There’s a couple of points I’d like to talk more about, following on from last night’s blog piece Startled Fawns. In that piece, limitations of space meant that I didn’t discuss Yes-leavers. They’re an important, albeit minority, demographic, and it would be foolish for the Yes movement to ignore their concerns. Another concern that has been raised is that by not holding a referendum until after Brexit, we would have effectively abandoned EU citizens in Scotland and would have allowed huge damage to be done to the Scottish economy.
Brexit and EU membership is the trigger for the next referendum, but that certainly doesn’t mean that the Yes movement, or the SNP for that matter, should be fighting the independence campaign on the basis of seeking independence in order to return immediately to the EU. That is indeed what many, and probably most, do in fact want, but telling one and all to vote Yes for EU membership would be a mistake. The focus of an independence campaign cannot be about pre-determining the choices that the sovereign people of Scotland make in an independent Scotland, it can only be about establishing the principle that the people of Scotland have the sovereign right to make their own choices – whatever those choices may be.
People who support both Yes and leaving the EU base their position on their belief in the sovereignty of the Scottish people. First of all we have to ensure that Scottish sovereignty is established in an independent state. Then and only then can the people of Scotland decide whether as an independent state we wish to join the EU. Or perhaps we may choose to join EFTA instead, which would give us access to the single market, the customs union, and allow freedom of movement without being full members of the EU.
The important point is that this is a decision that can only be made in a referendum on EU membership in an independent Scotland. We can’t prejudge it during an independence referendum. Fundamentally independence is about one thing and one thing only – asserting and establishing the right of the people of Scotland to decide the path that this country takes. It’s not about determining in advance what that path must be. That’s something that both Yes-leavers and Yes-remainers can agree on.
Another concern that has been raised is the view that by allowing Brexit to play out, we are effectively abandoning EU citizens to their fate and allowing untold damage to be done to the Scottish economy. However that’s precisely why I argued that the Scottish Government needs to be seen to do its utmost to prevent Brexit from taking place. Indeed, that was the entire thrust of the piece. That’s the exact opposite of abandoning EU citizens to be deported by the Home Office, or sitting back and allowing untold damage to the done to the Scottish economy.
However the truth is that as a part of the UK, Scotland is not capable of stopping Brexit. This is one of the strongest arguments for independence, Scotland is not an active player in shaping the path the UK takes but rather is a passive victim of England’s political priorities. We can argue our corner, but essentially the final decision about Brexit will be made in England, not in Scotland. It will be made to suit England’s political priorities, not Scotland’s. Until the question of Brexit is settled, any Scottish independence referendum will be drowned in England’s political uncertainty.
Not holding a referendum until after there’s a solution to the Brexit conundrum does not mean that we have lost the votes of Scotland’s 200,000 or so EU citizen residents. It is for the Scottish Parliament to decide on the franchise for Scottish votes. Westminster determines the franchise only for Westminster General Elections in Scotland. The Scottish Government has already signalled its intention to extend the franchise to everyone who is legally resident in Scotland, whether they are EU citizens or citizens of some third country. There are an estimated 337,000 non-UK citizens living in Scotland. All of them should have the vote in a Scottish independence referendum. And they will.
Then there is the question of what happens should Brexit be successfully prevented. The SNP, it is claimed, will have thrown away the best chance of independence in our lifetimes by having campaigned against Brexit. I do believe that if Brexit can be prevented it will be harder to obtain a majority for independence in the short term (although not impossible). Many of those who are currently undecideds or soft Noes will breathe a collective sigh of relief and go back to supporting the status quo. The EU will return to supporting the UK as a member state and become more hostile to Scottish independence.
The medium and longer term is a different matter. In terms of domestic support for independence, what this entire Brexit process has demonstrated in abundance is the contempt and disdain that the Westminster establishment has for Scotland. At every step along the way, Scotland has been ignored, marginalised, and sidelined. This is not a bug in the UK’s operating software, it’s a feature. It will happen again. And when it does happen again we can point the Brexit experience as proof that it keeps happening.
However the cancellation of Brexit does not mean a return to business as usual any more than the loss of the independence referendum in 2014 meant a Scotland that returned to being quiescent. Brexit has opened up a deep seam of resentful English nationalism. That’s not going to go away, and it’s going to shape and direct the future of British politics for years to come, shaping it in ways which are inimical to the devolution settlement and to Scotland’s place within the UK.
At an EU level, the UK has already blown up its reserves of goodwill amongst other EU member states. The other member states would welcome a decision to cancel Brexit, but equally they will be aware that the underlying brexitosis and English nationalist exceptionalism which created the problem in the first place continues to infect the British body politic. That will make many of them view Scottish independence in a more sympathetic light. They won’t come out and full-heartedly support Scottish independence, but then they’re not going to do that even after the UK has left the EU.
Even if Brexit can be avoided in the short term, and that’s a very big if, the question of Brexit is going to continue to dominate British politics for decades to come. The independence movement in Scotland did not go away because we lost the referendum in 2014, the Brexit movement is certainly not going to go away after seeing their win in the 2016 referendum frustrated by subsequent events. It’s a movement which counts on resources of dark money and wealth that is orders of magnitude greater than any funding which the Scottish independence movement can attract. It will continue to be well-resourced, well-funded, and prominent. If Brexit is cancelled it will only become more strident and urgent.
What this means is that one way or another, whether on October 31 or sometime in the future, Brexit is going to happen. At some point after the hypothetical cancellation of Brexit, a UK government will be elected on a platform of leaving the EU and we’ll be back in this circus all over again. That is particularly likely to happen because of the nature of the First Past the Post system of Westminster, where a party can win a large majority in the Commons on the back of a mere third of the popular vote. Brexit is not going away. Even if Brexit can be cancelled this time (which I doubt), as long as Scotland remains a part of the UK we will continue to be at risk of being taken out of the EU against our will. Eventually the forces of English nationalism that Brexit has unleashed will ensure that it comes to pass.
There was another criticism made of yesterday’s article, and this is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. The SNP leadership needs to be far more assertive in making the case for independence and in rebutting the arguments of opponents. In particular that means challenging the myth of Scotland’s alleged poverty and our supposed deficit. It’s all very well for Nicola Sturgeon to say that the question of independence is going to be foremost in the election to come, but that declaration needs to be followed up with some substance. We need to see an enthusiasm for pursuing independence from the SNP leadership which is equal to its enthusiasm for frustrating Brexit.
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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