The SNP continue to dominate in Scotland; the Salmond affair has had little to no effect; pro independence parties look on course for a majority in Holyrood. Any appearance of ‘Bozo’ Johnson, his every utterance is a boost for Nicola Sturgeon. With Keir Starmer’s vow of silence on Brexit, the two largest UK parties are gifting the SNP with an open goal, which Nicola Sturgeon accepts with alacrity.
While Northern Ireland, which voted against Brexit remains both part of the UK and in the EU Single Market, Scotland, which as a country overwhelmingly rejected Brexit, is compelled to endure the harsh restrictions of a Brexit it never wanted and is not even what Brexiters had promised.
Where are the Liberal Democrats in all this? Struggling at something like 6%, Liberal Democrats in Scotland might seem to have the appearance of an endangered species, however whilst Lib Dems support federalism, there is a lack of substance for the scope of federalism. Ming Campbell, who has been asked by the party to update the policy on federalism, has written, arguing for “a partnership with proper separation of powers among the four nations”, that the “objective is a system of government which allows for the expression of different identities and builds additional influence and strength with co-operation and common purpose; which embraces joint action when necessary and enhances effectiveness; decentralisation of power where practicable and desirable”. OK up to a point, but no reference to the dominant issue of the fallout from Johnson’s dogmatic Brexit.
Liberal Democrats need to be more blunt: Scotland has its own government, but in many areas it has no competence and is effectively excluded from any influence. Lib Dems, with a long history of support for devolution, federalism and above all for the principle of self-determination, need to express faith in the Scots’ ability to manage their own affairs; this should include management of economics, of industry and relations with near neighbours.
It is no longer to sustainable to claim that membership of the Single Market and Customs Union is unthinkable or impracticable while still part of the UK. Northern Ireland has set the precedent and is readjusting to an economy that is increasingly reliant on distribution to and from the Republic. Why cannot the Scots choose the same? At the very least the Scots merit the right to choose for themselves to weigh up advantages and disadvantages irrespective of the independence question. In many ways Scotland would benefit from incorporation in the Single Market; moreover, Ireland, the Republic and the North could benefit too. Sure there would be border problems, but we should not assume ab initio they cannot be managed. Some in the EU/EEA might demur at such a proposal, but others would not: the Scots should at least have the right to ask.
It is not even certain that a devolved Northern Ireland and Scotland could not also be EU members. Within the EU, we do know there is increased sympathy for the position of the Scots. Barbara Lippert, an expert in EU enlargement and director of research at the Berlin German Institute for International and Security Affairs, has described Brexit as a “gamechanger” for many in Europe and there would now be “broad openness” to a Scotland becoming part of the EU. In terms of membership criteria “Scotland will look like a bright spot” she comments, “I think it will be top of the list of candidates, maybe together with Iceland and other EFTA countries” and would not be put “in the same basket” as Western Balkan states looking to join the EU.
Rather than join in with Starmer and Johnson telling Scotland to put up with it and shut up, thereby consigning Scotland to the rule of English nationalists, Liberal Democrats should advocate the right to self-determination, for Scots to manage their own affairs without having to leave the UK.