Benefitting from the Brexit benefit of broken Britain

Tommy Sheppard argues only an independent Scotland can be the crucible for citizens’ control

Democracy means the right to change your mind. Collectively, people can decide to do something, and if it doesn’t work, or they don’t like it, they can do something else. That much shouldn’t be in doubt for the left – or any democrat. There’s no argument in principle against having a second referendum – on anything – if that is what people want. Then again, you can’t go changing your mind every week, or even year, or nothing would ever be settled. So, when is it right to have a second vote?

I’d argue three things need to be considered. First, has the information on which the first decision was based changed or proven to be have been wrong? Second, have opinions changed – at least enough to suggest a different result? Finally, is the legislature charged with implementing the decision unwilling, or unable, to do so? Any one of these factors might of itself be justification to have a second vote on something, but when all three of these conditions are met the case is unanswerable. This is why Britain should have another vote on Brexit. The information that people were given in 2016 was flawed to put it mildly. Opinion has clearly changed – by more than a 10% margin. And parliament – well, I rest my case. Only a people’s vote has any hope of resolving the current political crisis in Britain.

These same principles can inform our judgment about whether, and when, to have a second referendum on independence too. For sure, two out of three conditions are met. The information on which people voted in 2014 has changed dramatically. Not just the actuality of Brexit but the way in which it has been executed has exposed the true relationship of Scotland within Britain. Remember ‘lead not leave’ [Britain] anyone? So much for the promise of Scottish views being respected.

It’s also clear there’s a huge disjuncture between the decision in the referendum in 2014 and the views of the parliament people elected just two years later. To say the Scottish parliament is unwilling to regard the referendum as having settled the matter is something of an understatement given a majority of its members are committed to having another one. So that leaves public opinion. Has there been a decisive shift in how people would vote? In truth, not yet. Nine out of ten opinion polls since the last referendum put the ‘yes’ vote at the same as it was or very slightly higher. The needle has seemed stuck in the mid-forties for a long time. But these net figures mask a churn in opinion, caused principally by the fallout of Brexit. Five to ten percent of the electorate say that what has happened with Brexit means they would now support independence. And pretty much the same number now say they will no longer support independence because of the pro EU stance of the SNP and ‘yes’ supporters.

But when we get to a second indyref, Brexit won’t be on the ballot. The choice will simply be whether people in Scotland should have control over their own affairs, including whether to be in the EU and on what terms. If that case is made clearly even the most ardent independence supporting Brexiter could be persuaded. Moreover, for many people their current decision to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Scotland’s independence is nuanced and very much conditional on what happens next. When pollsters ask whether people would prefer independence to being part of Brexit for Britain, suddenly there’s a majority for the former. And it seems the harder the Brexit, the larger the majority for independence.

It is in this context that we need to understand the decision by the SNP to rachet up the plans for a further independence referendum. We are, of course, still in the throes of Brexit and we do not know for sure what the outcome will be. But it is beginning to feel that we are now in the endgame. You have to plan on what you know, not what you hope for. And we know, for sure, that unless Westminster policy is changed, we will leave the EU at Halloween. Even if parliament votes against leaving without a deal, it will happen unless the whole process is revoked.

As things stand now a no-deal Brexit is the most likely outcome. It may not happen and, of course, we will fight against it but you don’t wait until the worst happens before planning for it. That’s why legislation is being introduced in the Scottish parliament to allow people in Scotland to say if they want to take control of their own affairs or stay in the Brexit Britain of Boris. Now, it’s a statement of the obvious that things might happen in the next six months that will force a recalibration of the timetable. A second Brexit referendum or a general election could produce a result that would require a tactical rethink. This, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean a delay – indeed, there are potential election outcomes that might suggest an acceleration of plans to hold the next indyref. It is, though, more likely than not that Scotland will get the chance to vote again on becoming an independent country before the end of 2020. I confess that is sooner than I would have expected a few years ago. But then no one could fully appreciate the shitshow that Brexit has turned into and the way it has redefined Britain. So, the next twelve months will be a time for building the case for independence.

A lot of that will be about policy. Pro-independence supporters have, for instance, been aiming to fill the void of economic and fiscal policy that was cruelly exposed last time round. Indeed, the SNP’s economic policies have been the subject of critical debate in this journal (see July/August 2018, issue 106). Despite concerns on the left, it looks as if the economic case for independence this time round will look much more like a traditional social democratic mixed economy model than the pro-business prospectus of the 2013 White Paper. Frankly though, as I argued in the aforementioned issue of this journal, none of this is a priority. Of course, it is important to prove in general terms that Scotland could afford to be independent and illustrate how it could be based on a fairer economy. But in truth the main point of independence is that people get the government they vote for. An independent Scotland could pursue low tax, low investment policies – or the reverse. So, the time when these arguments really matter is when parties are preparing their manifestoes for the first election to an independent Scottish parliament.

It is because I believe we can build majority support for the case for a more equal, fair and publicly accountable society that I argue for political independence in Scotland. It offers a better means for radical social and economic change than remaining in the outdated polity of Britain. But unless and until people achieve that political power the rest is just wishful thinking. So, it is important to galvanise progressive forces around the demand for independent control of our own affairs in Scotland. That means there are more important debates to be had now before we construct the policy manual for a new country. These are debates about political philosophy and strategy and they involve attending to some unfinished business from last time round.

The first of these concerns the nature of contemporary Scottish nationalism. In the sense that I believe Scotland should be a nation state, I am a nationalist. But I am also a socialist, an internationalist, a democrat, a republican and many other things besides. Those who oppose Scottish independence have for decades dishonestly caricatured those who espouse it. They have tried to associate the term nationalist with its most negative and repulsive variants, subtly implying that even if we don’t advocate authoritarian xenophobia that’s the inevitable trajectory should we vote for control over our own affairs. This is nonsense. Most opponents of independence don’t argue against nation states they just argue that Scotland should be part of the British nation state rather than one by itself. Scottish nationalism is an inclusive civic movement led by people who want open borders and more immigration. It is a progressive force for change to a more equal and diverse society. It is built on looking to the future not dwelling in the past.

We need to address some of the nonsense critiques of Scotland being an independent nation state head on. Let’s start with separation. Our opponents pretend that having political control over our own affairs will isolate Scotland, and they portray independence as a barrier keeping us apart from others. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scotland isn’t going anywhere. We will still occupy the northern part of the British Isles as an independent country. The difference is our voice will be heard and we will be in control of how we work with others. Political independence is not only a means to empower people to have more control over their own lives, it will also allow them to be better represented in Britain, Europe and the world. It is a means of engagement and not isolation. It is also a means by which we can express our solidarity with people elsewhere in Britain and beyond. Independence offers the left the opportunity to implement radical policies at home and project them on a wider platform to the rest of Britain. It can be the catalyst and the roadmap for change well beyond Scotland. It is also a way in which the people of Scotland can exercise practical international solidarity by pursuing policies as an independent state.

The unionist argument goes on to ask why should we want a hard border with England. We don’t – and we wouldn’t need to if both countries were members of the EU trading bloc. It is Brexit that forces a hard border, not independence. If Britain goes through with Brexit then the border with a future independent Scotland would also be a border with the EU. Even if we can’t stop it, we can work out a way to make sure there’s no hard border at Carlisle. It is in both Scotland and England’s interests to make this as permeable as possible and any discussion an independent Scotland has about its relationship with the EU will have to include getting the latter’s support for special relationship with England and Wales. It is worth noting though that even the hardest of Brexiters claim that it can be achieved without a hard border on Ireland – so one wonders why that couldn’t also be the case in Scotland.

We are then asked why anyone would want to leave Britain but stay in the EU. This question is glibly posed by unionists – particularly those of the liberal democrat or right wing Labour persuasion – in a way which suggests they have exposed a fatal inconsistency in the independence argument. But again, this is nonsense and the question put has a quite simple answer. They are two completely different things. The EU is a confederation of independent sovereign states which have decided to come together to do things they cannot get done by themselves. Britain is a single state where the interests and aspirations of four countries are fused in a single polity and all power resides at Westminster. To suggest that just because they share the word ‘union’, the EU and Britain are similar political structures is willful misrepresentation at best, crass ignorance at worst. Comparing the way in which the largest EU countries have supported Ireland in the current Brexit debate with the way Westminster has ignored Scotland has been instructive for many people.

Independence means being in charge of our own affairs, not going it alone. Independence allows us to make alliances, treaties, even unions, with other countries. But on terms we agree on and with the power to change those structures should we wish to. A second independence referendum is coming. Maybe next year. Possibly a few years after that. But soon. In getting there, we will not put down our fellow citizens who take a contrary view but engage them in the debate. This will be formalized at a national level through a Citizens Assembly and replicated locally by ‘yes’ groups across the land. The context will be different. The prospectus will be different. But the central question remains the same.

And when the question is put it will be about whether we have the right to choose how to organise our society and use our resources. The ‘Better Together’ campaign promised last time round that devolution within Britain offered Scotland that control within the security and influence of Britain. Neither of these claims survive cursory inspection. From Brexit to climate change, our power is non-existent or severely constrained. And far from offering a comfort blanket, a post-Brexit British state is looking like a very insecure and dangerous place to be.

Tommy Sheppard is the (SNP) MP for Edinburgh East