undertaken to hold an In/Out EU referendum if he won the following year’s general election. We weighed up all the pros and cons. And then we opted to remain in the UK.

The democratic arguments for a second independence referendum – even amidst the on-going shambles over Brexit and Boris – are paper thin. The economic arguments are, if anything, even weaker than they were in 2014. Unionists with a prominent platform should be using it to point this out, not to offer succour to Scottish nationalism.

The real danger to the Union comes from those who, in the past, have given in to nationalists’ demands. Theresa May, to her credit, has been the first UK prime minister to tell the SNP “No”, following their frequent demands for a second go at independence.

Why didn’t Brown congratulate her in her resolve? Why did he not urge whoever the next occupant of Number 10 is to do the same? Why did he not take this opportunity to criticise his successor as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for his repeated ambiguity on the matter?

The Union will not be saved by politicians who seek to draw clumsy parallels between Brexit and Scottish nationalism and who, in doing so, strengthen nationalist arguments (albeit superficially); it will be saved by those who are prepared to fight for it, and to fight for it every bit as robustly and fiercely as those who seek to destroy it.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.