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How to win Indyref 2? Keep it simple.

CIVIL servants in the Scottish Office have reportedly been put to work preparing for the next independence referendum. If so, what should they be urged to do? Actually, not very much.

If Nicola Sturgeon is going to push the button on indyref 2 she should learn from the Brexiteers. They didn’t produce a 670-page White Paper, as the Scottish Government did in 2013, which raised more questions than it answered. They didn’t produce anything at all, just anecdotes about bent bananas and a droning dog whistle about immigration.

The Leave campaign demonstrated that it is possible to win a referendum without experts – as Michael Gove said, Britain has had enough of them. Indeed, they managed to win the EU referendum without having the foggiest idea of how Britain could leave the wealthiest and most comprehensive free trade zone on the planet, the European Single Market, and still, somehow, have free and unfettered access to it. Six months after the referendum, they still haven’t.

I’m not saying that the Scottish Government should emulate the post-truth of the Brexiteers.  Even the American Alt Right would have been ashamed of Leave’s red bus claim that the NHS would be £350m a week better off out of Europe. But it was largely irrelevant because no-one believes anyone’s statistics any more. The 2013 Independence White Paper, “Scotland’s Future”, was a creditable attempt to address the complexities, and it avoided alternative facts – but there is no need to repeat it.

The next Yes campaign should play smart and remain studiously vague about life after independence.  The precise nature of Scotland’s relationship to the EU and the UK is a post-independence issue because we don’t yet know the precise terms of Brexit – only that it will be hard.  About the only thing that can be said with any certainty is that, whatever happens, there needn’t be a hard border between Scotland England,because everyone is agreed that isn’t going to be one between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

There may be economic disturbance from Scotland leaving the UK, but it will be as nothing compared to the turbulence from the UK leaving the EU. All the cards are in the air now, and no-one knows where any of them will come down. All we know is that the most successful countries in the world are small, dynamic, social democratic – and part of the EU. As Mark Littlewood of the IEA put it on Question Time, Scotland has the GDP of Portugal and the population of Slovakia, so there’s no reason on earth why it couldn’t be independent.

We don’t know if it is going to be a WTO Brexit, a Commonwealth Brexit, a free trade Brexit or a Trump Brexit.  So the Yes campaign should avoid premature debate about whether Scotland should join the European Free Trade Area, the European Economic Area or the Customs Union. Just stick to the EU, or better still, “Europe”. We don’t yet know how the Scotland’s accession to the EU will work – only that it will.

Nor should Yes 2 resort to monetary metaphysics that no-one will understand. Scottish pound, currency union, euro, bitcoin or whatever – it all depends on the circumstances that exist at the time, and these are imponderable. So much is in flux with the UK preparing for tariff and currency wars with the EU.  Scotland doesn’t have a dog in that fight.  Sturgeon should just say that a future Scottish government ensure that, yes,  there will be a currency.

The lesson of Brexit is that independence is essentially about sovereignty. You don’t have to dot all the i’s, just find a form of words, like “take back control”, which sums up the project and resonates with voters. Rather than a compendious White Paper, and lots of numbers, the Scottish Government should produce a short but intelligent statement, more like the American Declaration of Independence, which was only around the length of this article. It should argue that it is self-evident that nations should run their own affairs.

The press will try to recycle the negatives from 2014, but most of them are redundant. No-one is going to claim, as Better Together did, that Scotland can only remain in the European Union by remaining in the UK. That now looks like a sick joke. Anyway, there isn’t going to be another Better Together. Labour will split, and the Tories alone will be leading the No 2 campaign (the LibDems are irrelevant). This is a much easier target for Nicola Sturgeon, one of the best political leaders in Europe.

Of course, people will say, as Theresa May did last week, that an independent Scotland would be “out of Europe”, and would have to “join the queue” as an EU Commission spokeswoman, Jacqueline Minor, put it. But this can safely be ignored. As Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, said last year, it is blindingly obvious that Scotland will be allowed rapid passage into the EU. Given the behaviour of the Brexiteers, the 27 will welcome Scotland with open arms. It would, as Verhofstadt said, be “suicide” for Brussels to try to block Scotland.

Similarly, Scotland’s notional fiscal deficit needn’t be a decisive issue.  Again, the Brexit campaign showed how to deal with Project Fear, which is to ignore it. They brushed aside Treasury and IFS forecasts that voters would be £4,300 a year worse off; that there would be a ballooning deficit, massive spending cuts.

The truth is, no-one knows what the UK deficit will be when it is out of the single market and paying the Brussels divorce bill of up to £60bn. The UK is apparently arguing that its contributions to the EU budget over 40 years mean that it has a financially quantifiable stake in many EU assets.  The Scottish government should look at similar arguments about Scotland’s contribution to the UK through oil revenues over the last 40 years.

You don’t need to patronise the public with Project Fear. People can see  the way the price of food and energy has rocketed since Brexit trashed the pound. They know what else Scotland stands to lose: EU agricultural subsidies alone are worth £560m. If you add in the impact of trade tariffs, lost jobs, loss of tax-paying migrants, lost university research, Brexit could easily cost Scotland several billion a year in GDP.

But there are much more important losses: EU citizenship above all, and the right to go and work and live in any country in the EU free from discrimination on grounds of nationality, with guaranteed working conditions. Then there’s the environment. The EU protections involve everything from beach bathing water to GM crops.

But the Yes 2 campaign should not try to re-fight the EU campaign. The next referendum will be about Little England, not Europe. If Scotland stays in the UK it will be hitching itself to a post-imperial Brexitania run by bandit capitalists who still think they’re living in the days of the British Empire.

After Brexit, the UK will be a different country: a centralised, right-wing, low-tax, low-regulation, Singapore of Europe. This is what Theresa May means by a “more competitive model”. It means the American model of Donald Trump. Scotland’s social model can only be preserved by sticking with the European version of regulated capitalism.

In 2014, Gordon Brown saved the day for Better Together by making a moral appeal to older Scots not to abandon the less well off in England. Don’t cut and run, he said. Work for a Labour government that will restore a caring, sharing Union for the good of all. Well, we know where that got us. And there isn’t going to be a Labour government for a very long time, perhaps never.

Scots have been the ragged-trousered philanthropists long enough. Scotland gave up its oil for the good of the UK, and a fat lot of good it did anyone. The hundreds of billions in oil revenues were used by Margaret Thatcher to destroy manufacturing and build the parasitical financial services economy of the southeast of England. The Yes campaign should not be afraid to use the language of historic injustice.

This is not an economic but an existential question for Scots: do they want to be in charge of their destiny, or are they content to leave it in the hands of Theresa May and Donald Trump and see their nation reduced to the status of a backward region – the UK equivalent of Belarus or East Germany. Scots have seen what happened after 2014, and it is a bitter lesson. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.


Adapted from Sunday Herald, 12/2/17

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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