Our Union must be indivisible before, during and after Brexit

Our Union must be indivisible before, during and after Brexit

by Ross Thomson
article from Friday 9, November, 2018

THERE IS MORE that brings together the nations of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland than divides us. The ties that bind go beyond nations to individuals. As citizens, we have built the UK together. We have traded together. We have fought together and we have built our lives together. 

Four years ago, I fought head, heart, body and soul to save our precious Union and helped to stop the SNP from breaking it apart. In the run up to the Scottish Independence referendum on September 18, 2014, we debated the arguments for two long years. From schools to church halls and from dinner tables to workplaces and pubs, the debate dominated all conversation. That discourse very much included membership of the European Union. 

In fact, the SNP acknowledged in its own white paper, its prospectus for independence, on p.210 that “if we remain part of the UK, a referendum on future British membership of the EU could see Scotland taken out of the EU against the wishes of the people of Scotland.” Therefore, as clearly stated within that white paper, the EU referendum was a UK-wide vote and there was an acknowledged risk that the UK may vote to leave.

On the morning of June 24, before all the votes were even counted, and certainly before anyone had absorbed the historic result of the EU referendum, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was on our television screens, standing in front of her official residence in Bute Hose, seizing the opportunity to crowbar another independence referendum onto our political agenda. The SNP’s go-to argument is “Scotland voted to Remain”. Or if you are the SNP’s Brexit Minister Mike Russell, that all 5 million Scots voted to Remain – as he reportedly told a meeting in Brussels last year. This narrative side-steps the reality that this was a UK-wide vote, but also that Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom in 2014. Subsequently, in 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU. It is the UK that is a member of the EU, it is the whole of the UK that will leave and it is the UK that must now form a new relationship with the EU. 

Likewise, it will be the UK that is then free to set its own independent trade policy, its own trade tariffs, sign trade deals with countries such as the US (where currently 13% of Scottish exports go) China and India – and also join Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and others in the Trans Pacific Partnership. Whether it is iconic Scottish food and drink produce or innovative new technologies developed by the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen, the opportunities for post-Brexit trade for Scotland as an integral part of the UK are huge. 

Scottish Conservatives have also made absolutely clear that Brexit represents a huge opportunity for our fishing industry. We must come out of the disastrous Common Fisheries Policy and regenerate our coastal communities that have suffered for far too long. I will not support any extension of the transition period – we must assume our status as an independent coastal state as soon as possible. And when it comes to negotiating the new relationship between the UK and the EU, it must be done for the whole of the UK. 

There can be no border down the Irish Sea splitting off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. 

Not only would the application of different trading laws and taxes mean that over time Northern Ireland would diverge unconsciously from the United Kingdom against the expressed will of its people – it would also feed Scottish nationalist demands that a similar divergent arrangement be made for Scotland. This would be a dangerous precedent that would only serve to undermine the will of the Scottish people in saying No to independence and it would fundamentally undermine our United Kingdom, breaking it up by the back door. 

It is no wonder that the SNP is so keen on it. 

As true defenders of Scotland’s place in the UK, I welcomed the significant intervention of the Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, and the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, in writing a letter to the Prime Minister making it clear that their blood red line is the integrity of the UK. Unionists across the House of Commons, whether from Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland have been completely and consistently clear that there is either a UK-wide deal or no deal at all.  

The EU has sought to use Northern Ireland to take control of Brexit, and to prevent us from leaving. It has had the audacity to put forward a crude plan that both violates the Good Friday Agreement and would hive off Northern Ireland from the UK. This, from the EU, shows a total lack of respect to the UK as a country and to the referendum result to leave. 

From nationalists to the staunchest of Remainers, there has been crying, wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Irish border, or more appropriately the UK–EU border.  Despite all the scaremongering about a hard Checkpoint Charlie-style border, there is a very clear and logical solution. But the fact that the EU does not seem willing to discuss it raises questions about its motives.

The European Research Group of backbench Conservative MPs has published a detailed paper, written jointly by two former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and an architect of the Good Friday Agreement Lord David Trimble, that explains the variety of technical solutions available to ensure that border checks are not necessary. 

Both the UK and Irish governments have said they will not erect a physical border. 

In answer to a question in the Dail in Dublin, the EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asserted the EU will not force a physical border on the Republic of Ireland. 

Revenue and customs officials from the UK and the Republic of Ireland have said they neither need, nor have plans for, new physical infrastructure at borders. 

With such overwhelming agreement, why is there a problem? If the EU can accept that technical solutions for the movement of goods are possible for an imaginary border down the Irish Sea (as it has), then those applications can surely be possible between the two jurisdictions in Ireland too. 

Borders are borders. Whether or not the border is a line in the ground or in the sea there will be a place where the jurisdiction changes. That’s all it is, a change in the laws and who has the authority to enforce them. This used to take place goods in transit being stopped and clarification being sought that the consignments comply with the different laws. The perception is that this always takes place when the border is crossed, but that’s not how it happens any more – technology has changed all that.

When Guinness leaves Dublin to go to Belfast, Glasgow or Liverpool. the necessary paperwork is completed electronically, taking account of the differing duties, taxes and regulations so that it complies and any dues are paid to the correct authority. The beer truck is not stopped at the border. Only random checks are necessary and these are conducted anywhere on the journey by officials from any of the jurisdictions involved. There is no fuss made about this. The idea that there will be a need for border checkpoints holding up traffic, asking for bills of lading is a mendacious invention by the EU to keep the UK in its single market and customs union – or divide our country. 

It is not a choice we have to make. 

There are solutions that ensure any new arrangement between the EU and the whole of the UK – as one single entity – such as the Canada-style trade agreement that the EU has already put on the table, can be introduced. All it needs is for the UK to make that its goal and for the EU to see sense and recognise the border question can be solved. I stand with my Scottish Conservative colleagues and Unionists across the House in arguing that the whole UK must leave the EU. 

We will never accept a border down the Irish Sea. We must remember that those who claim that there cannot be a trade deal without hard borders are the very same people who want to keep us in the EU, who not only ignore the 2016 referendum result but who are actively working to overturn it. The SNP have been undone by their arrogant dismissal of Brexit. This was evident in the last General Election where the SNP lost 21 seats. 

We unseated their big beasts, Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond. Long may Brexit continue to undo them. In 2021 a new dawn is awaiting, a new First Minister, a new government,  Scotland’s first Scottish Conservative Government. The SNP dismisses Brexit, but in Scotland, Brexit can be our great success.

Ross Thomson is the Scottish Conservative and Unionist MP for Aberdeen South. A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Belfast News Letter on 8 November 2018.

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