Boris beware: SNP will exploit the chaos of a No Deal Brexit

NATIONALISM depends on chaos or the looming prospect of turmoil for its survival – apocalypse is its favoured outcome.

Or at least the promise of it, as long as it’s possible to try and lay the blame for the trouble with the UK Government.

Mike Russell, the SNP’s ‘Brexit Minister’, said yesterday that the worst possible outcome of the EU talks would be No Deal.

But seconds later he was telling BBC Radio Scotland that SNP MPs will not support any deal – Nationalist doublethink at its best.

Whatever the resolution, and we are heading towards some kind of denouement, Mr Russell will portray it as a Tory disaster.

Historically, the SNP was Eurosceptic and indeed once it was fiercely opposed to devolution, so don’t buy the bluster – it’s always about independence.

The pitfall for Boris Johnson is that the moment he cedes the idea that sovereignty outranks all other concerns, he’s playing into the hands of the SNP.

That’s its driving force – and hard-core Brexiteer rhetoric shares some of its DNA with separatist ideology: its overriding priority is the notion of taking back control.

For some independence supporters, the warnings about the calamitous repercussions of going it alone don’t wash – it might be a mess, but at least it would be our mess.

So, hurtling towards a cliff-edge at speed is okay as long as it’s your own car, and you’re at the wheel when it tumbles over the precipice and bursts into flames.

For Unionists, this is bonkers, and contemptible – putting political principles ahead of our children’s futures, opting for radical uncertainty and flux for ideological reasons.

And yet if the gruelling trade negotiations run into the sand and we’re saddled with No Deal, there are potentially grave consequences for the Union.

On the issues that remain unresolved, the common factor is that vexed question of who’s in charge – whether the UK should stick to EU rules on state aid and workers’ rights; fisheries; and who should resolve future disputes.

Britain is refusing to accept a role for the European Court of Justice – and any backtracking on such a totemic issue would be completely unpalatable for Tory backbenchers.

Placating them is central to the Prime Minister’s chances of remaining in office, but it ratchets up the chance of No Deal, though Mr Johnson is anxious to re-cast it as an Australia-type deal.

Australia trades with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms – but it’s also looking to strike a deal with Brussels.

Either way, No Deal would be a failure of statecraft, and more importantly for the United Kingdom it would send an unmistakable signal that sovereignty trumps all.

That’s a propaganda gift for the SNP, which would exploit the tumult of No Deal for all it’s worth, and it would set a dangerous precedent, that being our own boss is key, whatever the economic impact.

(Boris Johnson threatens No Deal - but it would be a major boost for Nicola Sturgeon)

The SNP was envious of the Brexiteers for doing what it failed to achieve – pushing a divisive idea over the line, on the back of very little meaningful debate in Scotland, and what it believed to be a sketchy prospectus (it’s in a glass house on that one).

If chaos was an acceptable by-product of crashing out of the EU, they will argue, then why shouldn’t it be acceptable for wrenching Scotland out of the UK?

And you can imagine the sheer delight of the SNP if No Deal caused the kind of scenes that are likely to unfold, from HGV tailbacks in Kent to food shortages.

NHS Tayside is preparing for possible shortages of medicine, equipment and staff – warning that a No Deal departure could ‘lead to an inability to deliver safe and effective care’.

Gordon Brown has said No Deal with spark an ‘economic war’ with the EU, predicting that ‘food, drugs and everything else would find it difficult to get into the country without tariffs and without holds-ups’.

And a leaked Cabinet Office document set out the Government’s ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ for No Deal, stating that it could lead to severe disruption of vital supplies, including medicine.

Environment Secretary George Eustice has conceded tariffs levied in a No Deal Brexit would lead to higher food prices, but insisted the rise would be relatively modest.

Someone who worked on the No Deal planning told the Reaction website that No Deal would be ‘bad but not Armageddon’, while a minister said: ‘Get ready to eat a lot of fish.’ The reason for the possible surplus of fish is that EU fishing fleets would be theoretically locked out of British waters, and Britain would be locked out of the European markets where most of the fish is sold.

As Douglas Adams might have said: so long and thanks for all the fish – and yet the reality is that it would be a bumpy ride at a time when our national resilience is at a low ebb.

I voted for Brexit, though I didn’t envisage No Deal, or indeed that it would take four years to get out – Scexit, unpicking the bonds of a centuries-old partnership, would be infinitely more traumatic.

Some of the dire warnings are doubtless a case of over-egging the pudding – one council said, possibly in a giddy moment, that No Deal would mean it wouldn’t be able to collect the bins on time. Nothing like getting your excuses in early…

But the probability of more mad scrambles in the supermarket, or running out of medicine, is the last thing any of us wants in the midst of a pandemic.

It would be a colossal own goal for Unionism, as the SNP would seize on these scenes as yet more evidence of the cack-handed UK Government complicating our lives.

Of course, it wants a monopoly on life-complication, in the form of ripping us out of the UK, and can’t stand the idea of the Tories muscling in on the act.

Whatever your political persuasion, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the SNP has benefited this year from the avoidable blunders of the UK Government.

That’s helped it to camouflage or play down its own disgraceful shortcomings, but for now at least its opponents are firmly on the back foot.

But there’s no point pretending that the case for the Union hasn’t been dented, as demonstrated in successive opinion polls, and is in need of an urgent makeover.

As we move out of the coronavirus crisis, and it won’t happen overnight, people may change their minds and look back more dispassionately on some of the scandalous pandemic failures of the SNP, and to its woeful track record pre-Covid.

But No Deal would stoke the argument against the Union at a time when people crave stability – now is not the time for yet more constitutional experimentation, on Scexit, Brexit, or anything else.

Just as we’re beginning to contemplate heading out of choppy waters, No Deal threatens a tsunami – and if the Tories aren’t careful the Union could be washed up in the wreckage.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on December 8, 2020.