published on 16 September 2014
There shall be an independent Scotland.
It is still not clear if this is the right time or not. But even if the decision on 18 September is ‘No’, the momentum for change is now too strong. As the Conservative Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth once said about devolution, ‘humpty dumpty cannot be put back together’.
Although Scotland and England have both benefitted substantially from their three hundred year old partnership, the world is now a different place.
If there is one thing that has emerged from this referendum debate, it is the realisation that many people in Scotland — a number that is close to a majority — now have considerable doubts about the future of the current mode of partnership between Scotland and the other members of the British union. As George Monbiot has argued so well, if the choice was for an independent Scotland to be joining such a union, it is very unlikely that the majority would vote to go in.
For a long time I have thought that the timing of the Scottish independence referendum was not good. I do strongly believe that Scottish independence will happen someday, but I am not sure if it will happen in my lifetime.
My sense was that it was too soon to schedule the vote for autumn 2014, just fifteen years after the re-establishment of the Scottish parliament. I did not think that the Scottish people were quite ready for the leap of faith (and hope) that was needed for an independent nation.
I still have my doubts about the outcome this month. Despite all the weaknesses so far of the ‘Better Together’ campaign, we cannot underestimate the power of caution, a fear of what sacrifices might need to be made perhaps for the ‘luxury’ of independence. This is not only the matter of the pound, it is about a much deeper fear of the precariousness of recovery. It is possible that the irrelevance to Scotland of the housing bubble in south east England — together with the promises of becoming an oil-rich economy — may address these fears.
It is certain that the ‘Yes’ campaign has won the battle that matters most in the long term. That is the battle on social media, particularly on Twitter. The tweets may be short and ephemeral, but that is now the domain where, more than anywhere else, the opinions and values of the future are being built (the ‘Generation Yes’). However, the wider battle — particularly at the ballot box — is probably a harder one to win.
I have made bad calls before on voting. In summer and autumn 2008 I felt in my bones that the US electorate would not bring themselves to vote for an African American president. I was happily wrong on that, and then they did it again in 2012.
America had at that time the memory of Bush to motivate them. For us in Scotland, it is Cameron, and the long historical shadow of Margaret Thatcher.
What will not be clear until 19 September is whether this is strong enough to reach the tipping point of real change. I don’t yet feel I am living in a country, surrounded by people, who are thrilled to have the chance to throw off the chains from a foreign power. I would like to feel that Scotland is in the midst of its own velvet (oatcake?) revolution, like Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1989 — or Slovakia in 1993.
Of course, a ‘No’ vote can be reversed sometime in the future — as happened with the devolution referendums of 1978 and 1997. If the vote is ‘No’ there will remain a significant minority who wish to see independence. However, a ‘Yes’ vote for independence will be pretty damn irreversible (as many unionists are now reminding us). A vote for ‘Yes’ will bring in changes that are not likely to be revisited this century.
Needless to say, this long term issue is profoundly significant. The vote will decide on the political make-up of the country that my children grow up, mature, and live their adult lives in. This may be as part of the United Kingdom, or in an independent Scotland, with a Scottish passport.
I can’t help asking myself ‘what right do I have to make that decision for them?’ But it is my responsibility to do so, at least for those who do not have the vote themselves. And it is my responsibility to vote in a way that does justice to their potential.
There is no doubt that Scotland can be a successful independent country. No doubt at all. We cannot say, and never will know, which of the two options would be better for us — since in choosing one over the other the decision is made, and the history is decided.
Ten or twenty years from now we may look back and regret the decision, either thinking of the wasted opportunity for independence, or regretting making a rash decision which resulted in a lower living standard for those north of the border. Fear of making the wrong decision is a powerful force, but we cannot know which one is ‘wrong’ before we make it.
According to Alasdair Douglas, a Scot who chairs the City of London Law Society, one the main beneficiaries of independence will be the lawyers. Constitutional change is always a costly matter, and this will drill down to legal changes at the micro level. Perhaps students at law school will be the crucial demographic group who influence the decision in the end?
We are hearing now the convincing argument that independence will protect Scotland from the Ukip agenda — that is the prospect of an exit from the EU. How would Scotland feel if (remaining in the UK) they went on to vote also to stay in the EU, but had to leave due to a majority in England voting for an exit? Despite the fears raised about an independent Scotland being vetoed from EU membership, there is now a stronger likelihood of Scotland remaining in the EU as an independent nation, rather than as part within the UK.
We must always remember that the United Kingdom is not such an ancient institution that it cannot change. The UK as we now know it came about in 1707 through an Act of Union (largely on England’s terms), but Scotland has prospered from that union during much that history, particularly through the joint endeavour of the British Empire.
But that does not mean the continuance of the union is historically inevitable. And many other countries that were in partnership with England (and the UK) have now gone their own way. Very few would now say that Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or even the USA would be ‘better together’ with the UK.
The prospect of independence in Scotland is seemingly taking hold of the country’s imagination at last (or at least a sizable proportion). It is not every day that we have the chance to bring about the peaceful division of the United Kingdom to create a new nation for an ancient people.
It has also been rare for such nationalism to be inclusive and multicultural. Indeed, the backwardness appears to be more pronounced on the other side, with those who wish Scotland to remain wedded to a narrow form of British nationalism.
However, we should not kid ourselves. An independent Scotland is not going to be a kinder, gentler, nicer place to live. Our politicians will continue to be self-serving, even though they do that in Edinburgh rather than London. And of course, many of the current unionists who are warning us of the dire consequences of independence will eventually come round to the idea of serving their country in Holyrood rather than Westminster. Independence will just make them that bit closer, and hopefully put them in a more functional (and less archaic and anachronistic) system.
This will not be the end of being British, it will just make it a regional identity rather than the basis of a national citizenship.
A once in a lifetime opportunity for peaceful independence for Scotland should not be missed.