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Scotland and the EU: an interview with the SNP’s independence minister

A “yes” to independence would also mean “yes” to Brussels

Independence minister Jamie Hepburn in the Scottish Parliament (Photo by Ken Jack/Getty Images)

“It’s the first time ever in my life I’ve been compared to Jacob Rees-Mogg, I can certainly assure you of that,” says Jamie Hepburn.

Scotland’s current and, indeed, first independence minister is taken aback by the suggestion. The role – a junior one which does not involve attending cabinet – was only created by Humza Yousaf last year, and I have mentioned the view of a well-connected Scottish friend who compared it to Rees-Mogg’s previous minister for Brexit opportunities role: a non-job which nevertheless keeps a section of his party happy.

“I also assure you I’m nothing like Jacob Rees-Mogg in a whole host of ways, not least my ministerial role,” says Hepburn, 44. “I can understand why people might perceive that to be the case, and there’s no doubt that the role has been welcomed by those who are in favour of independence, but it goes back to this point: when we won the election of 2021 we stood on a platform of being able to hold a referendum, another referendum, we believe we should be able to do that because we’ve got a mandate to do it.”

We are meeting at Scotland House, a single floor of a shared workplace building on Victoria Embankment which I’m told is emphatically not the Scottish Government’s de facto London embassy. Hepburn is in London as part of Building a New Scotland, a series of papers published by the Scottish Government that set out a prospectus for independence. Nine have so far been published, including An independent Scotland in the EU.

Hepburn talks about a written constitution for an embryonic Scottish state (“Most countries in the world think the UK’s a bit of an outlier being amongst one of the, I think it’s seven, countries in the world that doesn’t have a written constitution”). But would such a constitution explicitly include EU membership?

“I wouldn’t rule that out,” he says. “That’s not something that we’ve specifically said. What we have, of course, said, and it’s consistent with the party’s position and the government’s position, is that an independent Scotland should be part of the European Union.”

Would that EU membership require a separate referendum, I ask. Or, given that the SNP is explicit in an independent Scotland taking its place in Brussels, would a vote for independence implicitly give a mandate for membership?

“Oh, certainly our own perspective is: it doesn’t by necessity have to involve another referendum,” says Hepburn. “I suppose once Scotland’s independent we’ll still be a pluralistic democracy, so there’ll be different perspectives and different points of view in relation to that point, and, you know, others could stand on a platform of saying ‘yes, we want to join the EU, and there should be a referendum and if people vote for that then there will be a referendum’.

“Others might stand on the basis of ‘well, you voted for us, we’re going to move to the negotiation to be part of the EU’. That broadly reflects our position just now, but within any democracy it will be for the people to determine on the basis of who they vote for at the ballot box.”

It will also, of course, be for the EU to determine whether an independent Scottish state should be invited into the club. Spain, with its own secessionist movements, has blown hot and cold on the issue during and since the 2014 independence referendum, although it has softened its stance more recently. Claims that even Belgium might veto Scottish membership have been more mischievous.

“Well, look, the EU of 2024 is different from the EU of 2014,” says Hepburn. “I suppose a few things have happened in the interim. I think the first thing that’s happened, of course, was the EU referendum in the UK. How a lot of friends on the European continent who, if I’m perfectly candid with you, in 2014 were looking at it as ‘What is this? What’s this thing about Scotland wanting to become independent?’ might have crystallised around the experience of 2016 when they saw how the outcome of the EU referendum was rather different in Scotland by comparison with the UK as a whole. So I think there is a sympathetic point of view across Europe in the sense that we voted to remain part of the EU and I think that is recognised.

“In terms of dialogue with the EU, there’s a chronology to these things. You know, we wouldn’t be as presumptuous to start the process now. The people of Scotland would need to determine that they want to become an independent country before you actually get into that level of dialogue with any serious form of intent. But, you know, just as we are sitting in this office we have here in London, the Scottish Government has an office in Brussels as well, so we’re continuously engaging with friends in Europe and the structure of the European Union.”

An independent Scotland in the EU tackles some of the issues which would face Scotland as a third country seeking membership, most notably the adoption of the euro and Schengen. On the euro the document seeks to kick the issue into the long grass, saying that “as the European Commission has made clear, no timetable for member states joining the eurozone is prescribed” and points out that “Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania still retain their own currencies, in some cases approaching 20 years after accession”. Hepburn says: “We’ve laid out our prospectus. We recognise on the euro you need to make certain commitments and we’ve said we accept them.” Which sort of suggests parking it.

On Schengen, he says: “There is an area around Schengen, you know, sharing a land border with the UK… that might be one area that we’d need to have a specific discussion with the EU around, but broadly we recognise you can’t pick and choose which of the rules of the club you don’t like. Those are the rules and you accept them when you join. I suppose the question is, would an independent Scotland look to become like UK 2.0 and take all these opt-outs and the rest of it? No. We wouldn’t be looking for that.”

But that would, of course, entail border controls between Scotland and England.

“Well, look, we recognise for some goods and products there are likely to have to be some checks,” he says. “For other aspects of course there’s the process of negotiation with a likely change of government at the UK level as well. I strongly suspect we’ll see movement in that regard. I know that the Labour Party, for example, has been talking about a veterinary agreement with the European Union which, in terms of the transport of a lot of goods, would probably take account of much of those concerns.

“But actually this is an issue that’s discussed by and large by the wider public. They’re really talking about the inability of individuals to be able to traverse the border. And our proposition is very clear: we should be part of the Common Travel Area which exists across these islands as well, which, if you look at the interaction between Ireland and the UK, is something that long predates the Republic of Ireland’s membership of the European Union and the UK’s now-lapsed membership of the European Union. That’s existed since 1922, so why would we seek to change such arrangements once Scotland becomes independent? It won’t be in anyone’s interest to do so.”

Hepburn’s argument throughout is that the SNP’s electoral performance gives it a mandate for a second independence referendum. But I venture, doesn’t the opposite apply? Wouldn’t a poor electoral performance dilute, remove that mandate? We speak on a morning a large, if opaquely funded, Telegraph poll suggests a drop from 43 to 25 SNP seats in the House of Commons at the next general election. What if people move away from the SNP due to matters away from the constitution?

“Any events specifically in mind?”

Well, there’s that whole former leader and her husband being arrested and questioned by police investigating a possible fundraising fraud matter, I suggest.

“That is, I would recognise, sub-optimal, but – and there’s a limit to what we can say as it’s an ongoing investigation and we don’t know where that will go – of course it’s been a challenging period,” says Hepburn. “The first minister’s come in at a time when there are a number of challenges, but if you look at transparency in governance within my party, he’s been very clear we need to make sure that we’re improving in that regard and he’s put in place a set of arrangements.

“In terms of whether or not it’ll permeate the wider debate – look, you wouldn’t believe me if I said it doesn’t come up on the doorstep, of course it does. Does it come up on the doorstep in such a way that I think it’s gonna massively influence the outcome of the election? I don’t think so. Of course people raise it and raise it in a certain fashion, but I’m not getting a sense it’s gonna determine how they’ll vote when push comes to shove.”

Hepburn’s focus is on his job, he says, and he remains convinced an independent Scottish state is on its way to taking its place at the Brussels table.

“I think we’re very placed for a fairly straightforward series of negotiations, a fairly straightforward process of accession. I think it’s an interesting area of critique in terms of ‘well, this is going to take an awfully long time’. Well, it’s going to be an awful lot quicker than waiting for the UK to rejoin the EU. There is absolutely no sign of that happening. At the end of the day it’ll take as long as it takes, but it’s going to be a hell of a lot quicker than waiting for the UK to rejoin.”

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