This is the first in a series of articles looking at the topics which will dominate the coming independence referendum campaign. These pieces are aimed at undecided voters and soft no voters. In this first piece I look at why Scotland is justified in seeking another independence referendum.
First published in May 2021.
Scotland stands at a crossroads in its history. Soon, the people of Scotland will be asked to choose what sort of country they want this to be, even though the British government is doing its damnedest to try to prevent the Scottish people from asking themselves about Scotland’s future. This refusal by itself raises an important question, just what sort of union is it where one of the smaller partners is effectively blocked from even asking itself about its role within that union because a government elected by the largest partner says no.
The truth is that if a British Prime Minister that Scotland didn’t vote for imposes a veto on Scotland’s desire to ask itself an important question about Scotland, and vetoes Scotland from having a national conversation with itself, we are justified in asking whether there is any union left at all.
In 2014 Scotland had a vote on its place within the UK, and voted against independence. The rhetoric of some politicians at the time was that the referendum was a once in a generation opportunity, but the truth is that in a democracy no politician can bind the electorate in perpetuity. Voters have an absolute right to change their minds, especially if circumstances change. Circumstances have changed drastically since 2014 and that is why the voters of Scotland chose in the recent Scottish election to give a large majority to parties promising to hold another referendum within the five year term of this Holyrood parliament.
The 2014 vote was not a blank cheque to Westminster to do with Scotland what it pleased in perpetuity, it was conditional upon the promises and commitments that the anti-independence parties had made to Scotland in order to secure their desired result. One of the most important of those commitments was that the only way that Scotland could remain a part of the EU was by voting against independence. So Scotland voted against independence, and well, we are where we are. Scotland is being told by a Conservative government in Westminster that it must suck Brexit up, even though Scotland voted to remain a part of the EU by a considerably larger margin than it voted to remain a part of the UK.
The Tories call themselves the party of the union, but they act as the party of British centralism. That was fine for decades, because unionism in Scotland rested upon the comforting myth that Scotland was a voluntary equal partner in the United Kingdom. That was, and is, the defining belief of Scottish Unionism. Scotland, they tell everyone else and themselves, is not a colony. Scotland was an enthusiastic participant in the British Empire. Scotland, they assert, was never a possession of the Empire but rather a partner in doing the possessing.
Unfortunately, this is not the understanding of the union that is current amongst the Anglocentric British establishment which Boris Johnson’s government embodies. Their belief is that the UK is simply a euphemism for Greater England. Their UK consists of England and those lesser nations which have been compelled by one means or another to throw their lot in with England.
When there was an Empire to exploit, different Scottish and English understandings of the union were unquestioned and unexamined. After the dissolution of the Empire the disconnection could easily be ignored. For much of the 20th century there was no Scottish Parliament to articulate Scotland’s political sense of itself. Scotland, like England, alternated between voting Labour and voting Conservative. As recently as the 1950s Scotland was fertile territory for the Tories. The cracks only started to appear after the demand for Scottish self government arose in the latter part of the 20th century, and voting patterns in Scotland began to diverge from those in England. The cracks only grew wider after Tony Blair’s government introduced an assymetric form of devolution.
The cracks grew wider still during the independence referendum and its aftermath, when the parties forming the Better Together campaign turned their back on the Vow and complacently thought that the No vote meant a return to business as usual. Scotland was back in its box, and could be ignored once again. But the independence movement born during the referendum campaign ensured that the lid of the box was kept loose. Scotland was not going to return meekly to the union flag branded shortbread tin.
Former PM David Cameron talking about the future of the United Kingdom following the 2014 Scottish Referendum result.
In order to keep Scotland tied to Westminster, we were told that it was only because of the UK that we were a part of the EU. The message that leaving the UK meant leaving the EU was central to the Better Together campaign. Scots were taught that their country was poor, semi-bankrupt, and dependent on the largesse of a kind and benevolent UK. But this only provoked an unexpected reaction in England, when England started to grow resentful at what it saw as Scottish privilege that English voters were being told they paid for, privileges which were being lavished on ungrateful Scots.
All this simmering discontent with the union metaphorically exploded with Brexit. The Conservatives brought about a referendum on EU membership in order to tackle internal Tory disputes between the Europhile and Europhobe wings of that party. After a defeat in the EU referendum which the then Prime Minister David Cameron had neither expected nor prepared for, his successors continued to treat Brexit as an internal matter for the Conservative party.
Despite the fact that the vote to leave won only a very narrow victory, Theresa May set out to placate the extreme europhobes on her back benches. She set out entirely unnecessary red lines, and the definitions of soft and hard Brexit were moved ever further in one direction, in the direction of right wing Brextremism and ever further away from what Scotland could accept. This was only exacerbated after Theresa May lost her majority in the General Election she had promised not to call. She continued as though nothing had changed. The only difference was that now she required the support of the DUP.
Heavily remain voting Scotland was ignored, along with all the other remain voters in the UK. The proposal from the Scottish Government for a differential treatment of Scotland along with Northern Ireland never even got a reply. The Conservatives had never been happy with devolution, and leapt upon Brexit as their opportunity to recentralise the UK. The Brexit vote gave them a convenient excuse to undermine the devolution settlement and grab devolved powers for Westminster, all the while mendaciously claiming that they were giving Holyrood more powers.
What really happened was this. When devolution was established, the new Scottish Parliament was given control of all powers of government except for those which were explicitly to be reserved to Westminster – such as broadcasting, international relations, defence, the social security system, most tax powers, the constitution, etc. All other powers were devolved. However as a part of the EU, a number of these functions were exercised by EU institutions. In essence, these powers were still Scotland’s, but they were being held in trust for Scotland by the EU. After Brexit, Westminster took it upon itself to decide unilaterally which of these powers it was keeping for itself, and which it would allow Holyrood to keep. And then David Mundell told us that we had no grounds for complaint because Holyrood was getting extra powers.
Thanks to the Tories and the consistent way in which they have placed the interests of their party before the interests of Scotland and before the interests of the UK, the devolution settlement has been undermined, and Scotland faced the prospect of crashing out of the EU without a deal, powerless to influence events. The threadbare deal which was eventually cobbled together was devised with no input from the Scottish government. It’s a deal which didn’t even pay lip service to taking Scottish interests into account.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her new Cabinet line-up following the 2021 election.
As a direct result, the UK is under immense strain. On the one hand the Tories have created an England which is resentful of what it sees as Scottish privilege, and whose Brexit supporters would prefer to see Scotland go than to give up on Brexit. On the other hand the Tories have created a Scotland which is resentful because it has been wrenched out of the EU even though the Conservatives told Scotland that the only way to remain in the EU was to vote against independence.
On top of all this, Scotland is seeing its precious devolution settlement being unilaterally undermined and traduced by a Conservative government Scotland didn’t vote for, even though the entire point of devolution in the first place was to provide Scotland from the depredations of Conservative governments Scotland didn’t vote for ,such as the painful and bitter experience of the Thatcher era. Devolution is failing to protect Scotland. No one can still have confidence that the devolution settlement will be able to continue in its current form in a centralising post-Brexit Britain.
All this is the creation of the Conservative party. They did this. This is their doing. In pursuit of their own short term party interests the Tories dug into the very core of the union between Scotland and the rest of the UK and destroyed its foundations. The cracks are wide and growing ever wider. The chasm between the Scottish and English conceptions of what this so-called union means cannot be papered over with some union flag posters and a spot of rebranding. It won’t be bridged by blaming the SNP and the Scottish independence movement. The tensions that the Conservatives have selfishly created can only be resolved with a great democratic event – a second Scottish independence referendum.
In order to counter their own destruction of the foundations of the Union, the Conservative government has embarked upon what is in effect nothing more than an advertising campaign. It’s too little and too late. A cosmetic exercise by the Tories won’t succeed in propping up an edifice which they themselves have brought to the point of collapse. You don’t save a structurally unsound building with a lick of paint and some new union flag themed wallpaper. It’s too late to save the UK. The Tories have exposed its true nature. They are the unwitting midwives of Scottish independence. Because of the actions of the Conservatives themselves, there’s now far too many rebellious Scots to shush.
The UK that Scotland is a part of is not the UK that Scotland was told it could be a part of in 2014. That is why Scotland voted for a large majority of pro-independence MSPs in the recent election, elected with a mandate for another referendum during this Parliamentary term.
Scotland has an absolute democratic right to ask itself in a referendum if it still wants to be a part of a UK which is fundamentally different from the UK we thought we were getting in 2014.
▫ Wee Ginger Dug, also known as Paul Kavanagh. Blogger.
- Paul Kavanagh is the author of Barking up the Right Tree | Vagabond Voices
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[This piece was originally published in Wee Ginger Dug’s blog and re-published in PMP Magazine on 25 May 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Flickr/The Laird of Oldham. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)