Humza Yuusaf says support for independence has to be higher and more consistent if another referendum is to happen. He’s right on two counts. First, the loss of the authority and status of Nicola Sturgeon and the events that followed have, without a shadow of a doubt, weakened support for leaving the union. Secondly, the independence cause has lost sparkle. To use a metaphor from the world of advertising, “It’s the sizzle, not the sausage.” The sizzle – the energy and world of possibilities that was once at the heart of the Yes case – has lost something of its excitement, attraction and magic. The proposition may be as strong as ever, but the brand is a bit frayed at the corners, the narrative rusty and the benefits obscured by the loss of a proven leader and the relentless attacks of the opposition.
The elements that drive momentum need a major service. Somehow, from somewhere, the Yes side must build a coherent case for independence that offer voters a better future than anything they can get from the current arrangements. And the case must have emotion without descending into blood and thunder fascism or the sort of falsehoods that won Leave the Brexit referendum but subsequently lost it the trust of the entire UK.
Independence has to come to mean something of far greater substance than the achievement of sovereign statehood. If Brexit has taught the UK one great and profound lesson, it is that you can’t eat sovereignty. Scotland’s Yes proponents need to have a political tool that can win the intellectual high ground and be simple and easy to understand by voters across the whole spectrum of Scottish life. The task is to have voter hearts beat a little faster, so they think of there being no adequate alternative to independence. The core quest is to find the encapsulation of an idea, of an ideal, of a promise too good to ignore; the possibility of a better and more secure life.
Words that changed the world
History tells us that the most successful political calls to action are among the shortest phrases imaginable. The most famous of all is surely Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Three words that changed the world. The French Revolution not only completely changed France politically, economically and socially, it ushered in the era of the common man. It sent a signal across the globe that the old order can be swept away. France’s new world created a whole new way of life and with fundamental characteristics that remain today elemental to the political psyche of the French people and as they do to the French state.
A few years before the French Revolution, the United States had thrown off Britain. The American War of Independence had a somewhat less compelling tag line. If it lacks romance, No taxation without representation, was the touch-paper that launched the uprising and, like France, it completely changed how American men and women managed their affairs. Both offered people not only a different way of government but the chance to have a far greater say in their own future, to build their own unique economies and their own unique relationships between the citizen and the state. Both had at their very core the idea of rights. It was the idea of rights that captured the imagination of the revolutionaries of France and America. America’s Founding Fathers put rights at the heart of the Constitution and the responsibility of the citizen to obey just laws made democratically. For the French, the citizen is France and France is the citizen.
As the political Right across the globe grows ever-more guilty of undermining the idea of civil and human rights and the rule of law, perhaps the moment has arrived for Scotland to champion these critical elements of liberal democracy. They are being eroded, misrepresented and weakened by London’s Conservative governing party. Beyond them lurks the Reform Party, GB News and a variety of successors to UKIP and the National Front.
Nor can we be certain that our rights will be safe with the British Labour Party. Asked recently if a Labour government would repeal the voter ID legislation, a Labour spokesperson refused to give a straight answer. We have also seen Labour’s leadership reject putting Proportional Representation into its election manifesto, despite it being democratically adopted as party policy.
Perhaps more worrying for Scotland has been Labour’s near total silence in response to the now numerous Tory attacks on the entire devolution settlement. Scottish devolution is one of the great achievements of Tony Blair’s first administration. Labour once boasted of it. Devolution was to resolve, in the words of John Smith, “Unfinished business” and be “the settled will of the Scottish people.” Indeed, it was when 74.3% voted in 1997 “that there should be a Scottish parliament.” That Labour is now so careless of Scottish democracy and the institution it created might indicate that this once great party of principle and the rights of the citizen is so wedded to the idea of power that it has shrugged off its values to secure the keys to No10. It is a Faustian Pact.
Do we wait to see if Labour behaves differently in power, or, God help us, if the Tories again capture Westminster (given the electoral hill Labour has to climb, a Tory victory is very far from impossible)? What seems plain is that our Scottish polity is not safe in the hands of either of the two big English parties. Far more importantly, our rights as citizens are being chipped away because of Brexit, the Tory’s lurch to the hard Right, the blind focus on power from Labour and the palpable desire of Westminster to emasculate Holyrood.
We might do worse in the Land o’ Cakes and Ale to simply adopt Liberté, égalité, fraternite. Freedom, equality, brotherhood. Though maybe we should settle for Freedom, equality, humanity. Echoes here of the Declaration of Arbroath, of Robert Burns, the Covenanters and ancient battles with sword and dirk and of more contemporary struggles.
Our modern weapons are those of peace, the pen, the voice, the book, the oratory, the march, the song and the ballot box. Freedom, equality, humanity speaks too of the very essence of liberal democracy; freedom within fair law and the sanctity of human and civil rights. The right to life. The right to justice, free speech, property, trade, education, health, freedom of sexuality. To travel, vote and, possibly most of all in these troubled times, the right to national self-determination. This list is not exhaustive, simply indicative.
Freedom, equality, humanity is not a magic bullet. Hard-edge policies and political, economic, social and cultural ideas about a new Scotland will need to be aired, debated and championed. People need to understand what they are being asked to support. They need a clear picture of the type of land they’d live in. They have to be persuaded the promise of independence can deliver a better future. Coalescing around Freedom, equality, humanity is to articulate the values held by huge numbers of Scots. It can help give focus to the future and contrast what Scotland believes with the growing authoritarianism coming from Westminster.
Can Freedom, equality, humanity rekindle, refresh and add a missing but vital element to the case for independence?
What do our readers think?