Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and MP for Stratford On Avon.
A week ago, we were dealt the apparently shocking news that the leader of the Scottish National Party would like Scotland to be independent, and is willing to take advantage of any situation to make this happen. Nicola Sturgeon came forth after much consideration and decided that, yes, the solution to the current situation will be the solution that she has been advocating for decades. What a surprise!
The First Minister’s apparent reasoning is that the ‘voice of Scotland’ is being ignored, and therefore the only option available to them is to tear apart our United Kingdom, and forge their own way in the world. Didn’t we go through all of this less than three years ago?
Back in 2014 the Scottish people, rightly in my view, rejected the utopian dreams of the Yes campaign, and clearly said they wanted to stay as part of the United Kingdom, come what may. In 2016, the Scottish people subsequently did vote to continue within in the European Union – but their vote was for the United Kingdom to remain, not Scotland. Their votes were counted and listened to in the exact same way as the other millions of remain votes around the United Kingdom, whether they were in Belfast, London or Stratford upon Avon. However, more people in our country voted to leave, and that is what we must do.
The SNP likes to talk about the united “voice of Scotland” that is being ignored by the nasty Tories. But why does the 1.6 million people in Scotland who voted to stay in the EU suddenly and automatically outweigh the two million people who voted to remain in the United Kingdom just a few months before, and the 57 per cent of Scots who say they don’t want a second independence referendum? The Scottish Nationalists are willing to seize on any circumstances to drive our nations apart. The fact that it is they who are ignoring the voice of the many more Scots who voted ‘No’ to independence is easily ignored. Only the SNP gets to decide what the ‘voice of Scotland’ is.
The reason, they claim, that the smaller EU Remain vote should overrule the larger independence No vote is because the previous referendum was stolen from them after the ‘No’ campaign made clear to voters that, if Scotland became independent, it would automatically leave the EU. This isn’t made any less true because the UK subsequently voted to leave in a referendum where everyone’s vote counted the same, and in which almost 40 per cent of Scotland voted to leave too.
Sturgeon has now tried to portray a choice between a ‘hard Tory Brexit’ and an independent Scotland that would become part of the EU. It should be clear that an independent Scotland would be outside of the EU, whether the UK has left yet or not. Scotland would need to reapply, run no more than a three per cent budget deficit (reducing their currently deficit of 9.5 per cent would require austerity in Scotland on a level never considered by the apparently evil UK Government), and joining the Euro.
I would argue that would be a catastrophically poor choice for the people of Scotland to make, in exchange for giving up their largest single market of the UK in favour for the EU’s. But that’s not the real question: more important is whether now is the time to listen to Nicola Sturgeon’s request. The Prime Minister was correct; now is quite clearly not the time.
The first issue is the one I alluded to at the start – Scotland had a ‘once in generation vote’ just two and a half years ago. As the Prime Minister said, politics in not a game, and it would be an insult to the people of Scotland, and the rest of the UK, to continue asking this question every few years, every time the SNP finds a grievance to play up. If there’s a referendum in 2019, and the SNP loses again, will we just have another one in 2022? Will we keep asking until the SNP gets their way?
But more important is the flawed choice she has set out, between a ‘hard Tory Brexit’ and an independent Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon is claiming that all will be clear in late 2018 or early 2019, and the Scottish people will be able to make an informed decision on the best route to take. On the contrary, it is quite clear that it would be impossible to make a fully informed decision within the SNP timescale; which is probably why they wish to use it.
We cannot have a referendum when all that is known is what legal deal has been agreed. The First Minister appears to believe that all will be clear at this point, but that is not how the world works. Even without a transitional deal, we will not honestly know the true impact of our new relationship immediately after signing up to it. These things take time, businesses and individuals will need to survey the new landscape and adjust, economies will adapt, new opportunities will be created.
This is the largest issue with the choice Sturgeon is trying to create. She makes the classic Remainer mistake of supposing there will be a fixed outcome for Brexit – in her view, a ‘hard Tory Brexit’. Apparently, there will be a point at which nothing will change again. We have left the EU therefore our trade policy is X, our immigration policy is Y, our environmental policy is Z, for ever.
But that is entirely to misunderstand Brexit. Brexit is about taking control of these issues, not setting policies in stone. These policies will change from government to government, and perhaps from year to year like all other policies have before. It’s just the people of the United Kingdom will decide what they are. A post-Brexit Government in 2020 run by May will be very different to a post-Brexit Government run by Jeremy Corbyn: Brexit is about control, not creating permanent unchangeable outcomes.
Brexit will happen, and people will start to see how it works in practice. The structural outcome will be put in place, but the political outcome is likely to be ever changing. If at some point after this the Scottish people do overwhelmingly decide they want a referendum, then this discussion should be opened again. But right now, Sturgeon’s timetable has been rightly rejected.