Why a second independence referendum is now inevitable

The Herald, by Iain Macwhirter

23.05.18

Everyone is either talking independence this week, or trying not to talk about it.

On Friday, Nicola Sturgeon will finally deliver the SNP’s long-awaited Growth Commission blueprint for independence 2.0. The Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, tried to upstage it in a speech at the liberal Tory think tank, Onward, in which she supported the Union, but conceded that the highly-centralised London-centric version, is no longer “fit for purpose”. This is not an issue that will go away, as the former Labour Chancellor, Alistair Darling hopes. There will be another referendum in his lifetime, and here’s why.

cotland cannot be content as a declining region of the over-centralised Brexit Britain that Remainer Ruth Davidson described, inadvertently echoing much of the SNP’s case. The UK Tory attempt to revisit the British Empire in “Global Britain” is not a project that will involve Scotland, emotionally, morally or economically, as the original empire arguably did. This is not a partnership of equals, even in theory.

Nor is it the caring-sharing UK that Gordon Brown promised would be the reward for a No vote in 2014 – a new, federal Union committed to social welfare. It will be a centralised, deregulated, free-market Britain, which will seek to overcome the economic self-harm of Brexit by trying to undercut our European neighbours through social cost-cutting, tariff wars and currency manipulation. Britain is raising the drawbridge against the very immigrants who help keep the economy buoyant and society diverse.

I am not a member of the SNP, or a nationalist, but there is no doubt in my mind now that Scotland should be an independent country in Europe. Federalism might have been an enlightened alternative to independence, but I’ve been writing about it for more than 20 years and it is less likely now than ever. Labour picks it up every so often, and Richard Leonard claims to be an enthusiast, but there’s no demand for it south of the Border, and you can’t have federalism in one country. Moreover, Brexit Britain is about restoring the unitary British state, which is why the autonomy of the Scottish Parliament is being curbed.

Nations exist for a reason: they are geographical entities,with common culture and social norms, which have been shaped by history and economic circumstances. It is the natural condition of nations to govern themselves, and really we can’t expect others to govern for us. That just leads to the paternalism and dependency of the Barnett Formula. Scotland’s endemic slow growth cannot be addressed by remaining tied to London. Only when the key decisions are taken in Scotland will it be able to progress like other European small nations, and remain an open society.

This has nothing to do with “identity politics”, as the Tory Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, claimed at the Policy Exchange conference, suggesting that independence was all about tartan racism. This was richly ironic in the wake of Windrush, which revealed endemic racism at the heart of the supposedly “warm home” of the British state. Mr Gove was one of the leading figures in the Brexit campaign which was the epitome of a narrow nationalist project that sought to limit immigration and diversity. Scotland is an open, European nation and wishes to remain so; it is mR Gove’s Brexit Britain that is obsessed with borders and cutting off from the rest of the world.

Membership of the European Union allows nations to be self-governing without borders, without protectionism, without punitive immigration controls and without nationalism. The selfish, militant and often racist nationalism of the 20th Century has largely been extinguished. It is Brexit that has revived it in the UK. Independence in Europe is the only option that makes sense for a small country like Scotland.

In recent years I’ve explored the diverse small countries of Europe, from Denmark on the North Sea to Slovenia on the Adriatic; from high-tax Norway to low-tax Slovakia. They’ve all been successful in their own ways because they make their own way. Being small works well in borderless Europe. Big is not better.

The EU (European Economic Area in the case of Norway) is a unique set of institutions that provides stable trading relations, and open markets while guaranteeing national security. Small countries don’t have to be concerned about the things that used to make them vulnerable: tariffs, currency wars, military alliances and imperialism. Instead they can get on with business. Yes, the big decisions tend to be made by the Brussels machine, and this can sometimes be hard for countries with acute difficulties like Greece. But no small country has ever sought to leave the EU.

Look at minuscule Slovenia, which was successively occupied last century by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi Germany, Italy and the Communist Warsaw Pact. You can understand why they love the EU and the euro. They don’t need to worry any more about big neighbours with bad intentions. They can carry on with what small, homogeneous countries do rather well, which is innovate and experiment. Tiny Estonia hadn’t a bean when it was liberated from communism 25 years ago, so it turned itself into the leading digital nation on the planet, offering “e-residency” to anyone, anywhere. When land-locked Slovakia fell out of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Divorce, it had little except mountains and trees. It has been the one of the fastest growing countries in the EU ever since.

Scotland can’t look to London to solve its problems – it’s just not going to happen. Countries have to make their own decisions, make their own mistakes. An independence referendum may be off the agenda right now, but Unionists should not delude themselves that because Scottish voters are scunnered with referendums, that means they are content with the Union.

They are not, and as the reality of Brexit becomes clearer over the next couple of years, Scotland will have to look seriously at its options. The spirit of 2014 has not gone away. Voters are biding their time till they see what Brexit brings, but unless Britain finds a way back into Europe, Scotland will find a way out of the UK.