As the Brexit debate rumbles inexorably on, the Scottish people – through no fault of their own – are in danger of being caught between a rock and a hard place: a Tory government that wants Scotland in the UK and out of the EU, and an SNP government that wants Scotland out of the UK and in the EU.
What we really need is a prolonged period of stability so we can develop a coherent response to the many questions that Brexit poses. What we really don’t need is to be plunged headlong into another Scottish independence referendum that creates much more uncertainty and many unanswerable questions.
However, following last week’s SNP conference, that’s the prospect we face. The First Minister will bring a draft Independence Referendum Bill within days and she has threatened to call a referendum if she fails to secure a good Brexit deal. But another Scottish referendum should not be considered. There are four key reasons for this.
Firstly, to call a second independence referendum now would be a dereliction of duty. There are so many other things the Scottish Government should be doing. They seem to have given up on their day job. They need to expedite capital spending to increase business confidence and stimulate the “sluggish” economy. They need to use the vast powers of the Scottish Parliament to reduce inequality, address the educational attainment gap, and invest more money in our undervalued, overworked and under-resourced NHS staff. The list goes on. My post bag is full every day from Edinburgh residents concerned about everything from access to GPs and Primary 1 places to affordable housing and elderly care. These are all Scottish Government responsibilities.
Secondly, the economic case for independence doesn’t exist. Oil revenues have plummeted and Scotland’s budget deficit has increased to £15 billion – more than double the UK deficit as a percentage of GDP. It can only be reduced by huge tax increases or swingeing spending cuts. Both are as unpalatable as they are undeliverable. There is no better answer to address these fiscal challenges than being part of the pooling and sharing of resources across the UK.
Thirdly, the SNP still can’t answer the fundamental currency question. Their own economic advisor has said that sharing the pound would be a mistake, and the other two options, joining the euro or creating a new Scottish currency, would – as the SNP MP George Kerevan has admitted – necessitate a period of spending cuts, tax increases and huge uncertainty. If the SNP has a better solution, we’re yet to hear it. There is no better answer to address the currency question than being an integral part of the UK.
Finally, the SNP’s attempts to prioritise membership of the EU single market over and above membership of the UK single market are intellectually incoherent. Four times as many jobs and as much trade are linked to our membership of the UK than are to the EU.
Brexit was a blow, but let’s not turn it into a disaster. At the moment, the Scottish people are being backed into a corner, forced to choose between the UK and the EU. This is a false choice. There is an alternative that is neither of the damaging, nationalist positions adopted by the SNP and the Tories.
That is what the majority of Scots voted for in two referenda and that is what Scottish Labour will fight for. To achieve it, we need the SNP and Tory governments to set aside their ideological obsessions – independence and immigration respectively – and act in the best interests of Scotland. We know that those best interests are served fiscally, economically, culturally and socially by being part of the UK with the advantages of the EU.
Ian Murray is Labour MP for Edinburgh South