I’M all for optimism. I couldn’t do this job if I wasn’t. But on Brexit it becomes harder and harder to see an upside, or indeed to maintain a sense of humour.
This week’s report published by the Scottish Government – Scotland’s Place in Europe – is the latest in a series of serious, hard-headed assessments of what is at stake, and what sobering reading it makes. It analyses the likely impact of different possible scenarios as Brexit comes into view – none of them good, but some worse than others.
Hard Brexit is going to be a horror show, and no amount of red, white and blue flags, blue passports or Brexit Day stamps can disguise the fact that the implications are getting clearer and clearer and are nothing like the sunlit uplands the Brexiteers promised.
First published in The National, 18 January 2018.
Very broadly speaking, hard Brexit, if it happens, will remove the UK from both the single market and the customs union, and instead adopt World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and – crucially – tariffs. In an interconnected world simply saying “pfft, we’ll do best on our own, out of any union” isn’t feasible.
The world trades in a rule-based system which is enforced by supranational bodies. These tariffs mean our agriculture – the world-class Scottish produce so well championed within these pages – won’t have the same cast-iron protection as now.
There will be queues at the airports, at the ports, andincreased bureaucracy – all of it, but I’m focusing strongly on the trade and tariffs aspect of Brexit right now because that’s the real red line between a hard and soft Brexit.
We have a plethora of globally recognised goods and services – and people – who won’t be able to cross borders freely if the Brexiteers’ hard Brexit dream becomes a reality.
Soft Brexit (staying in the single market and customs union) would avoid the worst of the economic implications but means we’d lose our political influence in the Commission and Parliament.
We’d still be able to trade without tariffs, without border checks (see: queues and bureaucracy), and we wouldn’t be haemorrhaging financial firms and jobs the way we are now. Think Norway – they pay in, they get back, and they don’t have a say. Neither option is a good option, but one is distinctly less bad than the other. Hard Brexit is going to be awful. All the signs point towards it. We’re looking at a £12.7 billion per year cost to Scotland, thanks to reduced economic output. Maybe it’s a price worth paying, but should they not have told us what we’re getting in return by now? It seems a hefty price tag for blue passports.
But it’s not good enough to sit on the sidelines and yell “telt yeez” when everything goes to pot. The SNP are stepping in and giving solutions, trying to mitigate the body blow. While Scotland did indeed vote to remain part of the EU, with all the benefits, influence and support that membership brings, the Scottish Government has a duty to protect its citizens by trying to save the UK from itself. This week’s paper is a solid piece of serious work, and I strongly suggest you find yourself a copy of at least the eight-page summary because it shows how grown-up politics should work.
The report doesn’t pull any punches – we’re adults, we don’t need it sugar-coated – but it sets out some solid, sensible economic opportunities that show how Scotland would benefit from single-market membership. It doesn’t shy away from the F word either – freedom (of movement) – noting that, on average, each additional EU citizen working in Scotland contributes a further £34,400 in GDP. That includes £10,400 paid in taxes per additional EU citizen going towards our NHS and public services. Our European friends, family and neighbours are a boon, not a burden, and we should be damn grateful that they’ve come here and are part of our communities.
As time goes on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the UK Government doesn’t know what it’s doing and I’m not sure there is an agreed vision across the Cabinet table – much less the Conservative Party. It is not good enough for some to say we should simply let them get on with it. They’ve proven they’re not up to it, and need to be saved from themselves. We’re still trying to find solutions that work.