The Unreliable Kingdom

“Every scientific statement is provisional. Politicians hate this. How can anyone trust scientists? If new evidence comes along, they change their minds.” – Terry Pratchett

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

The UK signalled this week that it was about to unilaterally pull out of parts of a major international treaty with its nearest neighbour, regardless of the costs of doing so. One of those costs will surely be damage to the reputation that is critical for upholding other international agreements and in the price that may be extracted by opposite partners in future deals and treaties knowing that the UK is willing to break from them when it suits.

I’m talking, of course, about the recent announcement that the UK will try to unilaterally rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol which dictates how the EU interacts with the UK across their mutual land border. The Brexit agreement was always going to come to some kind of impasse like this. The UK’s own self-written “red lines” made this clear even back in 2018 when they were first announced.

In short, the UK demanded three things of the Brexit Agreement:

1) England was to leave the Single Market and Customs Union (thus creating a customs border between England and the EU).

2) Northern Ireland was to remain within the Single Market and Customs Union (thus no customs border between NI and Ireland).

3) Northern Ireland had to get the same Brexit deal as England (thus no customs border between NI and England).

There was never any way of achieving all three of these simultaneously (and, incidentally, the reason I didn’t mention Scotland and Wales above is that from a UK perspective they don’t really matter and can be safely ignored – this was doubly the case in 2017-2019 when the 13 Scottish Tory MPs’ loyalty ironically meant that they mattered to the Government a lot less than the 10 DUP MPs who signed a cooperation agreement to support Theresa May’s minority Government). The way to keep NI and Ireland border-free (an overriding priority on both sides) was to guarantee red-line 2). That meant that either England could stay in the Single Market or it could create a border in the Irish sea. England wanted to do neither.

But, when push came to shove (and “shove” meant Boris Johnson ramming through a leadership contest and the 2019 General Election on the promised to “Get Brexit Done”) then it meant choosing to drop option 3) and erecting a border in the Irish Sea. This, of course, meant selling out those DUP MPs who held up the previous government but, now that Johnson had regained a Tory majority – they didn’t matter now and, like Scotland and Wales, could once again be safely ignored. Party loyalty would do the rest – ensuring that the Brexit Deal would pass the commons regardless of whether or not those voting for it had understood or even read it and people who were promised by politicians that there would be no customs paperwork involved in moving goods from one part of the UK to another ended up being surprised by how much paperwork would become involved.

Scotland should be watching how this potential trade war plays out because we will inevitably be in a very similar situation when it comes to our own independence. The Anglo-Scottish land border and how trade moves across it is likely to be one of the most pressing and fraught negotiating points of our eventual separation agreement – though, of course, Common Weal has already published a policy paper covering much of the ground work that needs to be done here –  and Scotland will end up looking like a very different country depending on whether we decide to align our trade more with a British Customs Union, with the European Union or stay unaligned to both. I’m not going to use this article to advocate for any of those options right now though I would say that we almost certainly lack the data required to make an informed choice.

When whoever forms “Team Scotland” and sits across the table from the representatives of the remaining UK to negotiate our departure we need to consider that the UK is not a state that keeps its word when it comes to agreements like this. This simply fact should underpin the strategy that Scotland employs when it goes in and lays out its negotiating position.

I’ve written about the process of negotiating the separation of debts and assets. It formed one of my earliest papers for Common Weal. It was a keystone topic in the Scottish Independence Convention’s Transitions series and most recently I have posted an extended cut of that SIC paper to this blog. Those papers and the background material behind them are vital reading when it comes to understanding how these negotiations have taken place in other countries that have made the leap to independence.

In 2014 and up till now, we have approached the negotiations with a kind of implicit understanding that the UK was a reliable actor and would keep its promises. We could happily take on a portion of UK debt and exchange for a fair exchange of UK assets. We could share public services for a while and let the rUK continue to manage aspects of the Scottish civil service post-independence until our own departments were up and running. We could grant rUK our entire foreign aid budget and let them spend it on our behalf so that the beneficiaries wouldn’t be put out by our departure – the UK wouldn’t allow that funding to be misused for political projects after all.

One thing that comes through strongly in the historical precedents with these separation negotiations is that the more one party asks from or of the other party, the harder it is to achieve and the higher the price that has to be paid for the compromise. This must go double if a compromise is reached and paid for but then the other party reneges on the deal.

We’ve shown that what Scotland actually needs from rUK is comparatively slight. Our “population share” of the UK’s overall debt might total something in the region of £160 billion but the total identifiable assets that Scotland might need from rUK might only come to around £50 billion or even less – and most of that is military equipment that could be loaned or bought from elsewhere either in a pinch or if we decided that Scotland’s military needs didn’t suit what the UK had to offer (A Scotland that signed TPNW would certainly have no need for our “share” of the UK’s nuclear weapons of mass civilian slaughter, for instance).

The best way to secure Scotland’s independence in a way that both ensures that we get what we need from rUK and doesn’t leave us vulnerable to them unilaterally changing the deal at a future date is to avoid, as much as possible, giving them anything they can change. This “Zero Option” negotiating stance means using the time between the independence referendum and actual Independence Day to build up all of the civil infrastructure we need to run a nation-state and thus avoiding having to “share” or buy in civil services from rUK. It also means launching a Scottish currency as soon as possible so as to avoid being beholden either to a formal currency union or to the limits of Sterlingisation and having to plead for UK decisions on currency to not impact Scotland too much. This also means not accepting any share of UK debt that isn’t backed by an equivalent share of assets (effectively “mortgaging” the assets we need against that debt) and avoiding anything like the SNP’s current policy of an “Annual Solidarity Payment” that would see perpetual payments made to the UK without being linked to any debt that could be “paid off”. Finally, it means minimising the quantity of assets we require from the UK in the first place. As said above, many of the assets that Scotland could think about acquiring might be unfit for purpose (like big ticket military equipment like the nukes or aircraft carriers), may be near the end of their operational lifespan (like most of the rest of the navy) or may not suit the kinds of policies that Scotland might wish to introduce (the UK Government said that it couldn’t introduce a hardship payment to people because of IT issues – if true, Scotland should want to avoid inheriting the UK’s obviously broken tax IT systems).

This stance doesn’t mean total isolationism. I have no problems with Scottish and rUK collaborating on issues of common interest – indeed, I encourage it – but these collaborations must be undertaken on the basis of two equal nations working in partnership. Not as one being dragged along by the other because they control the civil servants or Scotland being hung out to dry because the UK decided once again to alter the deal.

The UK has often acted as if it was still the Imperial Majesty on the world stage and has often been accorded a level of respect and benefit of the doubt by its counterparts that it either has not valued or has actively taken advantage of. Scotland, as we enter that stage with our own voice, must be wary of making the same mistake.

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