Another referendum on Scottish independence has been deferred but not, to the chagrin of Scottish Unionists, abandoned. The shrieks and howls of protest from the three leaders of Scottish Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament could be heard in their party HQs in London. They wanted their nemesis, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, to take a second independence referendum completely off the table so that Scots would have to accept the English-negotiated Brexit deal no matter how destructive it would be to Scottish society and the Scottish economy. As we say in Scotland when sarcastically negating something – aye right!
Nicola, as she is fondly known, was quite right politically, pragmatically and morally in parking the legislation which had already been approved by the Scottish Parliament because of the SNP’s and Green Party’s votes.
Politically, there is so much confusion in UK politics at the moment that it would be a democratic outrage if the Scottish people who voted 63% to remain in the EU were not to be given another choice whether to remain in an increasingly dysfunctional and right-wing Union whose Government is anathema to Scottish values or join the EU as an independent member. Remaining in the Union could potentially come at a huge cost to the Scottish economy which is much more fragile than the English one because of the population disparity. In addition, Scotland has fewer powers to grow the economy rather than merely haggle over the subsidy from the largesse of Westminster. Remaining in Brexit Britain would worsen the social fabric of the country and lead to the continuation of homeless people dying in our streets, more food banks established for those on benefits which are under attack and, under the Tories, lead to a bleeding away of the powers of the Scottish Parliament rather than their strengthening.
Pragmatically, Nicola was correct as the Scottish people, let alone political activists, are exhausted by plebiscites and elections, having had six of them since 2014. We also need to see whether the buffoons in charge of the negotiations with the EU come out with a deal or not. If so, we need to judge whether it helps the Scottish economy and not just the City of London, whether it protects workers’ rights as the EU legislation does and whether it guarantees access to the Single Market and continues cultural and social ties with our fellow Europeans. No deal is a distinct possibility given the unpreparedness and arrogance of what is euphemistically termed ‘Team UK’ which does not include the Scottish Secretary of State, the Scottish First Minister or anyone from any of the devolved administrations. Scots must be given the right to weigh up the options about which Union they want to belong to.
Morally, Nicola was correct in putting the referendum into the long grass. The Scottish Government has to work to persuade the UK Government to give it a place at the negotiation table with the EU and strengthen Scotland’s voice in Westminster given the inability of the 13 Scottish Tory MPs to do so after the DUP was bribed to the tune of £1 billion into shoring up May’s teetering government while Scotland, Wales and the English regions suffer cuts. The UK has not been a unitary state for over a decade though the British Government tends to ignore this fact and has yet to acknowledge the 63% Remain vote in Scotland. The material change caused by the English and Welsh voting ‘no’ to EU membership ignited the call for a second independence referendum and that was part of the SNP’s manifesto in the Scottish elections which they won. Given the shocks to the body politic of a hard Brexit, it would be morally indefensible to go against the wishes of the Scottish people – consistently sustained in polls – that they want another referendum, just not too soon but, sensibly, after the terms of the deal are known.
It may surprise Australians to realise, after the publicity given to the revival of the Scottish Tories who now have thirteen MPs instead of one, that the SNP still won most seats in Scotland (35) and is the third biggest party in the House of Commons. They also are in Government in Holyrood (as the Scottish Parliament is occasionally called), and have been for ten years, and hold most Council seats.
The Scottish Tories won because they campaigned on ‘a no second independence referendum’ platform and not on their own Westminster policies which, had they done so, would have resulted in a very different outcome. They won votes from their constituencies in the Orange Lodge, thus re-introducing a dangerous note of sectarianism back into Scottish politics, Unionists of all other hues – our largest migrant population, the English, the elderly and strategically voting Unionists from Labour and Liberal Democrats and perhaps people just fatigued by democracy! The Unionists were ably abetted by the Scottish BBC debates which tended to avoid discussion of Westminster policies and concentrated on devolved issues to attack the SNP – which had nothing to do with the actual ballot.
After the election, I headed for a break to Estonia, the most economically successful of the ex-Soviet states and one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world. Skype was born there. The tiny country of 1.3 million people became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991 with few assets, great poverty, a cowed people with many talented Estonians in the diaspora. The good news was that the talent came back and has made a great success of the country which is rapidly going up the Human Development Index from a very low level. The EU flag flutters beside the Estonian one all over the country and they are passionate Europeans. I have seen the future for Scotland coming from a much higher economic, educational and social level. That future looks rosily Saltire blue and white compared to the nastiness of the red, white and blue of May’s Brexit. The referendum won’t be deferred for too long. If it doesn’t come about, I can always apply for Estonian e-residency – a snip at €100!
Duncan MacLaren is an Adjunct Professor of Australian Catholic University but writes in a personal capacity from Glasgow.