2 August 2021

In SNP fantasyland, a hard border with England is now an argument for independence


While it is true that the result of the EU referendum in 2016 changed the political argument in Scotland, it is equally true to say that it made no difference at all.

Conventional wisdom suggests that having been taken out of the EU “against its will” (62% of Scots voted Remain), the case for “independence in Europe” has reasserted itself. This would be a more persuasive argument if support for independence had not reverted to the levels it enjoyed before June 2016. Still, the separatists of the SNP will grasp whatever opportunities are handed to them, so here we are.

But needs must. Whatever the state of the polls, whatever the new paradigm created in Scotland by Brexit, and however remote the prospects of the UK government conceding a second independence referendum (whatever the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster might have said over the weekend), the SNP can always be relied upon to rehash its favourite old tunes and to make the most of whatever circumstances it finds itself in.

So, for example, during the 2014 independence referendum campaign, the Yes campaign was able to dismiss concerns about trade barriers between a future independent Scotland and the rest of the UK by pointing out that, since both countries would be members of the EU (or so the SNP optimistically claimed), no such problems would arise. All goods would continue to be traded across national borders, protected in their tariff-free status by the single market and the customs union.

The point of that defence was an acknowledgement by the SNP leadership that trade barriers are A Bad Thing, that customs checks should be avoided on principle for the good of the economies of both partners.

The genius of modern nationalism is its ability to turn on a sixpence when circumstances demand it. Now that Britain is outside the EU, and given the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s, alleged (but unpersuasive) commitment to taking Scotland into the EU as a full member, a trade border between Scotland and non-EU England would be inevitable. In fact, as a good European, Sturgeon could be expected to reflect precisely the view of her new bosses in Brussels, that the absence of a hard border at Gretna would pose a serious threat to the integrity of the single market.

And suddenly, for no reason other than that every development, every fact, every political reality must be harnessed in the cause of independence, a hard border with Scotland’s biggest export market has been transformed into an argument for independence, just as the promise of no hard border was an equally persuasive argument for independence seven years ago.

Delegates to the nationalists’ annual conference next month will be asked to approve (there will be no vote on it) to endorse proposals for a new commission which, it is claimed, would show how a hard border with England would “reinvigorate” the economy of an independent Scotland.

The most fascinating thing about this turn of events, this ostentatious volte-face, is that it is an unexpected endorsement of The Harper Doctrine.

Fans of alternative comedy may recall that it was the SNP MSP Emma Harper who announced, during the Holyrood elections in May this year, that “a border will work, there are issues that have been brought to my attention that show that jobs can be created if a border is created”. Which is a funny line, although I wouldn’t recommend opening with it on open mic night (Harper, incidentally, is the same politician who delivered a brilliant routine to a live studio audience based on her belief that Scottish ten pound notes were worth more than English ones. Bizarrely, she has not yet been appointed to the Scottish Government’s finance team, but it’s early days yet).

At the time even Nicola Sturgeon’s response, were it available for the cameras, could have been utilised in future face-palm memes: “Nobody in the SNP wants to see a border between Scotland and England,” she said.

Ah, but that was then and this is now. If you look back on the last couple of decades you will see a similar pattern of nationalist self-delusion. The 2008 financial crisis dealt a dreadful blow to Scottish banking institutions and, therefore, to nationalist aspirations to go it alone. But according to SNP strategists at the time, it merely strengthened the case for independence.

The invasion of Iraq? Strengthened the case for independence.

9/11? You guessed it.

The fall of the Berlin Wall? Self-determination could be expressed in other ways too.

Britain coming last in Eurovision? Scotland needs it own entrant (well, OK, that last one might have some validity).

When you have decided as a matter of faith, a faith as profound as any religion, that independence is absolutely necessary in any and all circumstances, then every circumstance, by definition, must justify such a change. Unfortunately, in order to perpetuate such a conviction, economic and political realities must be either ignored or transformed – at least in your own mind, by your own rules – from arguments that undermine your views into arguments that reinforce them, just as creationists must pervert, rewrite and ignore scientific fact in order to remain in their own little reality.

So where the nationalist leadership themselves once accepted that a hard border separating Scotland and England would cause severe damage to trade, the economy and to living standards, they must now convince their audience that the opposite is the case and has always been the case. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.

Unfortunately, however dishonest and cynical such an approach may be, there are plenty of Scots willing to buy into such a Wonderland view of life, who are only too happy to believe six impossible things before breakfast. That menu will be easily filled by the SNP in the months ahead.

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

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.