Barriers will make Scotland a pawn - not a power

PUBLISHED: 11:49 03 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:49 03 March 2017

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie tries to make sense of the clamour

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie tries to make sense of the clamour

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Brexit has given new life to the Scottish National Party’s obsession for a new vote on independence

The geography of politics in the UK has utterly shifted – and in Scotland, as usual, we have our own twist.

Labour are acting out some sort of Shakespearean play as Jeremy Corbyn is Theresa May’s ineffective body guard on a dangerous Brexit.

The Scottish Labour Party clarify the position by opposing the UK Labour position while some of their MSPs oppose that new position – you couldn’t make this chaos up.

Labour have failed to provide an opposition, instead through their internal meltdown they have shown nothing but compliance. They have turned the fine tradition of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to Her Majesty’s Compliant Opposition.

Meanwhile we have the Scottish Conservatives revealing their true colours choosing party over country with their damaging Hard Brexit, while claiming to be defenders of the UK, even though their actions risk tearing us further apart.

They gambled on an EU referendum and lost. Refusing to learn from their past mistakes they are gambling once again.

Through the pursuit of a Hard Brexit they are risking the fragile economy, built back after the recession by the Coalition Government, now plunging into a pit of economic risk. As the isolationist fringe of the Conservative Party takes over our Government we turn to holding hands with Donald Trump in a desperate attempt to seek some sort of future trade deal that will only benefit America.

The SNP believe that the answer to Conservative nationalism is their own brand of nationalism, both of which are equally damaging. An independent Scotland could be outside the EU too, crippling the Scottish economy with double isolation.

The response to the horror etched on the faces of people on the June 23 should not be to impose greater sorrow in the hearts of Scots who value the relationship with our friends in Cornwall, Newcastle, Southampton, Swansea and Ballymena. They didn’t all vote to leave.

In the rest of the UK ten times as many people voted to remain as in Scotland. Why do Nationalists seek to diminish the 15 million remain voters in the rest of the UK? Surely they are worth standing with as we seek to persuade the rest. Independence is not the economic or the emotional answer to Brexit.

But it is noteworthy that Scottish National Party’s commitment to the EU has been compromised.

Recently I asked SNP Brexit Minister Mike Russell whether it was true that the party would fail to propose that an independent Scotland would be a full member of the European Union. He refused to answer. When Alex Salmond was asked the same he issued a non-denial denial. It is unusual for Salmond to be so careful with his reaction.

It’s not surprising as one third of their supporters favoured Brexit. I meet them every week on the doorsteps. Brexit supporters who backed independence in 2014 but are opposed now because of the independence in Europe policy. Desperate to keep them on board for an independence referendum they are prepared to sell out Europe to get their dream of independence. But in doing so they are compromising with an isolationist agenda – just like the Labour Party. The SNP would sell their granny on Amazon if it would win a few more votes for independence.

Some liberal-minded people have thought about whether, perhaps, Scottish independence is the best way to stay in the EU. They are prepared to put aside the innate rejection of nationalism that is inherent in the liberal approach. But they are going to be disappointed. You haven’t heard any senior nationalist say “the only way to keep Scotland in the EU is to have independence”. They used to say that all the time. Now they don’t.

They now say that their dissatisfaction with the UK Government “transcends the issue of Europe”. So the risk of their proposal is that it leaves Scotland outside the UK and outside the EU. What a disaster that would be.

Putting up barriers – whether regulatory or tariff, through independence or Brexit – will be bad for business. It will signal the start of a race to the bottom on tax and wages, and a low-skill economy. It will force us to be more dependent on Trump or on Chinese investment. It will mean we are a pawn rather than a world leader. And it will happen if we leave the single market of 500 million customers with the common, decent standards for employment that are part-and-parcel of the whole way it works.

There was a placard on display in a recent demonstration in Washington DC. You may have seen it. It read, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this stuff” – at least that is the sanitised version.

It’s how I feel sometimes. In 2014 the SNP said they would undercut the Chancellor George Osborne on corporation tax, however low he went, to try to boost growth. Now, post-Brexit, current Chancellor Philip Hammond says he will cut corporation tax to boost growth. And it is clear that an independent Scotland would have to follow suit.

A strong economy needs businesses that grow by being the best at what they do, making sure everyone knows it and everyone buys it in Britain, in Europe and across the World. Strength in the long run is by being the best, not by being – temporarily – the cheapest place on one tax.

Only Liberal Democrats believe in a different future. We believe that the people should have a say on our future on where we go next after that vote on June 23.

It is poppycock to suggest that this is undemocratic. I am proud that we have trust in the people to decide our future instead of the small number round the Conservative cabinet table making decisions that will impact our lives for generations to come.

Of course we must respect the referendum result. But political leaders have got a responsibility to lead. Political leadership is sometimes about persuading people, not just repeating what the last focus group told you. That is followership.

This leadership is missing at one of the most significant periods in modern political times. It would only be right for the British people to have the final say on whatever deal is agreed by the Conservative Government with the EU.

This is a fight that won’t be easily won. But more people are standing up for the values of an outward looking UK. The SNP keep hoping that Brexit will provide that spike in independence however have been left dumbfounded as the case and support for independence gets weaker by each passing day. Support for independence is still below 50% and as such Scotland needs a unique, outward looking voice that is pro UK and pro EU.

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