As the hours tick away to Article 50 the British people are still almost completely in the dark about what it will actually mean. A pig in a poke looks like a square deal by comparison with Brexit. You only needed to listen to the Brexit Secretary, David Davis at the recent select committee hearing in Westmsinter to understand that no one has a clue what happens next.
Asked whether the UK Government had made an assessment of the economic impact of a hard Brexit under World Trade Organisation terms, Mr Davis brushed it aside. “You don’t need a piece of paper with numbers on it”. Well, actually a few numbers would have been useful.
Questioned by the chairman, Hilary Benn, Mr Davis delivered a series of boggling revelations of where we would stand if there is no deal with the single market. Would that mean 30-40 per cent tariffs on agricultural exports? “Yes”. Customs checks at Northern Irish border? “Light ones, yes”. Would passporting rights for the City of London fall? “Probably”. Ditto Open Skies, car export tariffs, even the EHIC health insurance card would cease to operate. Mrs May has said that “no deal is better than a bad deal” with the EU, but this looked like a very raw deal indeed.
Nor does Mr Davis feel obliged to reply to the Scottish Government’s White Paper published last year. “Do you [too] want a piece of paper?” he said bluntly, when asked by the SNP MP, Jo Cherry. This aversion to paper seems to be a new ministerial policy. One way to avoid difficult questions. Or as he put it: “political point scoring by the SNP”.
This does not inspire confidence. Scotland is caught between a rock and a hard Brexit. It might be easier had there been any sign that the UK Government had Scottish interests at heart. If it had responded to the Scottish Government with the kind of assurances being given to car manufacturers or the City of London about free movement, frictionless trade post-Brexit. Nicola Sturgeon would have found it much harder to call for a referendum if Theresa May had offered a coherent package of positive post-Brexit benefits. It was an opportunity missed.
The Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, has repeatedly hinted about jam tomorrow. There were suggestions elsewhere in Whitehall that Scotland’s requirements might be recognised in any new immigration policy. The proposed independent Migration Advisory Committee could have been told to take into account “regional employment issues” when setting quotas. But nothing like that has emerged.
The PM could be about to offer something She could assemble a raft of new powers on environment, agriculture and fish, worker’s rights and wrap it up into a new Scotland Act with some new offer of fiscal federalism. But in the meantime, all we hear are curious arguments about process and a deaf ear on any future independent referendum. There is even a suggestion that a Section 30 authorising the referendum might only be granted if the SNP wins an outright majority at the next Scottish parliamentary election.
This new 50 per cent rule would be most unwise, not least because it would remind Scots of the infamous 40 per cent rule in the 1979 devolution referendum. Then, Scotland voted Yes to a Scottish Assembly by the same margin – 52 per cent to 48 per cent – that the Brexiters won in the June 2016 referendum. They were told that this was not enough to justify even that modest constitutional change, yet it is apparently sufficient to embark upon a hard Brexit with no parliamentary backstop.
It might be more sensible to schedule the Scottish referendum on Nicola Sturgeon’s original timetable: before departure in March 2019 but after the Great Repeal Bill has gone through Westminster. That would be the time to sell the New Deal for Scotland with added Brexit powers. With departure from the EU a certainty, and clarity on what the constitutional picture will be (if not the trading one) then Scots voters might be persuaded that the game’s a bogey, and they might as well stick with the UK.
Who knows? This situation is without precedent in UK history. Indeed, you’d struggle to find parallels anywhere in the world for a country (the UK) trying to extricate itself from a Union (the EU) while two of its constituent parts, Scotland and Northern Ireland, are making for the exit. It is, to use a good Scots word, a right bourach. And Mr Davis has shone a bright spotlight right on it.