A Europe policy for the Scottish elections: a humble suggestion

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I must begin with a disclaimer. I am not Scottish, I have no Scottish blood that I know of, and I have never lived in Scotland (the “Mc” in my surname is Irish, courtesy of a great-grandfather who left Galway in the Potato Famine and ended up in the Metropolitan Police). But I love Scotland. As a Lib Dem I campaigned in the 2014 referendum for Scotland to remain in the UK, and today I am as devastated as any Scot that we are leaving the European Union.

That certainly gives me no right to make any suggestion about what the people of Scotland should do at this juncture, so I float the following with due humility. It is an idea; it is not thought-through. If it is worth thinking about, there will be much devil and much detail to be grasped before it can be developed into a policy, but I throw it open for discussion in the party, north and south of the border.  Here goes.

In next year’s Scottish elections, we should campaign for Scotland to have the same status in the UK as Northern Ireland will have from 1 January 2021. It would mean Scotland remaining in the Single Market and having the same customs status as NI.

It would have the following advantages:

  • it would be democratic (giving at least some weight to the Scottish vote in 2016 to remain in the EU);
  • it would also respect the 2014 Scottish referendum decision to remain in the UK;
  • it would end the new invisible border in the Irish Sea between NI and Scotland (although leaving it in place for England and Wales).

Following on from the last point, it would give Scottish business direct access to the EU without all the hassle of customs checks/Brexit bureaucracy. By taking the Stranraer-Belfast/Larne sea route, lorries from Scotland could then take one of the increasing number of direct ferries between the Irish Republic and France. This would make Scotland a substantially more attractive place for inward investment than England and Wales.

It would also reduce congestion at Dover and other ports in southern England, to say nothing of the M20.

My suggestion would have the following major disadvantage:

  • it would mean that the customs/inspection regime shortly to be established in the Irish Sea will have to be established on the England-Scotland border instead.

However, we are informed by our esteemed government that the sea border with NI is going to be administered with a very light touch. Would not the same be the case with the border between England and Scotland? And, if not, why not?

Finally, it might make many people south of the border finally wake up to the destructive and ultimately unpatriotic nature of Brexit, and hasten the day when there is  a rethink.

* John McHugo is a member of the Lib Dem Foreign Affairs Advisory Group. He is a former chair of Lib Dem Friends of Palestine and is the author of A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi'is, Syria: A Recent History, and A Concise History of the Arabs.

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  • A very interesting suggestion. I had heard a suggestion that an independent Scotland which entered the EU would encourage more English people to change their mind about Brexit. Your idea provides the same possibility without Scottish independence. Politically there have been many in Scotland who have complained about Northern Ireland being treated better than them, just because of NI’s recent history of violence. So that’s another positive for your idea.
    I await comment from Scottish Lib-Dems and expert assessment of the attractiveness to business of the two-ferry long route you propose between Scotland and the EU. You mention the reduction in traffic on the M20; I live near Europe’s most congested Motorway, i.e. the M6 in Staffordshire and Cheshire, so share that small but positive remark.

  • It’s a long way to tip a Rary via N. Ireland, Mr McHugo.

    Have you considered reviving the Rosyth ferry to Zeebrugge ? The port is still equipped to do so and located on the Firth of Forth, three miles south of Dunfermline separated from Edinburgh by the Forth Bridge eleven miles away. It is the former naval base and presently provides anchorage for covid-mothballed cruise ships.

    Until not many years ago, freight (and at one time passenger) ferries sailed several times per week from Rosyth to Zeebrugge in Belgium. It was the only direct ferry route between Scotland and Continental Europe.

  • Paul Barker 10th Dec '20 - 2:22pm

    I am not Scottish either (though I did live in Edinburgh for a Year) but this also strikes me as a good idea.
    In the long run it could perhaps be extended to Wales ?

  • I like this idea. In my dreams such an idea could be used for Cornwall once everyone realizes we have lost Objective One funding.

  • George Thomas 10th Dec '20 - 5:19pm

    Initial impression is very positive. In Wales, currently, we have the last minute planning, expectations of reduction in trade and car park Dover is getting but all the jobs are going to Warrington instead. There is a added pressure that current crossing between England and Wales in south Wales is already busy but getting any sort of Brexit benefit, even the very smallest, is better than current outlook.

  • nigel hunter 10th Dec '20 - 5:37pm

    These ideas are fine as far as they go but why has the Lib Dems and Labour not critisized the whole mess of Brexit more? Have they been knocked out of the game and crawled under a rock to lick their wounds and allowed the mess to demolish the country or do
    they think it will end up as a good idea? Their silence is deafening?

  • The EU will not agree to what is proposed here. NI is a special case because it has a special constitutional relationship with Ireland. Do British people understand that having any given form of relationship with the EU necessarily requires that the EU agree to it. It is truly remarkable that a piece like this is published and people comment on it without pointing out the obvious.

  • nvelope2003 11th Dec '20 - 9:52am

    Rob Cannon: It is an interesting idea and worth considering.We live in desperate times and we are desperately in need of some new thinking. Who knows what the EU would make of it ? We cannot afford to keep going over the bankrupt out of date nonsense we hear from the Brexiteers who seem to be stuck in 1920 and are incapable of understanding how Free Trade deals need rules which have to be enforced in order to work. We above all should know that as we were forced to give up Free Trade in 1932. Brexit seems to be wanted either by those whose business would benefit which is fair enough but also by those who do not understand our present position in the world. Maybe Johnson is playing a game so he can pretend he has made a great deal when one is achieved. One can only hope, althought the comments of a former Australian Prime Minister about him do not provide much comfort.

  • Andrew Tampion 11th Dec '20 - 1:38pm

    This is a very unwise proposal for a Unionist to put forward.
    First of all the SNP’s goal is not Membership of the EU or the Single Market but independence from the United Kingdom. If they can achieve independence by joining the EU they will do that; if they can achieve independence but not joining the EU they will do that; if they can achieve independence by being part in and part out of the EU they will do that, (To adapt Abraham Lincoln.)
    Second the effect of Scotland joining the EU would be to create a border between Scotland and England which would almost inevitably lead to further estrangement, for example regulatory divergence. This would promote calls for independence.
    Third the current UK Government is unlikely to permit Scotland to join the Single Market. In that case the SNP would use this refusal to argue for independence (see the first point above). How could the Liberal Democrats, having argued for Single Market membership, credibly counter that argument?

  • Laurence Cox 11th Dec '20 - 1:48pm

    Rob Cannon is quite right and even if the EU were to agree to it, the logistical issues of Scotland being in the Single Market would be enormous. We can only have a border in the Irish Sea because there are a limited number of ferry routes between Great Britain and Ireland; think of the number of customs posts and all the extra checks we would need on the border between England and Scotland. This in fact is one of the arguments against an independent Scotland joining the EU as the trade between England and Scotland is far more than the trade between Scotland and the rest of the EU.


  • @John McHugo

    Hello from Aberdeenshire and thank you for thinking about Scotland!

    We are, of course, now the on;y part of the UK which is getting nothing like what it voted for in the EU referendum and will be doubly disadvantaged by NI’s “best of both worlds” status.

    The Scottish Government’s proposals from 2016 to retain Scotland’s place in the Single Market ( rejected by the UK Government without discussion) may be of interest to you:


  • @andrew tampion

    “In that case the SNP would use this refusal to argue for independence (see the first point above). How could the Liberal Democrats, having argued for Single Market membership, credibly counter that argument?”

    I’m afraid you are a bit behind here. The UK Government rejected without discussion the Scottish Government’s proposals supported by the Scottish Parliament for Scotland to remain in the Single Market. This proposal from John McHugo seeks to remedy that wrong as a means of saving the union which you seem to value. Otherwise, it seems a second referendum and a vote for independence is almost certain.

  • @laurence cox

    “This in fact is one of the arguments against an independent Scotland joining the EU as the trade between England and Scotland is far more than the trade between Scotland and the rest of the EU.”

    I’m not sure this is a strong argument for the Lib Dems. As I understand it, Lib Dem policy is now to acquiesce in Brexit and not to rejoin the EU. Consequently, you must accept surely that border frictions are not that important and in the long term the construction of some border infrastructure is neither here norvthere?

  • Laurence Cox 12th Dec '20 - 12:34am

    @John McHugo

    The point about Northern Ireland was, as I understand it, the issue of leakage of goods that in Great Britain were specified for end-use in Northern Ireland, but then were exported across the border into the Irish Republic, so allowing unfair competition within the Single Market. As there are only a few ferries between Great Britain and Ireland (and only one between Great Britain and Northern Ireland) this leakage is manageable. Once you add Scotland with many routes across the border with England then the leakage quickly becomes unmanageable. There have long been criminal gangs using VAT fraud to make money, usually involving openly exporting goods from one EU country to another (and claiming the VAT rebate) then smuggling them back again and so on.


    It was my understanding that the Party’s position is now that we would not rejoin the EU without a further referendum, as opposed to Jo Swinson’s position at the last GE that a majority of Lib Dem MPs would be all that was needed. I do not think that this is the same as acquiescing in Brexit. Leaving the EU was decided by a referendum just as joining the EU in the first place was (at least by Harold Wilson’s Labour Party).

  • @John McHugo

    I cannot see any reason why there would need to be any more border controls etc between Scotland and rUK than fof NI.

    That has always been the conundrum for the UK Government: the better it solves the Irish border question, the less it can argue that it is impossible for Scotland. Remember that both Ruth Davidson and David Mundell wrote in terms to PM May that any diffentiated solution for NI would be a red line for them and lead to their resignation ( spolier alert: they didn’t).

  • Johnny McDermott 12th Dec '20 - 12:55pm

    It was a line that undermined the Brexit unicorn in a way few others have of late, NI ‘get the best of both worlds’. I rather panicked it undermined the union in similar fashion, but am very interested in this idea. Getting the best of all worlds, I don’t agree it’s a dangerous step further toward independence as Laurence suggests, though there is a risk any action we take makes what feels inevitable more likely. I do not believe it is inevitable, that this recent discontented support is strong enough to last the reality of the Indy Unicorns, so similar to Brexit ones as they are. (See the poll that broke down how ‘solid’ the support is, that number, 41% solid indy, has not increased). That should be a strong approach in the campaign – drawing the obvious parallels and comparisons between these ideological nightmares that do nothing to improve the general lot, what the majority want.
    David Raw’s point on Rosyth is interesting. I admit, I know little about it, nor have I paid attention to details of the Irish sea border, so am not sure how feasible this is. But it would be a hard campaign line for either side to turn down. Why can NI be treated differently, ‘they’re unique’?! So is bloody Scotland, hence never-endum. I fear we could eventually see a more Troubles-like situation, should polarised divisions entrench further. The Tories would struggle to justify the change without strengthening SNP’s hand, but the SNP would struggle with the tired old ‘tinkering around the edges of constitutional issues’ line, since this best of ALL worlds, UK, too, would be attractive to many who just want to get on with governance, but feel aggrieved by their Brexit vote being disregarded.

    Re: any notion we’ve abandoned England, should it be a success, I’d wager the chances of Rejoin would be higher than if Scotland continues to be driven towards another referendum. That result is a nightmare for all involved (including an awkwardly positioned EU)

    It’s a really interesting idea. Deserves serious consideration. Going to do some research…

  • Peter Hirst 15th Dec '20 - 3:53pm

    Do the SNP actually want independence or are they using it as a campaigning slogan for more autonomy and electoral success? The very fact that we are discussing an independent Scotland implies that they are going to achieve whatever it is they want. Federalism of England and the UK is the only credible solution with each part deciding what powers it desires.

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