November 17, 2023 - 5:10pm

There’s a golden rule in communications: if you want something to get attention, don’t announce it on a Friday. How strange, then, that the Scottish Government’s latest attempt to persuade the nation to leave the UK — its supposedly guiding purpose — was announced earlier today.

A document setting out how a separate Scotland would join the European Union was released. A minister issued some words to go with it. Launched into Scotland’s pre-weekend slumber, not even the SNP’s unionist opponents could be bothered to muster anything more than perfunctory outrage in response.

Of course, the new independence plan was always going to struggle this week: the country’s attention has instead been taken up by the extraordinary expense claims and curious holiday arrangements of SNP Health Secretary Michael Matheson. But the damp squib launch of the new paper speaks to a deeper truth. 

The absence of a heavyweight nationalist leader, the lack of an obvious route to separation, and the presence of far more pressing issues (such as the incredibly bleak outlook for Scotland’s finances) have all conspired to give the cause of independence a theoretical quality this autumn. More than ever, it meets the description once coined by Billy Connolly to describe the Scottish Parliament: “pretendy” politics. Independence may not be dead (polls show around 45% of people still back it) but there is no question that it is currently sleeping.

The SNP must be seen to keep trying, however. Launching the paper, Constitution Minister Angus Robertson declared that Scotland would join the EU “quickly and smoothly”. This would “meaningfully reverse the damage of Brexit”. Scotland would, he concluded, “be well-placed to fulfil the requirements” of the process for entry. The great irony of the SNP’s prospectus on Europe is that, having spent years railing against the cakeism of English Brexiteers, its plans to return via independence amount to a great Scottish bake-off: cakeism on steroids. 

For example, the paper argues that the new EU border with England, which it accepts would be created, would be a “smooth” one. Like a Caledonian David Davis, Robertson claims only minimal checks on goods will be required. Thus, the paper concludes breezily that “the rest of the UK” — where 60% of Scotland’s exports currently end up — “will remain an important trading partner”. Phew. As for that quick entry back into the EU, the paper glides past the thorny question of Scotland’s currency. We’d use sterling “at the point of application”, it says, before adding that “the process of establishing a Scottish pound would be closely aligned with the process of re-joining the EU”.

No, me neither.

The truth is that Brexit has become a double-edged sword for the nationalist movement. The referendum result in 2014 and the ensuing five years of chaos undoubtedly boosted the emotional case for independence. It was a feeling for which Remainers like me felt some sympathy. But the reality of Britain outside the EU has made the technical case for Scottish independence that much harder to sort out.

Rather than waste their time publishing unnoticed papers on a Friday, a more strategic reset is required for the SNP. If they really are the pro-Europeans they say they are, the party should focus solely, for now, on getting the UK as close as possible to the EU. Only then — and after far more attention sorting out Scotland’s stalling economy — might the case for independence once again appear even vaguely realistic. Anything less is a waste of all our time.

Eddie Barnes is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail and director of the Our Scottish Future think tank.