Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that she’s in favour of something that this blog has been arguing for a while. That is, even if by some miracle the UK manages to avoid Brexit, Scotland should still hold another independence referendum. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 yesterday she said that “all of the experience of the past three years” and the very real prospect of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister mean that Scotland ought to have another independence referendum.
There’s been a lot of focus on Brexit as the trigger for an independence referendum, but Brexit is merely one example of a material change in circumstances. It’s very far from being the only one. Scotland is now spoilt for choice when it comes to material changes in circumstances. Material changes in circumstances are about the only thing that Westminster generously indulges Scotland in. The UK that Scotland is a part of in 2019 is most certainly not the UK that we were sold by Better Together during the independence referendum in 2014.
The way that Scotland has been treated by the Conservative government over the past few years bears as much relation to the promises of equality and partnership that were made by Better Together as the promise of an exotic foreign holiday that turns out to be human trafficking. Far from leading within the UK, far from being an equal partner, far from having an important and respected voice at the top level of British government, Scotland has no say and no agency as the country’s economic future is sacrificed on the altars of English nationalist vanity and fantasy.
Despite what the anti-independence parties appear to believe, the electorate of Scotland did not hand them a blank cheque when the country narrowly voted against independence. It was a conditional vote. They constantly insist that the result of the independence referendum must be respected, but it’s not just the losers of a vote who need to respect the result. The winners also need to respect the promises and commitments that they made in order to secure their victory. They have signally failed to do so. More than that they are resisting any attempt by the people of Scotland to hold them to account. That traduces and destroys democracy. When a people have no means of holding politicians to account for promises that they have broken, democracy is dead.
The past few years have taught Scotland a harsh lesson in the realities the nature of the UK. The people of this country have always understood that Scotland is a part of a union, in fact the Conservatives continually bang on about how precious the union is to them. The story of union has been a foundation stone of Scotland’s place within the UK. Scotland, we tell ourselves, is a part of the UK because of a Treaty of Union between two equal sovereign nations. We are not a conquered nation. We are not a colony. We tell ourselves that we are a part of the UK because we wish to be, and as soon as the people of Scotland say otherwise Scotland will cease to be a part of the UK. That understanding has always been the basis of Scotland’s place within the UK.
Yet we’ve now discovered that contrary to the promises and commitments of 2014, the British government can and will take it upon itself to make unilateral changes to the devolution settlement, in direct contradiction of the will of the Scottish Parliament. This is despite the fact that the Scotland Act passed by Westminster in the wake of the independence referendum contained a clause seemingly guaranteeing that no Westminster government would ever do any such thing. We now know that clause has no legal effect and was a mere piece of political window dressing which could be discarded as soon as Westminster saw fit.
We’ve discovered that the UK of moderation, of stability, of security, is a mirage. The safer, faster, better change that Better Together promised us has turned out to meant that as a part of the UK Scotland faces an uncertain future, being driven into the dark storm clouds of a resurgence of the far right. We were told that we needed Westminster to guarantee our democratic institutions and stability, yet we see the rise of Farage and Yaxley-Lennon while Westminster undermines the devolution settlement. We see dark money dominating politics. We see a nasty xenophobic populism. Milkshakes are a better and stronger guarantee of our democracy than Westminster is.
We’ve discovered that Scotland has no input or say in determining the course of a Brexit that threatens to wreak havoc on the Scottish economy. There is no voice at the top table, only a weak and ineffectual Scotland Secretary who repeatedly threatens to resign but never does, and who sees his job as being the voice of the British Government in Scotland, and not as Scotland’s voice in the British Government. The Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament have barely been kept informed of the progress of Brexit, never mind playing an active role in negotiations. As members of the EU with voting rights and veto powers, countries much smaller than Scotland like Malta or Estonia have more of a say and more influence over Scotland’s future than the people of Scotland do as part of the UK.
We’ve learned that the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to choose the form of government best suited to their needs is actually subject to a veto from a British Prime Minister that Scotland didn’t vote for. That sovereign right was asserted in the Scottish Claim of Right, approved by both the Scottish and UK parliaments. There was no additional clause which said “as long as it’s OK with the leader of the Tory party”, yet that’s where we are now.
Most importantly what we’ve learned since 2014 is that Scotland is a part of a union in name only. The reality is that Scotland is an ignored and politically marginalised province in a unitary state. The union is one of the biggest myths and lies of British nationalism. It’s one of the stories that British nationalists tell themselves in order to continue in their delusion that British nationalism is better than all other nationalisms by virtue of not being nationalist at all.
The truth is that if the anti-independence parties had respected the promises and commitments that they made to the people of Scotland in order to win the independence referendum then there would be no clamour for another independence vote. But they haven’t. They only have themselves to blame. It’s not just Brexit, it’s their entire attitude to Scotland. Scotland will hold them to account for their failures, their lies, their mendacity. Brexit is merely the biggest and most blatant, there is no shortage of others. Every one of them is a reason for revisiting the independence vote.
Remember the dancing Westminster MPs, their smug grins, their gloating faces, as the result of the independence referendum was announced. They thought that Scotland was trapped, was quiescent, was returning to passivity, was going to be buried by the cringe. They thought that it was back to business as usual. They were wrong. The new business as usual in Scotland is a Scotland that knows how to assert itself. We will hold them to account.
My new book has just been published by Vagabond Voices. Containing the best articles from The National from 2016 to date. Weighing in at over 350 pages, this is the biggest and best anthology of Wee Gingerisms yet. This collection of pieces covers the increasingly demented Brexit years, and the continuing presence and strength of Scotland’s independence movement.
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