What Scotland’s big independence debate is about and should be about
Bella Caledonia, 15 June 2022
Nicola Sturgeon has fired the gun on Scotland’s independence debate, standing in Bute House yesterday with Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, launching the first of several papers on independence.
This has brought forth the usual and predictable claims and counter-claims. SNP, Green and independence supporters are excited and hopeful; Labour, Tories and Lib Dems along with pro-union advocates of no party are filled with scorn and fury that anyone would want to progress independence in such times of upheaval and instability.
All this is as predictable as you would expect and could be dialled in from Mars. But does this announcement amount to anything? Will it shift public opinion or just peter out? And will Scotland really have an independence referendum in 2023 or anytime soon?
Independence is about more than the SNP and Yes but all Scotland
Firstly, if independence is to have any traction it has to understand and respect the Scotland beyond Yes: the Scotland that still is unconvinced or antagonistic to the idea of independence. Too much time and energy has been spent by the SNP and independence supporters since 2014 in talking to their own tribe and not listening to the voters beyond them – those who are unsure, unconvinced or nervous of the prospect of independence.
Too many independence supporters put their own passions and impatience beyond an accurate reading of public opinion and want a referendum as soon as possible – thinking it right because they judge it to be the most important subject and do not look around at the wider world, its challenges and the worries and anxieties people are living with now.
Secondly, this might be an idealistic observation but it is one that has to be pushed and the case made for. There is a legitimate, rational case for independence and a legitimate, rational case for the union. Parts of each constituency – the most voluble, noisy and intense elements – consistently deny that there is a coherent argument for the other case. This denialism of our politics has to be resisted, and a case put by each perspective which recognises that there is a valid counter-case.
I know independence supporters who think there is no argument left for the union, and that pro-union opinion in Scotland are suffering from ‘Stockholm syndrome’, having become used to being held hostage in the union and other such offensive twaddle. There is even a tendency which thinks that unionist opinion down south basically ‘hates the Scots’ and only wants to keep us in the UK as ‘part of their property’ and because they believe they own it and have a right to do what they want with it.
Similarly, there are significant parts of pro-union opinion who are uncomprehending about Scottish independence. These include significant, influential voices such as Gordon Brown who thinks that Scottish independence is entirely motivated by being ‘anti-English’ and posing an essentialist either/or identity just like Brexit.
There is even worse offered in terms of caricature from the recently published The Bargain: Why the UK works so well for Scotland by former Tory councillor Tom Miers in which he writes: ‘Modern nationalists sometimes hark back to medieval Scotland as an ideal’. He is presumably talking about the romantic invoking of Bruce and Bannockburn, but personally I have failed to note any sizeable restoration of feudalism movement and opinion in today’s Scotland.
Independence has to be about change from present day Scotland
Thirdly, the 2014 independence offer is now dead and needs to be completely recast – on the economic, social, democratic and geo-political fronts. This is an argument I put forward in my forthcoming book Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence published by Pluto Press at the end of September.
Conventional economics are bust and have brought the world to this economic impasse. The case for independence has to recognise this, deal with the fiscal imbalances in the UK, and make a realistic case for a different approach. Similarly on social justice, we all know the story that many Scots like to tell but Scotland is a very unequal country and making no real progress on education and health inequalities, drug deaths, and wealth and privilege.
Scotland is not even that democratic in the areas of public life we have devolved power over. Think of how the Scottish Parliament and Government have sucked up power away from the likes of local government, centralising public bodies like police and fire services, while elsewhere failing to hold power to account where it transgresses and fails.
Independence has to also rethink and reframe how it sits geo-politically. The assumption in 2014 was that the part of the world Scotland is situated was one of calm, stability and prosperity and hence an ideal environment to launch a new independent state. Then in 2014 along came the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas, and eight years later the situation is even more stark with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Such an environment poses major challenges to Scottish independence addressing issues such as defence, foreign policy, NATO membership and of course nuclear weapons – the UK’s so called ‘nuclear deterrent’ being based in Scotland. While the SNP leadership have been quietly thinking on these issues and even speaking privately to sections of Britain’s military, security and intelligence establishment, they throw up anxieties for many voters about the nature of independence in such a world of insecurity and threats which makes some think that is better to stick with the union for now.
Fourth, independence needs to be reframed not only its specific policy prospectus but in how it is presented and understood. This is not just a debate about the SNP and politics but about different, contested ideas of Scotland; how we view ourselves collectively, and how we shape our future. This is in many senses a debate with no end, a never-ending story if you like, irrespective of the constitutional status of Scotland. But critical here is recognising the deeper anchors beyond the usual reference points: the SNP, Scotland not voting Tory, Thatcherism and Westminster. There is a much longer, deeper set of factors concerning the decline of the UK as an idea and rise of a distinct political Scotland which can be seen with their origins in the late 1950s and early 1960s – and the limits of the UK economically and politically, and how Scotland saw itself culturally and geo-politically.
Fifth, this is not just a debate about two nationalisms – Scottish nationalism and unionism which is an expression of British nationalism. That is a debate which does not speak to a large part of Scotland and leaves them cold about the big choices we face. Instead we need to create a space which allows for different Scotlands to find their voice: green, feminist, socialist, radical left, liberal, conservative and many more.
The power of doubt and breaking out of the politics of faith
Germane to this is allowing for doubt, and for people to change their minds including in public discourse and commentary. A large part of the independence debate is shaped by people who have boxed themselves into the logics of Yes and No and hence embrace without even understanding it a politics of faith and a closed mindset.
The dynamic of this in public debate is shaped by pro-union commentators assessing that the above is only found on the independence side. Hence Kenny Farquharson of The Times last week talking about a high-profile Brexiteer recanting on Brexit observed in relation to Scotland: ‘A brave column … Not difficult to imagine a similar column by an indy supporter after Scottish independence causes the expected fall in cross-border trade with rest of UK.’
The assumptions behind the thinking above is that the main tenets of independence are a denial of reality and that it is beholden to some magical mumbo-jumbo rooted in detestation of Westminster, othering of the British state, and romance about how Scotland can ‘go it alone’. Yet, many pro-union advocates like Farquharson fail to realise that his own logic can be used to show the limitations of his own position.
Independence does have questions to answer. But so too does the union. What scale of moral collapse does the UK have to embrace for some pro-union views to reconsider their views? In the past couple of days, the UK Government has enacted a one-way deportation scheme of refugees to Rwanda – the UK as a state reducing itself to the cesspit of trafficking in human beings. At the same time the same government is proposing to rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol: a treaty which was negotiated and designed by the UK Government and which by trashing involves the UK breaking international law.
If pro-union voices are not prepared to say enough is enough then they are willing to give an unconditional blank cheque to the UK to do anything, no matter how base, inhumane and illegal – and are in effect embracing a politics of blind faith: the exact charge they make of Scottish nationalists. We all have to do better than that and challenge such views.
Scottish independence has to be open, honest and mature about the risks inherent in as fundamental a change as independence. People know there are inevitable risks in such a proposal, and if this is not publicly acknowledged by its advocates, some think that the scale of risk is so big and gargantuan that it is being deliberately hidden from them. To aid such an approach, independence has to be more explicit about the fact that choices need to be made, some of which will be difficult, alongside trade-offs and compromises. It also needs to propose a clearer set of timescales and outcomes, and then slowly work towards these via incremental progress that makes improvements in the here and now, such as reducing child poverty or educational inequalities.
A final set of observations about Scotland and an independence referendum. This brings up great excitement in some and trepidation in others. That needs to be understood. But this is a live, contested issue and one Scotland has not come to a collective, settled view on.
This means that we will have an independence referendum. I don’t think this will be in October 2023 – the date Constitution Secretary Angus Robertson has named. This is in part because of the attitude of Westminster, but also because of the exhaustion of so many people – from Brexit to COVID-19 and Ukraine and worries over the cost of living.
Scottish public opinion believes that Scotland has a right to decide its own future – and in that sense is well-deposed to the independence argument. But people do not want an independence referendum for the next year or two and that sentiment should be respected and listened to and not run roughshod over. YouGov’s latest figures on a referendum in 2023 found 28% support, 59% opposition among Scottish respondents; whereas for an indyref in the next five years they found 42% support, 41% opposition.
This means that it is fine and well launching a campaign for independence but that the pronouncements of Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie are part of a longer campaign to move public opinion, frame the debate and put pressure on Westminster. In this there should be a degree of honesty of this and awareness that an indyref is not an end in itself but a means to an end and process politics.
The Scotland that needs to be convinced of independence, that does not see itself as part of the two tribes of Yes and No, and which does not subscribe to the claims of the two competing nationalisms, Scottish and British, has to be listened to and heard, as they are the ones who will define and decide our collective future.
This is a critical debate – both in terms of how we conduct it and what we decide – one which goes way beyond the claims of party and politicians – and it is vital we get it right. Independence if it is to be the spirit and substance of the future has to recognise that there are many Scotlands in our midst and that all of them have to be understood and respected.