Is the momentum towards a second referendum and eventual Scottish independence stoppable? Should it even be resisted?
In a recent webinar on the UK’s future post-Brexit, I argued that Brexit could be seen as merely another manifestation of a trend that has been clear for the last few decades – the move away from ever larger units of political governance (at its most conceited was the concept of global governance) – towards people wanting ever smaller, more locally relevant political governance structures.
Rejection of centralising structures and a push towards localism has always been an integral part of Liberal political philosophy. On this trajectory, we saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the violent falling apart of Yugoslavia, the split of Czechoslovakia, the rise of independence movements in Scotland, Catalonia and, abortively, in Quebec, the striving of various groups in Africa and the Middle East towards self-determination, and so on.
Of course, the Scottish case is particularly full or ironies. We have a Prime Minister who argued for self-determination for a UK outside the European Union and is now resisting the Scots’ desire for their own self-determination. In the opposite corner, we have a Scottish Nationalist Party arguing for the right to local self-governance so that they can immediately give some of it up by joining the European Union. It’s all rather Monty Pythonesque restoring one’s faith that the UK has not lost its capabilities for the theatre of the absurd.
In my opinion, a second independence referendum is an inevitability. The only question is on whose watch and in which circumstances. It is, for instance, maybe unlikely that we will be able to see a Labour government in the UK in the foreseeable future without SNP support, for which a referendum will be the price. Even successive Tory governments will be unable to resist forever.
Given all of that, there are maybe lessons that we can all learn from the Brexit referendum that might be applicable to the Scottish debate.
The first is that maybe when one has a referendum, the people should know what they are voting for beyond a set of empty slogans on both sides. To that end, I would suggest that negotiations and clear agreement on the terms of separation between Scotland and England should happen before any referendum rather than after. In addition, the Scottish government would need to produce another blueprint of what they would do with independence if it were gained – as it did prior to the first referendum.
These two conditions would make sure that the Scottish people would know what they were voting for – a privilege not granted to the British people before the Brexit referendum.
The second lesson is that, in spite of the first set of conditions listed above, many, maybe most, people will vote with their hearts and with their guts. Who is capable of winning that battle? Will the UK government be able to muster enough emotional momentum behind its campaign or will it fall back on facts and figures and so-called ‘reason’ – as did the shambolic Remain campaign around Brexit?
One thing is for sure. Continued resistance to a second referendum will do nothing to help the emotional case for a United Kingdom. It will merely increase resentment and the desire to break free. Accepting that the Scottish people have every right to self-determination will defuse at least some of the anger and change the tone of the conversation.
Let’s see how and when it will all unfold.
Corrado Poli says
I liked that “people wanting ever smaller, more locally relevant political governance structures”. This is a necessary trend to rebuild confidence in representatives and in democracy. It does not mean that larger institutions such as States and Federations are useless, but it’s hopeless to think that people feel represented by a far-away government (or institutions in general) for all what concerns everyday life. Good article Joe!
Good article (and just to say really like the outputs of Radix) – can I add a bit more flavour to the discussion as a resident Scot? I think it is bit more nuanced on the independence vote – I’ll argue here it is in the interests of the nationalist party (SNP) to delay any independence vote (creating a long struggle with the UK government as a kind of pantomime scene). There are a few reasons why I believe this to be the case.
Firstly at the moment, we are in effect a one party state in Scotland, and as a result there is little true accountability of government and institutions This is leading to repeated unchecked policy debacles. Weak opposition has meant these have gone unchallenged until scandal then erupts as outcomes become visible to citizens; the credibility of the government has been damaged and weakened support for independence.
Let me provide three examples. First, take the example of education; the Scottish state education system has deteriorated over the last decade and has led to declining outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, not to mention Scotland cynically withdrawing participation in international data sharing of attainment levels (see: https://www.ft.com/content/12f23378-4531-45f9-aabd-9028a4c7c864). A second example is the level of drug deaths in Scotland which are now by far the worst in Europe – this is an absolute scandal which politicians have let happen with little accountability (see: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-horror-of-scotland-s-drug-death-epidemic) . Finally the recent scandals in the Scottish Crown Office and within the Scottish Civil service (Alex Salmond case) show an erosion of the quality of our institutions, weak accountability, and poor governance (see: https://www.scottishlegal.com/article/douglas-j-cusine-scotland-s-malicious-prosecution-scandal-the-silence-is-deafening) and https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/19034561.iain-macwhirter-like-fish-scotlands-crown-office-rotting-head/.
More broadly, in economic terms, there is still little vision of how the economy would work in an independent Scotland. We have had a number think tank groups and reports, however these churn out the usual tropes of moonshot capitalism narratives (a recent flagship economic report was a damp squib led by a career banker who worked for failed HBoS). Compare this to Wales who have a much more radical vision for their future economy drawing on the principles of the foundational economy.
This is all important as if the SNP lose another independence vote, then that really will be it settled for a generation – they need to be sure they can win this one. The problem is polls are close and recently have shown that support for remaining in the UK has actually increased (see https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/poll-shows-drop-for-scottish-independence-support-as-sir-john-curtice-claims-results-shows-cooling-over-uk-split-3287969). This means it becomes likely that Nationalists will try to kick the can down the road rather than give the people a vote. Interestingly, with the SNP there is a cohort of nationalists want a vote asap, versus those who know it is curtains if they fail to win this time and they need to wait until there is a margin of safety.
Relatedly, and much like the Brexit vote, Scotland also has a relatively silent cohort who support the union – polls also do not accurately capture those who support the SNP, but do not want independence or even another vote – for example those who dislike the (weak) Tories and Labour, and voted to leave the EU. Given this, the SNP need a wide margin of safety to be sure they can win any vote. What is clear is independence supporters are skewed towards the young (see: https://www.thenational.scot/news/18732657.pat-kane-scottish-independence-future-youth-country-demand/) – it may be the passage of time that eventually achieves this position, but currently the numbers are moving against the nationalists.
So in summary, the nationalists may actually find it advantageous to delay a vote. I too believe we should give citizens their democratic right to self determination – realpolitik for the SNP means it is in their interest to kick the can down the road and delay any vote given they would not be sure of winning an immediate vote. It may also give Scotland time to create a clearer vision of independence and give time to reform the institutions where the rot has set in…..