Scotland, England and Brexit
By Jim Gibbons
In October 1297 the great Scottish hero Sir William Wallace, together with Andrew Moray, wrote to the leaders of the Hanseatic League in Lübeck, assuring them of safe access to Scottish ports and harbours for their merchants. They also said they’d like this concession to be reciprocated. Sir William and Moray had just defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, gaining Scotland’s freedom from England, albeit fairly briefly on that occasion. When the letter was written, Moray was already dying, mortally wounded in the battle which would, centuries later, be celebrated in the movie “Braveheart”, with Mel Gibson playing Wallace, complete with kilt, woad-painted face and a very suspect Scottish accent. The letter, though, established Scotland’s wish to be part of European trade, rather than tied to its southern neighbour, even if it stopped somewhat short of applying to join the League itself. That European outlook still exists: the Scottish people voted by a considerable margin to remain in the European Union during the referendum in 2016 but their decision is being ignored in Westminster.
In fact, at the time of Wallace’s approach to Lübeck, Scotland already had a treaty with France, still known today as the Auld Alliance (Old Alliance), signed in 1295 between the kings of both countries, John Balliol and Philip the Fair, and aimed at providing mutual protection against an aggressively expansionist England. The irony is that Balliol was chosen to be king of Scotland by England’s ambitious Edward 1 after the death of the true heir, Margaret, the so-called “Maid of Norway”, in childhood. Edward thought Balliol would be pliant and obedient but within three years of taking the crown he was seeking friendship with England’s oldest enemy in order to keep away the man who had chosen him. The treaty, often renewed, lasted until 1560. It says a lot about relations between these neighbouring states of the United Kingdom. What England could not take with steel and gunpowder it largely achieved through bribery and coercion. As Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns put it:
“We’re bought and sold for English gold –
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”
The English have never been happy in a binding relationship of which they are not in sole charge.
“I think that in Scotland in general, people are more comfortable with having multiple identities and I think being European is not seen as problematic and to the extent – especially on the pro-independence side in Scotland, that people think there’s an external presence telling them what to do, that’s London and Westminster,” says Doctor Kirsty Hughes of the Scottish Centre for European Relations. She believes English people can feel uneasy about the influence of Brussels, while it has less resonance in Scotland than, for instance, the undoubted day-by-day influence of Westminster.
“Brexit is very much about English nationalism,” she argues. “There are a lot of very serious divisions in English society and it’s not that there are none in Scotland, but Scotland in a way is a country more at ease with itself and England I think is going to take very many years, whatever happens with Brexit, to work out what being English means.”
Doctor Hughes, who has spent thirty years writing and researching European Union issues, was one of the speakers at a conference in London in March 2019 about the future of Europe and the Scottish dimension, organised jointly by The Federal Trust, a pro-European think tank, and Doctor Hughes’ Scottish Centre on European Relations. Those attending heard how EU errors had contributed to the bad impression it seems to have made, especially in England, with (among other things) its failure to flag up the advantages of immigration and its embarrassingly cowardly silence over the trials of Catalan separatists in Spain. However, the Scots were aware of the €7-billion awarded to Scotland from the European Union’s Social Fund to help boost equality; English citizens rarely seem to know if some new facility has been funded under an EU scheme. Things are even odder in Wales, which currently receives around £680-million (€790-million) from EU funds every year – most it going to West Wales and the Valleys, where average income is below 75% of the EU average and seen as among Europe’s poorest. The recipients voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. But the view of most speakers at the London conference was that the main difference between Scotland and England was – and still is – leadership. Scotland has firm leadership that mainly explains to the people what is happening while the English rely upon and believe very suspect media. Most English newspapers are right-wing, anti-European and not always truthful. Many of the Euro-sceptic stories come under the heading “fake news”, although one conference speaker, Alistair Burnett, former editor of BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight, prefers to describe them simply as “lies”. Political leadership in England has been notable mainly for its absence, while the Conservatives have largely cast themselves as “the Brexit party”. In fact, within Westminster a lot of influence is held by a group of members of parliament opposed to British membership of the European Union. They call themselves the European Research Group (ERG). Does this mean that the Conservative Party has been infiltrated by far-right Eurosceptics? Probably not.
“I think you have to be careful about looking at it in that way,” says Brendan Donnelly of The Federal Trust. “The ERG represents most of the Conservative Party, it’s not that it has taken over the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party in its membership, in its constituency associations, has been radicalised enormously over the past ten to fifteen years. It’s really only in the parliamentary party that there’s any significant push-back.”
It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that according to the party’s own think tank, the Bow Group, the average age of Conservative Party members is 72. Most think that is an exaggeration; the true figure is probably closer to 57, much as it is in other political parties. But it’s a finding that does tend to underline the fact that many members are very conservative, with a small “c”, as well as Conservative with the Party’s capital letter. There are only some 124,000 of them, too; a smaller number of members in Britain overall than the Scottish National Party can boast. They are currently in government, however, and that somewhat jaundiced view of the European Union prevails among most – but not all – Conservative members.
“I think there are too many people making decisions based on incomplete knowledge and what are really gut feelings rather than intellectual considerations of the issues at hand,” says Neil Carmichael, the former Conservative Member of Parliament for Stroud in Gloucestershire and now President of a group campaigning for a second referendum, Conservatives for a People’s Vote (C4PV). “The issue is fundamentally about our national interests, it’s what we’ve got to pursue and the Conservative Party seems to have deviated from that.”
While this has been worrying for those in England who would prefer to remain in or at least close to the European Union, north of the border it has been a nightmare. They’re shouting loudly but London isn’t listening.
“Back in 2017, a majority of members of the Scottish Parliament – not just Nationalists but also the Greens – voted that Scotland should be allowed to hold another independence referendum before Scotland got taken out of the European Union against its will,” explains Joanna Cherry, a Scottish National Party (SNP) member of the Westminster Parliament. “Now so far the British government have refused the legitimate means to do that, but there’s a big problem with democracy here in that the representatives of the Scottish people, who in a democratic vote have said they want another independence referendum and the British government is denying them the legitimate means, so in the weeks and months to come, Scotland is going to have to find a way round that, because by far the majority of Scots want to remain members of the European Union.”
The problem is that most English politicians do not recognise Scotland as anything other than a part of the United Kingdom. It was in 1603 that the Crowns of Scotland and England merged, following the death of the childless Elizabeth 1 of England and the succession of James, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, a royal cousin executed on the orders of Elizabeth. He was already King of Scotland and he had children who would succeed him, so looked like a good choice. A century later, after a series of bad harvests in Scotland and ruinous financial losses due to an ill-fated colonisation scheme, England offered to help out, but the price was the union of the parliaments, which was very much against the wishes of most Scots. The vote was taken in a fairly poorly-attended Scottish Parliament in 1707, those supporting the idea having been won over by offers of financial assistance. It is the issue referred to in Robert Burns’ poem, quoted earlier. The “Parcel of Rogues” refers not especially to the English but rather more to the Scottish aristocrats and landowners who sold out to them. And the Treaty of Union, passed in 1706 in England and the following year in Scotland, is very much still in force, meaning Scotland is being compelled to comply with a Brexit that won most support in England and relatively little north of the border.
“At the moment, Scotland is certainly part of the United Kingdom,” says Brendan Donnelly, “and if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, then Scotland will have to go with it. I think that’s one of the many aspects of Brexit that is going to cause some strain in the United Kingdom.”
The continuing row places the people of Scotland in an invidious position. They certainly don’t want to leave the European Union but neither do they want to break up the United Kingdom. It’s been some 1,600 years, after all, since a hard border existed between Scotland and England, despite battles, wars and minor skirmishes, and nobody on either side of it wants it to be policed and guarded, fitted with customs posts and passport checks. It is a bigger issue on the island or Ireland, of course, where the EU-funded Peace Process is still seen by most people as a vital tool to keep the gunmen and bombers at bay. There, a border of 499 kilometres has a great many crossing places, each of which would require controls and presumably customs booths and passport checks if one side of it were to be inside the European Union and the other outside. It would not be easy to police for historical political reasons, running as it does primarily through what would be seen as Irish nationalist territory where English or Northern Irish guards are unlikely to be popular and it could prove to be an irresistible target for terrorists bent on disruption. Circumstances are different along the border between England and Scotland but the same caveat applies: if Scotland managed to stay in the EU when England left, then a border would be essential. And nobody wants one. However, as both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, the many inconveniences arising from an unwanted departure is leading some to consider that breaking up the United Kingdom could be an interesting alternative option.
“I think the choice becomes very stark,” says Doctor Kirsty Hughes. “If Brexit goes ahead, Scotland chooses to stay with the UK or chooses to go independent in the EU and if it were to choose independence you do hit some serious border problems, although how serious those are comes back to the question we don’t have an answer to yet, the UK’s future relationship with the EU.”
Nobody wants to harm Scotland’s world-famous whisky industry, either. Scotch whisky accounts for 20% of all the United Kingdom’s food and drink exports, with the largest regional destination being the EU, which takes 39% by volume, 31% by value, mainly entering through the Port of Rotterdam, a fact that tends to exaggerate the value of the Dutch market. It also provides some 40,000 jobs, many of them in remote and hard-to-reach rural areas of Scotland where work is not easy to find. Overall exports of whisky were worth almost €5.5-billion in 2018. A messy exit from the European Union would be disastrous. And to quote Robert Burns’ memorable use of old Scottish dialect again: “Freedom and Whisky gang tegither!” (Freedom and Whisky go together)
“A no-deal Brexit would cause the Scotch whisky industry considerable difficulties,” says Karen Betts, Chief Executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, “and could force cost and complexity into production, distribution and exporting.”
And it’s not just whisky; Scottish politicians like Ian Hudghton, an SNP member of the European Parliament, at least until the European Parliament’s mandate ends before the 2019 elections, have little faith in London’s ability or even its willingness to concern itself with Scotland’s businesses.
“Scotland sells significant quantities of high-value products, such as Scotch Whisky and quality seafood, within the EU single market,” he says. “There is justified fear among businesses active in such industries that we may face some interruptions to the smooth flow of shipments, especially if we leave with no deal. The UK Government will be responsible for negotiating our future relationship, and we have no reason to be confident in their negotiating skills, or their commitment to protecting Scotland’s interests.”
Even so, the rest of the UK remains Scotland’s largest market, taking 60% of its exports in 2017 to a total value of well over €57-billion. A further 22%, valued at more than €20-billion went to the rest of the world. The European Union took just 18% – slightly under €17.5-billion – which is a sizeable proportion but not Scotland’s most important. And whisky isn’t the top export, either. That honour goes to oil and gas (almost €12-billion), followed by machinery and transport at almost €8.5-billion.
“It’s true to say at the moment that England is Scotland’s main trading partner,” says Joanna Cherry, MP, of the Scottish National Party, “but that was the position for the Republic of Ireland back in the early seventies when it joined the European Union. Now the Republic of Ireland does its major trading with the European Union and in actual fact for Scotland the biggest area for growth in Scotland’s trade, its foreign trade, is the European Union. Scotland needs to commit to the future. Do we want to be part of a market of five-hundred million people – the European Union – or part of a market of sixty-five million people, the UK, and I think that’s a bit of a no-brainer.”
The unfavourable market comparison has also been made by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Taking Scotland out of the European Union is bad enough but the UK government looks set to go further. “It will take us out of the customs union and the benefits of EU trade deals with more than forty countries across the globe,” said Ms. Sturgeon. “In short, it will make us poorer.” Quite a lot poorer, it’s claimed: analysis by the Scottish government published in November 2018 estimates that it will cost every person in Scotland £1,600 (€1855.08) by 2030, compared with staying in the EU.
Scotland’s fisheries have lost a lot of their economic importance but little of their significance to the Scottish psyche. It’s a fishing country. Many, perhaps the vast majority of Scotland’s fishermen voted to leave the EU. A former Scottish MEP, the late Doctor Allan Macartney, used to say it was partly down to religion. A lot of Scottish fishermen are members of a radical Calvinist branch of the Presbyterian Protestant church, known somewhat pejoratively as the Wee Frees, and they view the European Union as a Roman Catholic plot. But few would ever argue that the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was without fault. Even its supporters tend to cross their fingers behind their backs whilst defending it, although it has prevented extinction of fish stocks and preserved the (admittedly somewhat reduced) livelihoods of the boat skippers, crews and fishing communities.
“The CFP is unpopular for good reasons,” says Ian Hudghton, “It has been far too centralised and inflexible in its application, although the most recent review made a start in building a foundation for devolving some decisions on regulation. UK Governments were fully involved in constructing the CFP over the decades. Many fishers expect to be able to catch more fish outside of the CFP. Given that the UK Government has chosen to retain management powers in London after Brexit, I am not confident that Scotland’s fishing communities will suddenly become a political priority at Westminster. The UK’s record in representing us in the EU has been very poor.”
Meanwhile, there is dispute over the so-called Block Grant, money contributed to Scotland’s budget from the United Kingdom Treasury. According to Scottish sources, including Derek Mackay, the Scottish government’s Finance Secretary, it has been cut for this coming year by almost £2-billion (roughly €2.75-billion) compared with 2011, a claim disputed by Scottish Conservatives who say it has gone up. “Derek Mackay can’t play any more tricks,” Conservative Shadow Finance Secretary Murdo Fraser told the Scottish Parliament, “The numbers are there in black and white, and now he has to act. He should apologise for claiming he has less money when it can be clearly shown that’s not the case, and admit this has been a great budget for Scotland.”
It is very hard to be definitive on the issue. UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced in his 2018 Autumn Budget that Scotland would be getting £2-billion extra, as Mr. Fraser claims, but it comes with strings attached that limit where and how it can be spent and, in any case, it has to be repaid eventually to the British Treasury. It would perhaps, be more accurate to describe it as a very cheap form of borrowing. Trying the read the actual figures is tricky because parts of the Block Grant Adjustment (BGA) mentioned by Mr Hammond involve fiscal measures that have not yet been devolved, requiring recalculation of virtually all the figures.
But whether it has gone up or down, the Scottish government has tax raising powers to compensate. In fact, it has set its tax rates higher than in England, with higher rate taxes starting with annual earnings of £43,430 (just under €51,000) compared with starting at £50,000 (€58,573) in England, although lower-rate tax payers are better off. The Block Grant calculations, under what’s known as the Barnett Formula, are so arcane and complicated that the issue leaves plenty of room for heated debate. Devised in the 1970s by the then Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Joel Barnett, to allocate central funds to the UK’s devolved governments on the basis of population numbers, it actually seems to favour people in Scotland and especially Northern Ireland unfairly compared with the English and Welsh. Lord Barnett himself, now in his nineties, has long called for it to be scrapped. Many in Scotland reckon they could be better off without it, if anyone other than a qualified accountant could understand it.
“One of the main benefits of independence for Scotland,” argues Ian Hudghton, “would be the ability to manage all of our own income, not just expenditure. The UK Government’s austerity policy continues to cause a painful squeeze on the block grant, and the Scottish Government works very hard to mitigate the worst effects of Tory austerity policy.”
Scotland has always made its mark in Europe. Under the Auld Alliance, Scottish soldiers fought alongside Joan of Arc during the so-called Hundred Years War in the early 15th century and it was Scottish military music that greeted her triumphant entry into Orléans after she led French troops to raise the English siege. She was just 17 years old and from peasant stock. The Scots loved her. Anyone who could put a dent in English over-confidence was a friend. Earlier, in a battle on Easter Sunday 1421, the brother of Henry V, the victor of Agincourt, was killed and his army routed by a Scottish force fighting for France. Pope Martin V, on hearing the news, commented that “the Scots are well-known as an antidote to the English”. If Mrs May’s Conservatives are still seeking revenge for that defeat and others they’ve left it a very long time. Another Burns poem begins with the stirring lines, recalling ancient battles:
“Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory!”
(Scots who have with Wallace bled; Scots whom Bruce has often led, welcome to your gory bed or to victory)
After all, Scotland has long seen itself as a European nation. Scottish traders were active in Europe from at least the early 13th century and had even created a settlement at Bruges in what is now Belgium. It was called “Scottendyk”. Scottish surnames are not uncommon in Flanders even today, nor names of Flemish origin in Scotland. If the Scots decide to defy the government in Westminster in some way it may once more be Robert Burns whose words will resonate as they scream defiance at the old foe:
“Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow! —
Let us do or die!”
Though for most in Scotland that may be taking things a bit too far.