Scottish independence: the defeatists’ choice

A 'Yes' to independence would mean a missed opportunity to reform the UK as a whole.

Alasdair Riggs

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Topics Politics UK

Recently, I attended a debate on the Scottish referendum at the City of London festival. It was held to answer the question ‘What is the cost of breaking up Britain?’. For the most part, the panellists sidelined the title question and stormed through the arguments for and against Scottish independence as a whole. Perhaps that was to be expected, and it was a stimulating discussion nonetheless. But it left the precise terms of the question largely unanswered.

There’s a possible answer to this question which, while rather simple, is not, in the current independence debate, being articulated. What the breakup of Britain would cost us is the opportunity to see if Britain itself can be made to work – if the British state can be reformed to the liking of the people who live here, before we go ahead and tear it apart. For Scotland to leave now would be tragically premature.

For tactical reasons, both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns have asserted relentlessly that this is the only chance Scotland will have to make this decision. ‘One opportunity’ is now the ‘Yes’ campaign’s main slogan; while pro-Union group Better Together urges anyone who will still listen to remember that ‘there is no going back’. The message from both sides is one meant to instil the fear of finality in all who hear it: ‘This question will never be put to you again, so make sure you side with us, for the following reasons…’

This is plainly false. In fact, it verges on hysterical. Scotland will not be subsumed if it votes ‘No’, losing its nationhood and becoming forever ‘North Britain’. Nor will it detach from its closest neighbours in the event of a ‘Yes’, floating off irretrievably into the North Sea. Scotland is going nowhere. It’s perfectly possible that, in the event of a ‘Yes’ win, some new kind of Union could emerge between the British nations somewhere down the line. It’s far from clear how that would come to be, however, and it would likely be a more distant prospect than the reverse. It is much easier to envisage a situation in which Scotland – were it to vote ‘No’ on this occasion and find the aftermath truly unsatisfactory – could simply choose to leave later.

The ingredients which brought us to this point will all remain in the event of a ‘No’ vote. In fact, they will be enhanced. However Scotland votes on the eighteenth, there’s been a clear transformation in public perception of the independence question. Initially a side issue, written off by many as the archaic preoccupation of an aggrieved minority, desire for independence is now thoroughly mainstream. To the extent that we can take polling figures seriously, Scots are on average around 15 per cent more likely to advocate independence than at the start of the campaign, with support now hitting the mid-40s.

Interestingly, this has come with a corresponding rise in Scots reporting a sense of ‘Britishness’, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey. An effect of the campaign, therefore, appears to have been an opening up of the constitutional question. If Scotland votes ‘No’, this will not cease to be the case. Why would it? What we’ll have is many more supporters of independence than before, with the issue at the forefront of public discussion in a way it hasn’t been for three centuries.

This is all happening now simply because a Scottish National Party (SNP) government was elected in the last Scottish election, on a manifesto featuring an independence referendum. UK prime minister David Cameron said himself that he had ‘no choice’ but to cooperate – that it would be politically impossible to refute the mandate granted by the electorate. This suggests that all Scotland requires to stage another referendum in the future is another SNP majority at Holyrood, which with the increased support for independence will be rather easier to achieve than before.

Both sides, again for political reasons, are keen to downplay comparisons with Quebec. But the example of Quebec is staring us in the face. Quebec held two referenda proposing a split with the rest of Canada within 15 years – a mere three Canadian parliaments. Where Scotland is a constituent member country of a multi-national state, Quebec actually is a province, making independence a rather more dramatic proposition. If Quebec can ask itself this question more than once, why can’t Scotland?

So, were Scotland to stay, the UK would have to be meaningfully reformed if it is to remain in existence – the Westminster system is, beyond doubt, vastly over-centralised. The sense of political distance felt in Scotland would have to be taken seriously. This would mean significant decentralisation of power, not only to Scotland, but to all the British nations, and possibly to the regions as well. Recent polling has demonstrated a surge in support for such reforms. Even major cities are beginning to push for more local control.

The ‘Yes’ campaign’s strongest argument – that the current system affords a lack of responsiveness to Scottish votes – could then, at least provisionally, be answered. If such reform came, and if it was done well, this could be a truly exciting time to be British. The endemic cynicism and apathy of political life here could be rolled back, and people might start to feel a greater sense of control over their lives. Compare, for example, the relatively muted response to mass surveillance in Britain, as opposed to elsewhere – the ‘of course they’re spying on us, what can we do?’ shrug. If the system could be regenerated into something approaching federalism, we may all have cause to feel we play a greater role in our society, and hold a greater stake in its operation.

Ken Stott, one of the public faces of the ‘Yes’ campaign, blurted out on a BBC debate this month that – whatever the result on 18 September – he thought the independence question would ‘always be on the table’. That must have enraged his campaign colleagues, being so very off-message, but he’s quite right. If Scotland stays, it doesn’t throw the option of separation away. The only option thrown away is, if it leaves now, any foreseeable prospect of the British nations sharing a single home on this island.

If they stay, the Scots can then contemplate the major issues in a less overtly politicised atmosphere. With the campaign pressure gone, a more reflective and less bitterly partisan discourse could emerge, once it has the oxygen it needs to thrive. Independence could be embraced later, on a more considered footing. Do Scots really want this independence? To end on this rancorous note? The platitudinous hypocrisies of the current nationalist campaign can be truly galling. One of the worst canards is the comparison of Scotland to a colony – the slogan being that ‘countless countries have declared independence from Britain and never looked back’. This bizarre inversion of Scotland’s colonial history is perverse. Scots have been perhaps the most enthusiastic colonisers the world has ever seen, and those countries declared independence from Scotland just as much as they did from any other part of Britain. Scottish discourse can do better.

A ‘No,’ then, would only really be a ‘no for now’. If reform doesn’t come, and independence seems on sober reflection to be the settled will of the Scottish people, they need only elect another SNP government on a referendum ticket. The current prospect seems rather like discovering that your house is drafty, and, rather than trying to fix it, dashing out into the rain, flinging a lit match behind you as you go.

Alasdair Riggs is a graduate of the University of Sussex and a former spiked intern.

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Topics Politics UK

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