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Scotland needs a remedy for Brexit… not a replica

An European Union, a Saltire and an Union flag fly outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Independence for Scotland would represent a reckless ‘hold my beer’ response to Brexit. By DOUGLAS ALEXANDER.

I’m Scottish, British and European. I’m comfortable with layered identities, with pluralism, and I believe deeply in international cooperation.

In a previous life I was the UK’s Europe minister so I’ve seen the EU from the inside. It isn’t perfect, but I continue to believe the EU represents an extraordinary achievement… not only in helping bring peace to a continent previously devastated by conflict, but also in modelling how countries can cooperate effectively for the common good.

Like so many others, I campaigned, marched, and voted for the UK to remain in the EU, so it’s little wonder that I felt deep dismay at the 2016 result. It’s a decision that, for many of us, affects our sense of self and our sense of the future. It’s disingenuous to somehow pretend that Brexit isn’t a big deal – it is.

For some Remain supporters across the UK, coming to terms with the disappointment – almost grief – felt following the Brexit defeat has left them seemingly almost to be willing the break-up of the UK.

To some, the end of Britain would feel like the final vindication of the mess of Brexit, a giant “I told you so” to Brexiteers who were so cavalier about the risks they were running. But let us be honest here, over a million Scots voted for Brexit.

As someone who is proudly and passionately Scottish, I take a different view. Seen from Scotland, we need a remedy for Brexit. Not a replica. Rather than Scotland levering the UK apart, we should want Scotland to be a beacon for enlightened rational thought on how the UK can co-operate and align our interests with our sister European nations.

My politics, and indeed all politics, begins and ends with relationships; with our neighbours, with our community, with those who lead us. So, for me, constitutional politics involves much more than a ledger of accounts: it speaks to who we are, how we see ourselves, and how we relate to others. It’s about our common journey, our shared story.

My political creed is solidarity and sharing – co-operation, not separation. And while some argue fairly that, at present, what we share in the UK is not always well used, that critique does not stop it being, for me, a sign of something good and progressive in our partnership of nations; that wealth, risks, and rewards are better shared with our neighbours.

I believe that the United Kingdom, this oldest of political unions, embodies a progressive idea – one I like and believe in: that diversity is a strength and not a weakness.

I like that on these small rainy islands of the North Atlantic we share risks and rewards in a multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multinational union. Despite the huge challenges we face as a country, across the UK we gain from common services and shared strength in the face of a shared crisis like the pandemic, and shared threats like climate change.

In recent years we’ve seen the rise of nationalism and populism across the Western world. Identity politics is undoubtedly a powerful force. But here in Britain millions of us both north and south of the border feel squeezed between two nationalist narratives which in the last decade of division led us to the referendum in Scotland in 2014 and to the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Whether it is directed against London, as in the case with Scottish nationalism, or directed against Brussels, as is the case with English nationalism, nationalism always involves redrawing the boundaries of empathy and asserting a sense of “us” by constantly differentiating “us” from “them”.

The best response to a politics of flag waving, division, and new borders is not more flag waving, more division, and more borders. Brexit should serve as a warning to be heeded not as a model to be followed.

Scotland’s first minister has stated “There is no rational case for taking the UK out of the single market” – a point on which I agree.

She also stated that leaving the EU single market would be “disastrous” and “potentially ruinous” for Scotland’s economy. And Scotland does indeed export goods and services worth around £2.9bn to France – our largest EU trading partner.

Yet, the inconvenient truth for Nationalists is that Scotland exports more than £51.2bn of goods and services to the rest of the UK, compared to £16.1bn to European Union countries.

If it’s bad for Scotland to leave the EU single market – which receives around 19% of our exports, it would be disastrous for Scotland to leave the UK single market – where we send around 60% of our exports.

Indeed an LSE report last month confirmed that changes in trade costs due to independence would be two to three times more costly for the Scottish economy than the impact of Brexit.

Having witnessed one form of nationalism take us out of Europe with little thought for the consequences, we should be wary of another form of nationalism repeating a similar mistake in Scotland.

The Scottish Labour Party has a new leader, my friend Anas Sarwar. Anas believes – and I think he is right – that we should seek greater alignment around the single market and customs union. That is a more potent and constructive way to counter the UK’s isolation than the resignation of those willing upon Scotland a reckless ‘hold my beer’ response to Brexit.

Of course the Brexit vote has created another pretext for Nationalists to argue for independence. But this is just the latest in their long list of pretexts.

Our choice need not be between the status quo and separation. I believe a better choice than walking away is working together to radically redistribute power, wealth and opportunity across these islands.

From the first Scottish prime minister, the Earl of Bute, through to the most recent, Gordon Brown, Scotland has always helped shape Britain. We should pitch in, not push off.

Let me be crystal clear. Opposing independence does not require you to support Boris Johnson’s government. Indeed, I unequivocally condemn its manifest incompetence and callous indifference.

Boris Johnson and the Conservatives are not Britain any more than Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are Scotland.

In the last century we fought together to defeat fascism, and then worked together to build the welfare state. And just last year we stood on our doorsteps together from the inner cities to the Outer Hebrides and clapped for carers and our frontline workers in every part of the United Kingdom.

The lesson of this crisis is that what really matters is our interdependence, not our independence. The UK needs to change. But being separate countries will not create a fairer more inclusive future. Brexit does not allow us to help build a better EU or even a better Britain, just as Scexit would not allow us to help build a better Britain or even a better Scotland.

The progressive choice for the coming years is to build up our NHS, not break up our country. To end poverty, not to end Britain. It is to work together and not simply to walk away. Or as Billy Bragg wrote, “There is power in a Union”.

Rt Hon Douglas Alexander is a senior fellow at Harvard University and a former Secretary of State for Scotland

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