Neil Mackay: We need to start talking about a border with England
WE seem to be talking a lot about bridges, and not enough about borders. Usually, a bridge is a good thing to talk about – it’s symbolic of links being forged and friendships made. Borders aren’t so pleasant – they represent division and separation.
But given that we live in Scotland in 2020 we politicise bridges because that’s easy. And we avoid talking about borders – specifically the looming issue of a hard border with England – because that’s difficult.
It seems that this nation prefers dealing with the petty party political point scoring stuff, not the big hard issues that really matter to society, and the future of this country and its democracy.
With bridges, firstly we’ve got the whole embarrassment of the Queensferry Crossing – the £1.35bn bridge that was never meant to close – being shut because of ice building up on cables and then falling on cars.
It’s being used as a stick to beat the SNP with. Fair enough, use the stick, the bridge should have been built better. Although, what infrastructure project in Scotland has ever gone according to plan? The Scottish Parliament? Edinburgh’s trams?
And for many folk it’s pretty difficult to get het up about weather closing a bridge in Scotland, of all places.
Then we’ve got Boris Johnson’s proposed bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. We all know the idea is mad. It’s never going to happen.
But inevitably, in Scotland 2020, the issue has become symbolic of which side of the constitutional divide a voter sits on. Pro-indy? The NI-Scotland bridge is a wicked intrusion and/or unionist ploy by Westminster. Pro-union? Just give it a chance. There’s no such thing as a bad idea.
Actually, there is.
What this country really should be focusing on this week isn’t bridges but borders, after comments by the First Minister in Brussels. In a gnomic discussion about the future relationship between the European Union and Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon was asked about the prospect of a border between Scotland and England in the event of independence.
Her delphic answer was that an independent Scotland inside Europe would have to “mitigate” any border with England. It’s hard to interpret this in any other way than a warning, an admission, a hint, even, that a border is coming in the event of independence.
Why is the nation not engaged in full debate over borders? Why are we talking about bridges?
After being asked about a border with England, the FM was quoted as saying: “It’s not independence that threatens borders – it’s Brexit that does that, and it’s the approach to Brexit that is being taken. I’ll continue to argue for the relationship to be as close as possible.
“But obviously, when we see where the UK/EU relationship ends up, then the Scottish Government can work out how we can mitigate that in a Scottish sense.”
There’s a lot that the FM is saying in a few words. She’s right when she states that Brexit, and Johnson’s vision of Brexit, will bring borders. But won’t independence risk the same – with a possible border between England and Scotland? It feels a false dichotomy to pretend otherwise in a post-Brexit world.
Sturgeon says she’ll continue to argue for a close relationship with the EU after Brexit. Personally, that cheers a pro-European like me. However, the fact that the FM knows she’ll have to argue for such a close relationship implies that the looming prospect of post-Brexit borders presents real difficulties when it comes to co-operation between countries. In fact, forget ‘implies’, everyone knows that Brexit means Borders and Borders mean distance between nations.
Would the same be true post-independence when it comes to the relationship between England and Scotland?
Then the FM gets around to answering the question posed about a possible border. She states that once the UK-EU divorce is done, and the nature of the future relationship between Britain and Europe is clearer, then Scotland will try to ‘mitigate’ the issue of any border with England.
So a border is inevitable?
Sturgeon is about the only leader – scrub that – only politician for whom I’ve much respect left. I rate her intellect and character. She’s got dignity and is a great political performer. However, she’s not being clear enough with the Scottish people when it comes to any future border.
This issue needs real honesty. But once again we see the interests of the SNP outweighing the interests of the public and the country. Talking about borders doesn’t win votes. But the Scottish people – especially Undecideds – need proper discussion and debate so they can fully consider the issue of independence.
Independence supporters need fine detail too. Perhaps, all Yes voters like me will be unfazed at with the prospect of a border. But perhaps we won’t. We can’t make up our minds until we have a frank discussion.
Of course, we don’t yet know the full shape of the UK’s relationship with the EU, and therefore there’s a lack of clarity around the shape of any future relationship between Scotland and England.
However, that’s absolutely no reason to hold off on having serious adult discussions around issues like borders, future trade deals with England, or the armed forces in a post-independence Scotland.
At the very least, it’s good to be prepared.
I’ve suggested before that separating the Yes movement from the SNP is in the best interests of independence, because then big difficult issues like borders can be worried over without party political concerns coming first. That means the public hear the case for independence without the distorting filter of the SNP.
If the Yes movement is serious about achieving independence then it needs to start talking honestly about borders, armies and negotiations. These issues are ugly and difficult but not one No voter will be persuaded to vote Yes unless they’re tackled truthfully.
Both sides of the constitutional divide need to lift their eyes up a little too. It’s a bit unambitious of a nation to obsess over a bridge closed in winter, or a fantasy bridge over the Irish Sea, when we should be raising our eyes and looking to the future – even if that future is difficult, and even if that future does mean discussing uncomfortable matters like borders.
Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year