author:Readers of The National
IN the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum, key SNP figures wasted little time in drawing a link between broad-based support for the Remain campaign seen in the north (62% to 38%, respectively) and age-old questions of the sustainability of an integrated Union.
Despite an earlier poll heading off suggestions of independence on a markedly slimmer majority (55.3% to 44.7%), recent weeks have seen the May government double down on its commitment to keeping the Irish border open at all costs – and in doing so, potentially confer a competitive advantage on a single-market Northern Ireland.
Historically, Westminster has never been known for its respect for regional autonomy and decentralisation of power. Despite steps in that direction taken in the 90s – affording Scotland, for example, significant control of healthcare policy, taxation, and her own Parliament– the United Kingdom still stands as one of the few unitary Western states where significant cultural and linguistic diversities are not reflected in a proportionate degree of legislative self-determination. Scots, by and large, are happy with the NHS, the BBC and the pound; Scottish politicians, on the other hand, are rightfully frustrated to see the May government backpedalling into policy areas which were supposed to have been transferred to Holyrood long ago.
For even the most battle-hardened of political researchers, papers exploring the various benefits of decentralised governance would do well as a cure for insomnia. Add dense volumes of legalese and a healthy dose of Brexit vexation (there’s a portmanteau there somewhere), and you have a successful recipe for an uninterested Glaswegian. But Scottish national identity runs strong as ever, and a large part of that is tied to the newer concept of pan-European solidarity.
If it is to be reconciled with basic ideals of representative democracy, the UK’s management of Scottish withdrawal from the EU raises the awkward question of an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Although a thought-provoking BBC column recently pointed out that the Good Friday peace deal actually says relatively little about the imposition of a hard border dividing Ireland, politicians on both side of the debate have affirmed that doing so would undermine the co-operative spirit of the accord, and threaten to re-ignite hostility in the region. Likewise, the imposition of differing trade conditions across the country in order to avoid doing so would likely fuel the independence movement in Scotland on the back of general frustration with being dragged out of Europe; another headache that Westminster would prefer to avoid.
To be clear: while independence may be some way off, the time for a fully-operative federal model is long overdue. Parliamentary powers devolved
to the Scottish Government, for reasons which made perfect sense at their time, do not include the power to legislate over matters of foreign policy, international trade or immigration.
So long as May’s government maintains the position that an asymmetrical arrangement allowing Scotland to operate as an independent state for the purposes of the EFTA or the EEA is unfeasible, pressure will continue to ratchet up on the bolts holding the Union together. Rhetoric pushing for a sovereign state which could attain EU membership, moreover, may be inherently more attractive from an emotional standpoint – but if duly explained to the Scottish people, a push for control over employment and immigration law (comparable to Macau and Hong Kong in China) could achieve much of the market integration entailed by full membership of the EU, and allow the government in Edinburgh to align policy with continental developments.