Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The Truth and Lies of Scottish and EU Secessionists
FT - August 7,2014

A shorter version of this article was published in the Financial Times on August 7th, ( ).

To watch clips of the TV debate between Alex Salmond and Alastair Darling, or to read of the latest tactical manoeuvre by Boris Johnson on British membership of the European Union, is at once irresistible and deeply depressing. Irresistible, because such displays of political chutzpah are impressive, in their way. But depressing because they are really beside the point. Worse, in fact: they mislead the public grossly about the nature of the decisions that face them, in both the Scottish and the European referendums.

The chutzpah ought not to be surprising. It is politicians’ job to exude confidence, to pretend to knowledge about the future that even they must know cannot be justified. And the now reams of studies, by all sides and by non-partisans too, of what would be the costs and benefits of Scottish independence or of Brexit from the EU just encourages this.

You could see the effect, too, in the vox pops shown by BBC News of “undecided” voters who had watched the Salmond-Darling debate. “Just tell us the facts,” said one; “I just want to hear the facts, and then I will make up my mind, yes or no.” For that would-be voter, it seems, there had been too little chutzpah in the debate, not too much. Why were the facts being withheld by this coy pair?

Here is the answer that a political debater would give, if they were honest. It is that there aren’t any facts. None, in the true meaning of the word “fact”. And when you ask the same question about British membership of the EU in 2017, the answer will be the same. There aren’t any facts on which to base the decision. The real conclusion from all the cost-benefit analyses is that this is not a choice that can be made on the basis of cost-benefit analyses.

The reason is simple. Whether or not Scotland should become independent and whether or not Britain should leave the European Union are strategic, long-term questions, not one’s about tomorrow’s policies or the day after’s. They are questions the answers to which will have to be lived with for decades, perhaps even centuries, not just this year or next year. It is not like leaving a club you can rejoin at will when you feel the need for it or when the balance of benefits alters.

They are issues of strategic positioning, of how your nation, be it Scotland or Britain, wants to be placed in the face of a necessarily unknowable future, in the 2020s, 2030s or 2040s, amid war or peace, boom or bust, globalisation or protectionism.

Moreover, that future is as unknowable domestically as it is internationally: it is a question of how an independent Scotland might feel not with the specific policies promoted by Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party (unless they expect to be Scotland’s version of South Africa’s permanently ruling African National Congress) but with whatever alternation of governments and political fashions might occur in coming decades; and the same applies to Britain and Brexit.

In a limited way, the cost-benefit analyses have performed one service for both debates. They have shown that in economic terms neither Scottish exit from the UK nor British exit from the EU would make a huge difference either way. In both cases, it all depends on what policies their varying national governments turn out to follow over the course of decades and, more immediately, on the unknown terms of the divorce.

This is not surprising. Independent countries of Scotland’s size and circumstances exist and do well or badly mostly according to the vagaries of their domestic politics and policies: Ireland is a good example. Similarly, countries of Britain’s size and circumstances can exist and do well or badly alongside a huge neighbour with which they do most of their trade and even share much of their culture: Canada is the most obvious case.

So London’s mayor is quite right to say that Britain could have a good future outside the EU. No Canadian could refute him. But Mr Johnson is nevertheless practising a deception in his new stance. He says he would vote for Britain to stay only in an EU that, in about three years’ time, has radically reformed some of its policies, most notably the common agricultural policy and the free movement of people.

This is a deceit, first because he knows very well that he is setting up thresholds that are unlikely to be capable of being met in such a short period of time. To get 28 countries to modify the treaty-based requirements on free movement or even to slash back the CAP would take a lot longer than that. He must recall that the CAP has changed a lot since he was Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph (1989-94) and even more since his father Stanley worked for the European Commission (1973-79). It ought to change a lot more but to make British membership contingent on that happening by 2017 is a deceit.

It is a deceit mainly, however, for a second reason: that Britain’s membership is a strategic issue, not a matter of tweaking policies here and there, which means that his rival David Cameron’s position is also a deceit. You don’t make a strategic decision on the basis of a short spurt of reform negotiations.

Actually, although they too reach for deceitful claims about facts in order to pretty up their case, it is UKIP and the hard-core Tory Eurosceptics who have a more honest stance. They want to get out of the EU regardless of what reforms occur. They are thinking strategically: they believe Britain would be in a better position to flourish and adapt to changing circumstances if it were to reclaim the sovereignty it has shared with its European partners.

Personally, I disagree. Much of the reclaimed sovereignty would be purely notional, and some would be the sovereign power to mess things up – through many of the methods outlawed by the EU, such as state aids, protectionism, national champions and the rest. Perhaps UKIP and the Tory right wouldn’t favour this, but a subsequent Bennite Labour government in the 2020s just might.

Yet that is the real basis on which the Scottish decision on September 18th, and the British decision in 2017 or whenever it occurs, must be made. Margaret Thatcher understood that, when she made her famous “Bruges Speech” in 1988. We want to make Europe better, she said, in all sorts of ways. We don’t want to be run by an ossified bureaucracy. But, she said, “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”

To her, it was a strategic issue, in other words. 


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