I probably shouldn’t dwell on it, but I can’t help pondering how different things might have been if we’d had a new independence referendum on Thursday 20 September 2018. Looking back may be futile. But looking to the future has rarely been more disturbing and depressing. So indulge me! Allow me this brief reverie. Who knows? It may even prove illuminating.
Suppose we’d had that referendum in 2018. Suppose we’d won. Four months on we’d be well into the process of getting Scotland out of the Union – instead of being in the position of desperately struggling to keep Scotland in the EU – in keeping with the wishes of 62% of the Scottish voters who expressed a preference in the 2016 EU referendum.
If the Brexit process hadn’t ground to a total halt as everybody tried to figure out the implications of the decision to normalise Scotland’s constitutional status then at least we wouldn’t be part of the mess. By now, we might well have agreement from the EU that Scotland would effectively be treated as the continuing state after 29 March 2019.
There is no reason to suppose that the British government’s handling of the Brexit process would have been any less catastrophically inept. Scotland’s elected representatives – along with those of the other ‘peripheral’ parts of the UK – had been denied any meaningful role in the process. So taking them out of the equation with a Yes vote couldn’t really make much difference. Of course, the (r)UK position would be considerably weaker given that they could not claim to speak for Scotland. And given that they would no longer have any claim on Scotland’s resources. But it’s hard to imagine how this could make things any worse than May and her fractious rabble managed even while the UK was relatively intact.
Obviously, there would still be ‘issues’. Many of these would impinge on Scotland. But, as a de facto independent nation, we would have effective input. We would have a say in how these issues were resolved. Scotland’s interests would be represented in a way they never could be as a mere adjunct of England. Which is not to say that we would get everything we wanted from either the EU or the rump UK. But whatever compromises were made would be our compromises. They wouldn’t be compromises made on our behalf without consultation or consideration.
We might well suppose that the departure from the EU of those who actually voted for this – England and Wales – would be made easier in our imagined scenario. It is at least probable that a Yes vote in Scotland’s referendum would prompt a reunification vote in Ireland. Thus resolving cleanly, democratically, peacefully and in a most rational manner, the Irish border/ Good Friday Agreement problem which has been the greatest obstacle to a Withdrawal Agreement not wholly reliant on Santa Claus pulling some ‘alternative arrangements’ out of his sack. (You’ll understand that I didn’t really want to write ‘sack’.)
Had Scotland voted Yes on Thursday 20 September 2018, the increasingly ludicrous Brexit farce played out in Westminster and in the media over the last few months would have been largely avoided. Although this may be to underestimate the capacity of the British political elite to render farcical pretty much anything it is associated with. But this is my reverie. So I get to give them the benefit of whatever doubt I can scrape up. I elect to suppose that, as January 2019 passes, the Brexit thing would be going swimmingly. Even if some way from Olympic-standard synchronised swimming.
Then there’s the parallel negotiations between Scotland and rUK and between Scotland and the EU. The latter would be at an advanced stage by now. With Scotland taking on the UK’s membership of the EU there really wouldn’t be that much to negotiate. Think of it as Scotland inheriting the UK’s EU member’s uniform and having it adjusted to fit. Given that whatever negotiations were required would be conducted in a spirit of trust and constructive good will, there would surely be no impediment to reaching agreement amicably and rapidly. Instead of regarding 29 March with dread, we would be looking forward to Scotland taking its place as an independent nation in the European Union.
As such, Scotland would require a written constitution. An interim constitution to take effect on Independence Day is little more than a formality. It need only establish the basics – which are uncontroversial. We know they are uncontroversial because, if they were at all controversial they wouldn’t belong in an interim constitution. Work on a full draft constitution is ongoing and we can anticipate this this would have accelerated following the Yes vote last September.
It’s more difficult to say what would be happening on the rUK front. British Nationalists have vowed all manner of retribution should Scotland’s people presume to assert their sovereignty. But I seriously doubt that there will be UK Border Agency machine gun towers along the border and RAF bombs raining down on Glasgow Airport. It’s possible that aliens might take advantage of the situation to launch the invasion of Scotland they’ve been planning since Grmthul descended from Blntrmed with the Cclt of Dryf. We’ll take our chances with a bit of intergalactic conflict. We’ll have more immediate, and proximate, ‘foes’ to deal with. Although some of them do have the appearance of alien creatures struggling to maintain human form. Aye! That’s you, Michael Gove!
In reality, or as close to it as we might get in a purely hypothetical exercise, the British establishment is likely to opt for a rather more pragmatic approach than is to be found in the spittle-flecked rhetoric of British Nationalist fanatics. There’s every chance the British political elite will claim independence was being gifted to Scotland by an endlessly beneficent British state which had, of course, always respected the democratic right of Scotland’s people to choose their nation’s status and the form of government that best suits their needs. In much the same way as the 2014 referendum was graciously presented to Scotland by a kindly British Prime Minister, and Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.
There is no rational reason why dissolving the Union should not be a fairly straightforward matter. It’s not like there isn’t a lot of precedent to draw on. It’s basically a question of attitude. The Brexit mess may give cause to doubt that British politicians are capable of the spirit of trust and constructive good will I mentioned earlier. But we can help them find that spirit by presenting them with as conclusive a Yes vote as we can muster. Assuming an effective registration drive, 60% of an 85% turnout would suffice. That’s 51% of the electorate. 65%, or just over 55% of the electorate would be better. 70% (59.5%) would silence all but the most fanatical British Nationalists and force the British political elite to behave like grown-ups. Or, perhaps, delegate that task to professional civil servants.
Had we voted Yes in a referendum on Thursday 20 September 2018, we could now be be in a place indistinguishable from that where we find ourselves at the start of February 2019. We could be assured of our EU membership, with all the positives that this implies for our economy and society. Our EU citizenship would be secure. Our freedom of movement would be secure. Our access to the single market would be secure. More importantly, these things would be secured on terms freely negotiated by the people elected or appointed to represent Scotland. Politicians and civil servants whose imperatives are informed by the needs, priorities and aspirations of Scotland’s people.
And what if we’d voted No in September 2014? Well, we’d surely be pretty much where we are now. We really had nothing to lose.
Of course, British Nationalists would be bawling about how this had killed the independence movement ‘stone dead’. Rhetoric which would, if history is any guide, be parroted by many in the Yes movement. But these protestations would be no more valid after two referendums than at any other time. However often the people of Scotland inexplicably vote to remain shackled to the British state, they cannot vote away the right of self-determination that is vested wholly in the people to be exercised entirely at their discretion. In terms of the cause of independence, a No vote in a referendum is merely a setback. It does nothing more than delay the inevitable. And the authority to determine the duration of that delay lies entirely with the Scottish people.
Had we voted No in September 2018 we’d be facing precisely the same threat to Scotland’s democracy that confronts us now. We’d be getting dragged out of the EU. Just as we are now. We’d be listening to warnings about shortages of food and medicine. Just as we are now. We’d be looking at the prospect of economic chaos and civil disturbance and martial law. Just as we are now. We’d be seeing powers stripped from the Scottish Parliament and anticipating further assaults on our democratic institutions. Just as we are now. We’d be f***ed! Just as we are now.
But at least we’d have tried to avoid all this. At least we’d have made the effort. At least we’d have shown some resolve to save Scotland from the depredations that come with the Union.
Now, it may be too late. Awakening from my reverie, I must face the reality that we are, if not already too late, then fast approaching a point when that will be the case. It is unlikely that anything other than the most bold and assertive action by the First Minister can possibly prevent us being dragged out of the EU – with all that this implies. None of it good.
Nicola Sturgeon seems no more disposed to take such action than she did in September 2018. Despite everything that has happened since that regrettable outcome in 2014, and despite the real and imminent threat to Scotland’s democracy and identity, the SNP administration’s attitude to taking the cause of independence forward appears unchanged. Their strategy is still a mystery. Their intentions unclear.
Right now, we have even less to lose by bold, decisive action than we did last September. Right now, the threat is greater than it has ever been. Right now, the need for urgency should be absolutely compelling. But I see little sign that any of this has touched our political leaders.
We are almost out of time. And I don’t know if I can face the prospect of sitting here in four months time contemplating what might have been.
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