Andrew Hughes: The secret game of pass the parcel that Sturgeon and May are playing on Brexit

Writer Andrew Hughes analyses the reality behind the political games on Brexit

AS I write, Nicola Sturgeon is setting out her proposals for securing Scotland’s place in the single market after the UK leaves the EU. 

She’ll laud immigration, stress the importance of freedom of movement and explain why all of this is such a good thing for the country. I don’t disagree.

But the main point has already been made. Stephen Gethins has been doing the rounds this morning saying it – namely, that the UK Government has vowed to give Ireland the same thing that Scotland is asking for.

I’d give the first minister 6-12 months to freely meet with EU heads of state, with the express purpose of persuading them to let Scotland stay.

"If Ireland can maintain freedom of movement and the common travel area ... there’s no reason why Scotland can’t do exactly the same thing," he told the BBC.

"If Ireland can have a common travel area and the Westminster government doesn’t think that will imperil [the economy], why is Scotland different?"

We will be hearing this argument until a) Scotland joins the single market, b) Scotland becomes independent, or c) we die. And I can see why.

However it pans out, the UK’s policy on the Irish border is a plus for the SNP. The question about checkpoints along the Scottish-English border dogged the nationalists during indyref. But it’s already resolved for indyref 2 – and it’s the UK Government that has done the heavy lifting. 

'We’ll have the deal you gave Ireland' will be the cheerful answer whenever it comes up.

I’d do it for three reasons. One, because it would be great for the UK at large if it actually happened. The Brexiters of England get to 'take back control'. Scotland gets the free market. 

In the meantime, there’s a different question. How does Theresa May respond to the government’s Brexit paper? How does she respond to the first minister’s clear statement that Scotland wants to stay in the single market?

If I was Theresa May, I’d say three words to Nicola Sturgeon: "Go on then."

I’d give the first minister 6-12 months to freely meet with EU heads of state, with the express purpose of persuading them to let Scotland stay.

I’d do it for three reasons. One, because it would be great for the UK at large if it actually happened. The Brexiters of England get to 'take back control'. Scotland gets the free market. 

All those worries about whether companies will relocate to Ireland or to mainland Europe? Now it’s a question of whether they change their head office from London to Edinburgh. The UK economy benefits either way, arguably Scotland benefits most of all. A genuine best of both worlds – and one where more people get what they voted for. What could be better than that?

The third reason is the clincher - and where the first minister’s goals hit against hard political reality. I’d let Nicola Sturgeon spend a year trying to make this happen because the EU will absolutely, positively, definitely say 'no'.

The second reason is less positive, but still to do with managing the different countries of the UK. The fear with Ireland is a return to hard borders and police-patrolled checkpoints. That’s terrifying because of the spectre of terrorism rearing its head again in Northern Ireland. 

So the UK and Irish governments are right to say 'let’s come up with a solution, let’s move heaven and earth to minimise the risk of that happening again'. But it’s a perverse logic that says 'let’s not give the same thing to Scotland if it wants it'. 

There is a worrying strain of logic that having a traumatic, violent past related to national identity will get you a cushier deal on borders and possibly improve your access to the single market. That is a horrific message to send to wholly peaceful nationalist movements elsewhere in the UK.

That’s not an insignificant point. But the third reason is the clincher - and where the first minister’s goals hit against hard political reality. I’d let Nicola Sturgeon spend a year trying to make this happen because the EU will absolutely, positively, definitely say 'no'.

They’ll do so to ward off Europe’s anti-EU and nationalist movements. The EU doesn’t want leaving the EU to look attractive; that way everyone might try and do it. If you’re giving special deals to regions – and worse, special deals to regions of countries that aren’t even EU members any more – then it’s open season for the nationalist movements and populist uprisings of Europe to expect the same thing. 

The EU doesn’t want leaving the EU to look attractive; that way everyone might try and do it. If you’re giving special deals to regions then it’s open season for the nationalist movements and populist uprisings of Europe to expect the same thing. 

They can each devise the version of EU or single market membership that’s most attractive to their audience and say it’s entirely within reach. They’ll all claim a precedent: 'Well, Scotland got it. Why can’t we?'

Any government with a separatist or populist opposition snapping at their heels will vote against it. Spain and the Catalans. Marine le Pen. The Alternative fur Deutschland. The Italian Five Star Movement. Almost every EU country has an opposition that would benefit from this.

The EU can’t allow its membership options to feel like a well-appointed buffet menu, even if keeping Scotland in the tent would boost its coffers slightly. 

So let’s be clear – as long as Scotland is part of the UK, this will not happen. Theresa May knows this. I believe Nicola Sturgeon knows this. So there’s a proxy war going on – a game of pass the parcel. Neither of them wants to be the one who has to admit that Scotland can’t get a different deal to the rest of the UK.

In that context (and taking the analogy a bit too far), today’s announcement is Nicola Sturgeon shoving the parcel of EU disappointment into Theresa May’s lap and saying: "Here, here’s a nice long list of everything Scotland wants from the EU. Now tell us that we can’t have it and I’ll reap the political benefit."

So let’s be clear – as long as Scotland is part of the UK, this will not happen. Theresa May knows this. I believe Nicola Sturgeon knows this. There’s a proxy war going on.

Theresa May wants to look in control. She wants a unified plan for the UK and the last thing she wants to do is provoke another independence referendum.

Counter-intuitively, the best way of doing that would be to swallow some pride and let Nicola Sturgeon spend the next year failing to deliver all this stuff instead. 

In other words, she should hand the parcel right back.

Picture courtesy of First Minister of Scotland

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Comments

alexmissionary

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 20:05

What's the point of this article? Does the author have a better strategy to suggest. Rifkind or Massie could have written it

Fuinary

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 20:41

Article was OK except for the description of Scotland as a 'region' of the UK. Scotland is a country. Read the history books Mr Hughes.

Arthur Blue's picture

Arthur Blue

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 20:47

I doubt whether Mrs May will do anything much about Scotland, intuitively or otherwise. That's not where her vote base lies. So sooner or later it will come to another independence referendum.

orcadia

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 22:26

This guy doesn't make any sense, I know we joke about the Irish but !!!!!!!!!!!!! how would the EU allowing Scotland (a country) to stay in help the other places i.e. Catalonia (a region) - can you see the difference Mr Hughes?

Topflat

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 08:29

Motive that the question I always think - What is someones motive for doing something and I have to wonder what the motive, of the author and of Commonspace is, with articles like this.
First off, if you're writing about it then it is not a secret, second, what happens in public and what happens behind the scenes is common place. I did my first tour of duty in northern Ireland in 1972, the same year the Government and the IRA began 'secret' negotiations to end the conflict while publicly stating that they[government] would never deal with terrorists (I'm using the terms of the day there).
So, commonspace what is your motive for articles like this?

DougDaniel

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 09:31

I suspect Catalans would disagree with you about Catalonia not being a country, Orcadia.

DougDaniel

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 10:20

The final point about giving Scotland a special deal encouraging the likes of Le Pen and Alternativ für Deutschland is just plain wrong. In 2014, it was all about discouraging separatist movements in member states, but in 2016 onward, it's about ensuring the overall territorial integrity of the EU.

A special deal for Scotland would basically be punishing the UK for leaving the EU. That does not help Le Pen, who is a French nationalist, and therefore does not want the territorial integrity of France to be threatened. Le Pen will want the UK to leave the EU in one piece, to demonstrate to French voters that leaving the EU won't suddenly lead to the break up of the French state.

The EU is going to be trying to weather the storm of anti-EU feeling over the next year or so. That is best served by giving as much encouragement as possible to anyone promoting a pro-EU message. If Leave voters in England knew in advance that voting to leave the EU would lead directly to the break up of the UK, would they have done it? Some would, maybe even most - but a majority? Highly unlikely.

Giving Scotland a special deal sends a simple message to Eurosceptic voters throughout the EU member states - beware of unintended consequences.

Deferd

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 11:16

What a terrible report this is,it's been written in stages the beginning doesn't add up with the end.
In the second paragraph he says "I don't disagree" why not just say "I agree" honestly poor poor writing.
He then goes on to say if he were Theresa May he would say "go on then join the single market " ? His reasons being that he thinks the EU will reject Scotland being in the single market because it might encourage other countries ? I mean other regions ? Eh I actually don't know what I mean ..sorry but your report is rubbish with no credible foundation,Nicola Sturgeon has been discussing this whole subject with people that matter in the EU for months and wouldn't suggest it if it was going to be rejected.
Lastly and worst of all in his paragraph that begins with
"There is a worrying strain of logic....." he actually suggests that by refusing Scotland the border arrangements being offered to Ireland there is a possibility that there could be terrorism on the scale of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland in Scotland and England !!
I lived in Northern Ireland in the sixties and seventies when the troubles took place and I can say for sure that the same would never happen between Scotland and England ,for this Andrew Hughes to suggest that the same level of hatred exists in Scotland and England is actually incredible ,where do commonspace get these writers ? They need to review their hiring of writers urgently because there have been several writers like this who are so way out of touch with reality it's worrying .

Jams O'Donnell

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 17:14

Teresa May is not smart or strong enough to do as the author suggests. Apart from that, full marks to the commentators.

Moridura's picture

Moridura

Wed, 01/04/2017 - 17:44

The point of any article is to offer the writer's views. Andrew Hughes has done this. They are comprehensive and closely argued. I don't agree with all of them, but I respect his right to offer them and Common Space's right to publish them.

If I thought the querulous, indignant and intolerant tone of some of the comments was representative, I would fear for Scotland - but I don't.

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