“Regulatory compliance is critical to managing risk.” – Hendrith Vanlon Smith Jr
The “spectre” of a controlled border between Scotland and England is looming again as Scotland discusses independence and the future shape of our country but we should be paying more attention to how the UK manages borders on behalf of Scotland – especially when it fails to do so.
This week I took part in a very interesting discussion about the Scottish Government’s latest Indy White Paper. The paper covers economics, currency and trade and much of the attention ended up aiming at the former two. Rightly too because it’s an area that hasn’t met with universal appeal amongst the Yes movement who, the Scottish Government would hope, should be cheerleading this plan. I’m among the sceptics. The currency plan in particular does not take us much further forward than the 2018 Growth Commission – which I roundly critiqued at the time – and the economic plan is still couched too much in terms of “GDP Growth” (a phrase mentioned in the report more than twice as often as, for example “wellbeing”) and is frankly laughably insufficient when it comes to climate change mitigations (it promises investment just 1% of GDP per year toward climate change when experts more than a decade ago said we needed 3% per year and that number has only risen as we’ve continued to ignore and exacerbate the problem). There are some good points in there around worker coops and immigration but these are ultimately just window dressing under a plan that rests on disturbingly weak foundations. To be clear, a Scotland without its own currency would not be able to meet an unexpected challenge such as the 2008 Financial Crisis, the 2019 Covid pandemic, the 2022 inflation crisis or the home energy and mortgage crisis coming next year. We need our own currency at the point of independence or as soon as possible thereafter.
The third aspect of the paper covered borders, customs and trade. This received a bit of attention from the pro-Union press as a “hard border” between Scotland and England would be the most tangible physical indication of a separation between the two countries. Even when we cut out the abject fearmongering over this event (Who remembers claims of armed soldiers patrolling The Wall?) it does remain a topic that has to be handled with some degree of sensitivity, especially now that we’re facing the prospect of the Anglo-Scottish border becoming an EU frontier (though in the opposite sense as the pro-Union campaign claimed in 2014).
Common Weal has written extensively about how to create modern customs and borders infrastructure – led by the work of Peter Henderson and the late Bill Austin who had actual, real-world experience of creating such systems. Beyond the visceral statement of “separation” (which, we must remember, has only become so visible because of the UK’s push for the hardest possible Brexit), setting up this kind of thing is complex, expensive (though ultimately self-funding) and – according to the pro-Union campaign – something that needn’t exist at all if only we choose to stay within the UK.
A story emerged this week that may change some minds on at least that latter point though. The UK has long struggled to maintain its own borders and customs infrastructure. Even before Brexit, the UK decided to split up the old Customs and Excise office. Customs and the movement of goods was given to the Tax Office (now HMRC) which, as you might expect, focusses mostly on tax whereas the movement of people was given to Border Force and the Home Office which focusses mostly on persecuting vulnerable migrants to win political points.
The job of customs – as Bill Austin pointed out to me on the Policy Podcast – has been run down, neglected and degraded. The UK couldn’t fulfil its obligations as an EU member and years of budget cuts led to a shortfall in funding and infrastructure that only got worse when Brexit actually happened. Ignoring warnings that it would take years and significant investment to bring infrastructure at Dover up to the required standard and capacity, the UK simply brushed them off and moaned loudly when the EU stated that it would apply the rules as the UK’s Brexit plan demanded and that it had already prepared to do so. The UK was reduced instead to having to “temporarily” wave trucks through Dover without any checks at all. Again, any suggestion that this policy would be a disaster as illegal goods were smuggled into the UK were shouted down as if borders would be complied with through sheer force of patriotic arrogance. The “temporary” period of no checks, initially set to about six months in 2019, has been extended multiple times and may now continue till 2025.
Move forward two years to now and the inevitable has happened. The Times reported (Warning: Link contains images of rotten meat) that Dover customs officers managed to scrap up the resources to do spot checks on 22 trucks entering the UK with food shipments over a 24 hour period this month. Of those 22 trucks – chosen from up to 10,000 trucks that can pass through the port in a single day – 21 of them contained illegal meat imports ranging from rotten meat, improperly packed goods, improperly temperature controlled meat and – just in case you’re a vegetarian – meat that was leaking fluid onto “ready-to-eat” goods stored below it.
It’s clear that the lack of checks have allowed unscrupulous traders to smuggle meat that they couldn’t sell elsewhere in the EU to the UK knowing that they could get it in unchallenged and possibly skim off a larger than usual profit by skipping all the paperwork, fees and costs involved with doing things properly and safely. It is not known (because the UK hasn’t checked) how long this problem has gone unnoticed. It is not known how far these illegal goods have filtered into British or, indeed, the Scottish economy or how many similar trucks have delivered to a market or a restaurant near you. It is also not known what else has come through the port illegally beyond rotten, leaking meat. It may well be the case that the smuggled goods are things like consumer goods that haven’t had the proper tariffs paid on them – lost revenue to the Treasury at a time of economic hardship and potentially undermining domestic producers of competing goods but otherwise relatively benign. But these goods may fall short of safety standards which could cause injury if left undetected. And, of course, there may be smuggling of other illegal goods such as proscribed drugs that may be contributing to Scotland’s continued struggle with addiction and the harms caused by those who enable it.
Scottish independence offers many opportunities. It would allow us to reshape our economy and make it less reliant on cheaper, environmentally damaging imports and to support Scotland’s already world-renowned agriculture sector as well as our other exportable goods. It would allow us to trade directly with the world rather than be reliant on English ports – a transition that Ireland has clearly had great success in making. But closer to this current crisis, Scottish independence and a responsible borders and customs policy would enable Scotland to protect ourselves from the long standing and evidently worsening standards of care that the UK is applying to its own border. A borders policy that is fit for purpose and fit for the 21st century would be an economic gain (especially for, appropriately enough, The Borders), but there is now a more important question that Scotland has to ask when it comes to leaving those policies in the hands of those in Westminster who have failed on this so badly. At what point does a customs checkpoint at Gretna become an issue of protecting the health and wellbeing of people in Scotland from a UK that evidently cannot?
Note: The image used to illustrate this article was entirely created by me using the AI Image Generator Stable Diffusion.