Perhaps only rivalled by the incompetence and heartlessness of the current Tory Government, Brexit is the single biggest reason why the prospect of a second independence referendum is a possibility.
The democratic case for a second vote was enhanced because a material change in Scotland’s relationship with Europe was made against the wishes of a large majority of its citizens and because, at least temporarily, support for independence increased following the vote to leave.
Fundamental to the case for independence in 2014 was the vision of a nation, within the EU, able to grow its economy in a comparable way to other small European nations. “Social Europe” would provide a cushion and the economic trade bloc would mitigate against downsides. Fears over the instability of the fledgling independent nation and concerns over currency were to be assuaged by keeping the pound and the UK Central Bank.
It was for this reason that one of the major debates in 2014 was over whether Scotland could indeed retain EU membership if it was no longer in the UK. Now the mainstream case for independence centres on becoming an EU member alongside an rUK which will not be. This presents a range of new problems.
The STUC opposed Brexit, though this was a majority rather than a unanimous decision. In terms of immediate economic impacts our position has been vindicated. Alongside the obvious impact of Covid, many of the challenges facing workers and their families across Scotland are a direct result of Brexit including shortages and escalating prices of food, consumer goods and energy. Our rights are also at greater risk.
The UK’s lack of employment rights were often countered by EU legislation and access to the European Court of Justice as a last resort to make the UK comply with fair treatment of workers.
Free movement of labour was also important for many livelihoods – including musicians, performing artists, and those in the creative industries. The UK Government’s intransigence on EU-wide agreements for these workers, puts many livelihoods at risk. Free movement, provided it is aligned with wage growth, strong employment protections for both migrant and indigenous workers, is something the STUC strongly supports more generally. Few commentators doubt its economic benefits given demographic change in Scotland. And the cultural benefits of open borders should not be forgotten either.
Brexit has also proved to be a threat to devolution. The Internal Market Act encroaches on the ability of the Scottish Parliament to set policy and make decisions in areas such as procurement and food standards. Many suspect that we are in the middle of a Westminster power grab presenting a more sustained threat to devolution.
So, it is no great surprise that the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission was created in Brexit’s wake and that it is so highly focused on the policies required for EU re-entry.
But as mentioned earlier, European re-entry alongside the proposal for Sterlingisation has created new problems for those who support Yes. The Growth Commission is nothing if not honest in presenting some major fiscal challenges associated with EU membership which present the spectre of a lengthy period of austerity to conform with its rules. Put simply, whilst the Scottish public supports re-entry to the EU, it may be less keen on the policy measures required to do so.
A new trading relationship with the rUK would at the very least become more complicated and quite possibly be detrimental to the health of the new Scottish economy.
And it should not be forgotten that the support of the STUC and many others for remaining in the EU was a long way from being an endorsement of its existing fiscal policies or its trade rules. Such rules severely impacted many of its member states during the post 2010 austerity years, limited democratic intervention in the economy and provided a block to implementing the Living Wage. It would certainly be an irony if those arguing that a Scotland free from the UK would be able to effect meaningful economic and industrial change found it just as hard to support jobs, build sustainable growth and effect social change within the EU.
Given all of these factors, and given that a fair-sized minority of independence supporters oppose EU re-entry, the issue of EU membership is unlikely to be the unmitigated positive for the cause of independence that some of its supporters believe it to be.
Roz Foyer is the STUC General Secretary