I don’t much enjoy writing or talking about independence. It goes against the grain for me. I’m forced to confront things I’d prefer to avoid. Challenges from friends or family can appear to carry a mildly accusatory tone, even if it’s only in my head.
While I can furiously agree with my echo chamber (mostly Labour or Lib Dem voters) on the disaster of Brexit, or the horror show in Westminster, venture a pro-independence thought and there is an awkwardness, a new dividing line in a place where I never expected or wanted to have one. For everything I write or say, there’s a part of me that wants to unwrite or unsay it; to make it go away so that I can feel the same way that I used to about this United Kingdom.
But I can’t stay silent and pretend I’m at ease when I’m not. Because there’s a problem, laid bare by this week’s entirely foreseeable but highly significant Supreme Court judgement. The UK I grew up believing in was, I thought, a voluntary union. One where we lectured, and still do lecture, other people about democracy and the right to self-determination.
Yes, for most of my life, this may have felt largely theoretical because why would anyone, I would have reasoned to myself, want to leave?
The Union I thought I believed in no longer exists
But these days, when I hear some people insist that, while they personally oppose independence, the Union is a voluntary one, I wonder if they are being honest with themselves. Isn’t the truth that, for them, the question should always remain hypothetical? That when it risks becoming real, the best thing is to bide their time until that risk goes away, proclaiming without any obvious democratic or constitutional anchor that “now is not the time”, and insisting that, in the event this poll suggested that, or that election demonstrated this, there would of course be some sort of process but they just can’t say quite what it would be.
That’s how it feels to me, anyway. And if I’m right, though it grieves me to say it, the Union I thought I believed in no longer exists.
The Supreme Court judgement only reinforces this sense of disquiet. Not because it rules out a referendum at a time when I suspect many independence supporters – in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis – do not want one. Or even because referendums are the best way of resolving these things (I’m open-minded on that question). But because it makes clear that how and whether Scotland is ever to become independent will be entirely in the hands of Westminster.
A voluntary union is dependent on the say-so of English MPs
A series of questions flow from the Supreme Court decision. How can Scotland leave the UK if it wishes to? What process will there be for codifying this? How can it be right if Scotland’s ability to leave a nominally voluntary union is dependent on the say-so of English MPs? Why will Gordon Brown’s constitutional review not cover the possibility of independence for Scotland, even as the Labour-led Welsh government allows an Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales to imagine future independence for that country?
In light of the Supreme Court judgement, these questions need to be put to Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians, and their feet held to the fire. Because too often, I hear them talk about what they think the Scottish electorate ‘should’ have voted for rather than what it ‘did’ vote for, on multiple occasions. Too often they avoid the question of how Scots could hypothetically gain independence by telling us that Scots shouldn’t ‘want’ to.
And then there are the slurs. In their world, there is no such thing as a legitimate complaint from an independence supporter – only a “contrived grievance”. There is no legitimate belief in self-government, only ugly anti-Englishness. There is no considered critique about the risks and challenges of independence (of which there are many) which won’t be tailed off with a pious lecture about the evils of nationalism.
Scotland is divided into Yeses, Nos, Maybes, Don’t Knows and Deeply Conflicteds
I’m sure these people are quite certain of the essential morality of their position. I don’t mean that nastily – in fact, in their strictures I can hear a fair bit of my former self, confident that proclaiming we’re “better together” is enough of an argument in its own right. But (and this goes for both sides) you need to be careful when you’re convinced of the morality of your position, as it can get in the way of your stated belief in democracy. Morality is about right and wrong. “Don’t kill”. “Treat refugees well”. These are moral positions. “Preserve the Union” isn’t a moral position, any more than is “gain independence”. These are matters of governance, or identity, or conviction. But not of morality.
There’s a problem when politicians resort to this sort of language. It may fire up their base. But if the aim is to win converts, it achieves nothing. Scotland today isn’t divided into Yeses and Nos. It’s divided into Yeses and Nos and Maybes and Don’t Knows and Deeply Conflicteds, each with their own story to tell. Within my own circle of friends, I know a previously committed Unionist who would now vote Yes (“but would hate himself for it”), another who would vote No because of his fears about the economy (“but my heart would say Yes”), and another – her business destroyed by Brexit – genuinely torn between the absolute belief in the Britain she grew up believing in and the reality of the Britain that she sees today. How do lectures about the other side’s immorality help these people? Not one bit.
Labour is not filling the gap on all key issues that’ll make a case for the union
There is still a positive, progressive case to be made for the Union. It’s a tricky one, because it needs to be based on an acknowledgement that Brexit and all that has ensued from it is a disaster, and a resolution to overturn it and come through these disastrous years all the stronger. And it would need, of course, to be based on a reinforced sense that the Union really is voluntary, underpinned by a clearly set out route to independence in the event that Scots one day sought it.
The problem is that Labour, the party you would expect to fill this gap, is not doing so. Where we would expect a Labour party to trumpet its internationalism, we hear its leader trying to outdo the Tories on immigration. Where we would expect a Labour party to condemn in the strongest terms the evils of the Tories’ Rwanda policy, we see a leadership which focuses instead on the impracticality, thus helping to normalise the evil and leaving room for Nicola Sturgeon to make the speech about refugees that you’d expect to hear from Labour.
Where I would like a Labour party to tell me how my children can regain the freedom of movement that has been taken from them, I hear Labour not only telling me that they can’t but chiding me for wanting it. Where I see an electoral system desperately in need of reform so that we are never again held hostage by First Past the Post to socially conservative voters in a small group of English constituencies, I see a Labour party that shows no sign of wanting to reform that system. “We have to say these things”, they will tell you, “because the system forces us to”. Thus reinforcing the case for independence. And on it goes.
Does the future of the Union depend on Labour?
Maybe, despite my scepticism, Labour will once again flourish in Scotland, winning back seats from the SNP at the next general election.
But what if it doesn’t? What then for the Union? What if the reality is one of an ever-growing assumption among younger Scots that independence is only a matter of time? Doesn’t that put a whole new challenge on saving the Union? Will harking back to the World Wars, the golden days of the BBC and the history of the labour movement, combined with lectures about the evils of nationalism, do the trick?
Seen through that prism, doesn’t the future of the Union depend on Labour, in particular, being able to set out the kind of compelling, progressive vision for the future that for now it is singularly failing to do? On understanding that it needs to win people over to the Union with a positive vision that doesn’t insult their intelligence? On accepting that, if it wants to save the Union, it may need to be willing to take the risk of letting it go.
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