Unionists are ramping up the rhetoric by suggesting that negotiations post Scottish independence could be as fraught as those for Brexit. Speaking on the first edition of the new BBC Scotland’s ‘Debate Night’, Monica Lennon, invoked this trope, saying, ‘…if it’s this difficult leaving the EU, think how difficult it will be to separate from a union of over 300 years’
Specifically, unionists cite the Scotland-England border being potentially as problematic as the Irish border. However, comparing the two borders is like comparing apples with potatoes (apples and oranges would be too close a match). The Scottish border in its present form has existed since 1472 and according to Wikipedia is ‘one of the oldest extant borders in the world’. The border separates two countries, is uncontroversial and citizens on both sides are generally content with their status . By contrast, the Irish border has existed only since 1921 and is a border of partition. It was imposed as a temporary measure to ease tensions in the newly created Irish Free State. The Irish border separated the people of a hitherto single country, according to their political and religious affiliations. In this case separating the Catholic majority in the south and the Protestant, Unionist supporting minority in the north. In doing so it created an enclave in Northern Ireland in which a significant minority of Catholic nationalists were effectively disenfranchised. Cue ‘The Troubles’, IRA, UVF et al.
To illustrate the differences and to get a flavour of how a border of partition could impact Scotland, imagine that there’s been a second independence referendum which has been won by the Yes side. As in 2014, those regions closest to the Scotland-England border voted No. As part of the independence negotiations it was agreed that the Scotland-England border should be re-drawn further north and these Border regions would become part of a Greater England.
In this scenario it’s possible to see immediately the tensions this would create as a considerable minority of Yes voters would be consigned to a state that they didn’t support. I suspect even a substantial percentage of No voters in the region would baulk at the idea of being re-designated as English. Perhaps a way round this latter problem would be to create a separate province akin to Northern Ireland – let’s call it South Scotia. This might satisfy the Unionists, who retain a foot in both camps and would allow Scottish border rugby teams such as Melrose and Kelso to continue playing their rugby in Scotland. For Yes voters however, the sense of dislocation and associated ramifications would be profound.
Don’t get me wrong, moving the border isn’t a serious suggestion, I’m simply trying to illustrate the major difference between a border of partition compared to uncontested historical borders. Other notable problematic examples of borders of partition include that between India and Pakistan and Israel-Palestine, both of which have been contested since their creation in the 1940s. There are other differences of course; the Irish border is over 300 miles long and according to the Belfast Telegraph, has 208 crossing points, more than in the rest of the EU combined. The Irish border runs along the length of 11 roads, some of which cross and recross the border in the space of a few miles, divides farms and in at least one case, runs through a house. The Scottish border, at less than 100 miles long, has only 25 road crossing points, of which only 5 are on trunk routes and has none of the infrastructure difficulties noted on the Irish border.
Unionists like to point out the potential hindrance to trade of a hard Scotland-England border and associated customs checks. Any border arrangement will, of course, depend on the future status of England and Scotland after Brexit and independence. Should England remain in the EU or leave with a deal that includes a customs union and Scotland post independence rejoins the EU or becomes an EEA member, then no hard border need exist. Assuming the rUK does actually leave the EU, it will want some form of trade agreement with the EU, so again, Scotland as an EU/EEA member would be part of that arrangement, which might or might not involve some tariffs and border checks. The important point is that, unlike the protracted and complex Brexit negotiations, no new trade negotiations would be required between Scotland and the rUK.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, a hard border, while potentially increasing some costs between England and Scotland, would according to Robin McAlpine in his book ‘How to start a new Country’ offer some benefits. Apparently official annual customs duty fraud in the UK is estimated at £36 billion but could be as high as £120 billion (partly because UK Customs are increasingly tied up with managing immigration). So a hardish land border with England would allow for much greater customs control which would, he argues, more than justify the expense. And, unlike the Dover-Calais border pinch point, where huge amounts of traffic converge, there is no equivalent on a potential Scotland-England hard border where volumes of traffic would be significantly less and spread across several trunk routes.
Often sold as a buy-one-get-one-free offer, in addition to the border ‘problems’ Unionists like to point out that Scotland does four times more trade with the UK than with the EU, with the unspoken yet implied threat that England might cease trading with an independent Scotland (what they never do of course is point out that England does more trade with Scotland than vice-versa). However, an independent Scotland in the EU/EEA would be in a similar position to that of Ireland in the Brexit negotiations and Scotland could expect the full heft of the EU’s support in any dispute. Finally of course it’s worth pointing out (Robin McAlpine again), that much of this trade between Scotland and England is related to energy and supermarket transfers which are hardly likely to change irrespective of future arrangements.