Perhaps the question above should be “Does Scotland have a future?”.
And now the end is near, and we face the final curtain. A few days ago, I wrote the words for a amended version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, entitled “We’ll go the Yes way”. (See it here). What it was meant to show was how we recovered from the disaster that was the first IndyRef and went on to win IndyRef2. Perhaps the lack of interest in the posting (sorry to bleat, but I’m in a bad mood) might have been a demonstration that there are now a fairly large number of people who don’t expect a second IndyRef soon.
But what might happen if there’s no IndyRef. For years now, I (and others) have been warning those who favour waiting until circumstances are more favourable before another IndyRef: you are not advocating a no risk option. We can’t take the risk that we might lose, they say. Of course, they are assuming that, in the meantime, the Westminster government won’t do anything to scupper our chances. Westminster not doing anything always seemed unlikely to me and, as time passes, with support for independence growing, it’s becoming more and more likely that waiting is the worst of all possible worlds for those for whom independence is the first, or even the only, option. If there ever was any doubt about the dangers, surely recent announcements by the Westminster government must have laid these to rest.
So here, in no particular order, are a few examples of what will happen if we don’t soon have the courage to take matters into our own hands.
A new committee has been set up in Westminster, unofficially at the moment. Let’s call it the union committee. Membership includes the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their remit is to find ways to strengthen the Union. Anyone reading this who believes the committee’s remit includes looking for ways to strengthen the devolved governments really needs to seek medical help.
At the moment, food standards are devolved to Holyrood. Westminster intends effectively to remove that power from the Scottish Government post-Brexit. They will still allow Holyrood to set their own standards, but they’ll insist on Scotland accepting food from any other part of the UK (could they mean England?). This means that Scottish Government rules would apply only to companies based in Scotland, thus disadvantaging them as prices of goods from other parts of the UK (mainly England) would be produced to lower, and cheaper, standards. The ability for the Holyrood to set their own standards would be a poisoned chalice.
Westminster’s excuse would be that it allows them to negotiate UK wide trade deals, such as the one with the US. The US have demanded that the UK accept chlorinated chicken as part of a post-Brexit trade deal. We’ve probably all heard about chlorinated chicken, the US tendency to wash their chicken meat in chlorine to remove the bugs. The practice is banned in EU countries. Of course, the US do it because their standards of poultry rearing are poor compared to current UK (actually EU) standards, so there are many more bugs to remove. Perhaps the best way to compare food standards between the two is the incidence of food poisoning, about 1.6% of the population per annum in the UK, compared with 16% in the US.* Because of their higher production volumes and lower standards, US food is cheaper to produce, so UK farmers will have to reduce prices (and standards) to try to compete, or go bust. As Westminster will be desperate for deals, they are bound to accept US demands. The Scottish Government will no longer have any real power to maintain current Scottish food standards as Westminster will impose their rules UK wide. Is cheaper, bug ridden chicken really what we want in Scotland?
Chlorinated chicken is only the tip of an extremely nasty US iceberg. US beef producers also use growth hormones to increase the size of their cattle. This practice is banned in the EU as it has been shown to increase the incidence of cancers and other diseases in humans, particularly in the children of consumers. Antibiotics are also heavily used in US dairy production, mainly to suppress diseases caused by poor farming methods, leading to the development of antibiotic resistant bugs.* It is likely that the UK will accept the importation of US beef and dairy as part of the deal with the US. The Scottish Government will have no power to prevent these products being sold in Scotland. Are cancer inducing beef and resistant super bugs really what we want in Scotland?
Ok, I hear you say, consumers can decide whether or not to buy beef or chicken produced in the US, because the country of origin will be clearly marked on the packaging. Oh no it won’t. Food labelling is now also subject to Westminster veto and the US has demanded that country of origin is excluded. If Westminster agrees, as they are likely to, it will be imposed in Scotland, as with the rest of the UK. As with food standards, the Scottish Government will have no usable power to prevent it.
Food standards will not be the only power reserved to Westminster post-Brexit. What about the NHS? We know that the giant US medical and pharmaceutical companies are desperate to get their hands on the NHS, but this will only work if the NHS is considered as a single UK organisation. We already know that there are considerable differences between the Scottish NHS and the English one, principally because of the differences in approach between Westminster and Holyrood. Vast chunks of the English NHS have been privatised while the Scottish NHS is still in public hands. But that will all change when responsibility for the Scottish NHS is once again reserved to Westminster. As an aside, has anyone got an explanation for the number of recent adverts and announcements from a body called NHS UK? A sign of things to come, perhaps?
Recently announced is the Westminster plan to remove the power to provide state aid from Scotland and the other devolved governments. This power will now be reserved to Westminster. This will prevent the devolved governments from encouraging business development in their country, either existing businesses or new start-ups. Those who believe Westminster will spend much of their time worrying about business development beyond the English border may be disappointed. (Interestingly, can anyone speculate on why the border between England and Scotland appears to exist, while the border between Scotland and England doesn’t. Weird? Perhaps it’s just that business borders exist, but pandemic ones don’t.)
Last, but definitely not least, the change I think is worthy of most attention. This is the development proposed to the so-called “UK internal market”, of which the food discussion above is just a part. This came into ‘existence’ in 2013 to be used as an argument against Scottish independence. Because most of Scotland’s exports go via English ports, Scottish ports having been deliberately underdeveloped as a consequence of the Union, the anti-independence brigade claimed that the rest of the UK was Scotland’s biggest export customer and very little went to Europe or other parts of the world, so independence would significantly reduce Scottish exports. A lie, of course. However, as a result of Brexit, this argument has now developed from a debating concept into a justification for destroying the devolution settlements.
Westminster are now proposing to create a formal UK internal market in law. This will cover not just foodstuffs as mentioned earlier, but potentially all aspects of production. The problem this creates for the governments of Scotland and the other devolved nations is that although they can set whatever rules they want, they will be forced to accept any rules thought necessary by Westminster, whether they are required by or acceptable to the devolved nations. And you can bet that any rules introduced by Westminster will only benefit rich people or England or both, or, at best, will be better for rich people or England or both than anyone else.
To make matters worse, the UK government are going to appoint a committee of friendly Tory types to scrutinise all devolved government bills (and I don’t mean invoices) to decide whether they have any impact on the operation of the internal market. If they decide it has a negative effect, they will have the power to recommend that a bill is amended, or even cancelled, making it really difficult for the Scottish Government and the other devolved administrations to pass any legislation. The Tories have been desperate to get rid of devolution ever since it began and now they’ve got both the opportunity (big Tory majority, out of Europe) and the excuse (negotiating UK-wide trade deals) to make it happen. The Tories are not going to miss an open goal like that. I’ll let you work out for yourself how often the committee will find that Scottish legislation has an impact on the internal market.
However, the SNP are on to the problem. Several senior SNP figures have made strong statements criticising the actions of the UK government and Mike Russell has written a strongly worded letter to Michael Gove demanding that they halt the changes. Little chance of a government with an eighty seat majority listening, especially when every Tory in Westminster will be cheering at the chance to be really nasty to the Scots, with the Scottish Tories cheering loudest. Of course!
What else might Westminster do? No doubt there are other powers they haven’t yet thought of removing from Holyrood. Who would be prepared to bet against the power to hold referendums, or even the power to hold elections being among those taken away. Remember that the Tories can move quickly if they have to. It won’t take long to convince Tory backbenchers to go along with an anti-Scottish action. It might take only a couple of weeks to effectively shut down Holyrood, or at least stop it from really doing anything meaningful.
So what’s to happen. The worst of the changes won’t take effect till after Brexit, though it might even be earlier, and if the EU objected, which they likely would, in a couple of months or so there’s not much they could do about it. I suppose invasion by a combined Franco-German army to support Scotland is probably out of the question. It might have a slight negative impact on the Brexit negotiations, but as the Tories are looking for the most negative outcome they can get, I don’t suppose they would be particularly worried.
I think we’ve now reached the stage where it’s do or die. If we think of waiting for better times, better times may (and likely will) never come. There’s no downside for the Tories if our government don’t act soon. Even waiting till May next year seems hugely optimistic. However, the Tories can wait to get all their ducks in a row as their ducks seem to move faster than ours.
We’ve reached the last and the most important question of all. Do we go now, or do we never go?
It’s time to decide!
*If you want to find out more about the dangers from US foodstuffs, see here an article by Ros Taylor on the LSE blog, quoting Professor Erik Millstone of Sussex University.