“No means we stay in” the EU. That was the message from Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson just days before people across Scotland cast their votes on independence two years ago.
We all know now how that worked out. While I have spoken before about my deep disappointment of not achieving a Yes vote in 2014, that feeling has now been compounded by the result of the EU referendum, and the UK-wide vote for Brexit.
The bitter irony of Scots being told their future in Europe was at risk by voting for independence is reinforced by the fact that many of the Tories who dished out that warning – and who in some cases also subsequently argued against Brexit – are now telling us that being taken out of the world’s biggest single market will open the door to a whole new world of opportunities.
Given the blatant hypocrisy and contradiction involved, that message would be a difficult one to sell even were the UK Government displaying a flawless, assured and intelligent handling of Brexit.
The reality is that the handling of the EU negotiation process by Westminster so far has been beyond shambolic. Three months on from the Brexit vote, we still have no idea – and nor would it seem have any UK ministers, from the Prime Minister downwards – what “Brexit means Brexit” actually means. They have no idea whether we should continue in the single market, no idea of whether we will soon need visas to travel to Europe – no ideas full stop.
As we reflect this weekend on the independence referendum of 2014 – and especially the campaign presented by those of us on the Yes side of the argument – the ironies run even deeper when you consider the contrast with the Brexit shambles.
Fully 10 months before the independence vote, the Scottish Government published a 640-page White Paper, outlining our prospectus for an independent Scotland. I described it then – and hold to the view today – that it was and remains the most detailed blueprint for an independent country ever produced.
Political opponents and other observers could – and did – disagree with the White Paper, in whole or part, but nobody could claim that those of us advocating a vote for independence had not given serious thought to the practicalities involved in delivering what was needed after a Yes vote.
The Yes campaign was repeatedly asked, not just for our Plan A, but for our Plans B through to Z as well.
The contrast with the post-Brexit world at Westminster is as instructive as it is shocking and dismaying. Three months on from the vote, there is still no Plan A.
The EU referendum and the myriad of uncertainties it has thrown up in terms of the path ahead for both Scotland and the rest of the UK have of course provided a new ingredient to the debate on Scotland’s future.
But, two years on from the historic independence vote of 2014, the fundamental case for Scotland’s independence remains as it was. That case for full self-government ultimately transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends.
It is in essence, as the Yes campaign said two years ago, about the simple fundamental truth that the big decisions about Scotland – including the decision about our EU membership – should be taken by those who live and work here. That is a truth which endures, and that is the simple democratic argument on which the case for independence will always be founded.
Aside from the potentially deeply damaging effect on Scotland’s economy and society which Brexit threatens – a cost of up to £11 billion a year by 2030 according to independent forecasts – the UK-wide vote is also a striking example of the democratic deficit Scotland has continually faced. In fact, it is probably the most striking and significant instance ever.
That democratic deficit was what largely drove demands for a Scottish parliament throughout the Thatcher and Major years of Tory government in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, the democratic deficit is alive again in 21st century Scotland.
The prospect of being taken out of Europe against the overwhelming wishes of the people of Scotland is not just an affront to those here voted Remain in June. Such a lack of control over our own future should be of concern to everyone – no matter how they voted in June.
It is a more fundamental challenge to the idea that Scotland’s interests can always be best served by Westminster rule.
I spoke recently of the findings of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey and what they tell us about opinion in Scotland. Because – away from the stark binary, Yes/No figures of opinion polling on independence – the SSAS figures paint a deeply revealing picture.
They show that, overwhelmingly, people across Scotland trust our national Parliament in Edinburgh and the Scottish Government, far more than they do Westminster, when it comes to protecting their key interests.
That is important because when people have confidence in the governance of Scotland, from a government and parliament in Scotland, they are far more likely to be open to the idea of independence.
And the binary figures I mention from opinion polling on independence also paint an intriguing picture.
Some commentators have made much of the fact that, in their view, there has not been much of a “Brexit bounce” in support for independence. The fact is that every poll on the issue since June 23rd has shown support for independence ahead of where it was in September 2014 – and around half have shown an outright majority for independence – and that is before the real impact of Brexit has been felt.
But more fundamentally, what many observers fail to acknowledge or even realise, is that what I would term baseline support for independence – now consistently polling in the high 40s and above – is far higher than it was when we began the 2014 referendum campaign.
The challenge to those opposing independence is to show that they can make the UK work for Scotland. And that includes finding ways that could see us retaining our place in Europe in line with the overwhelming democratic vote from Scotland to stay in the EU.
If the Prime Minister and her Tory colleagues value Scotland, and the union, as much as they say they do, it is up to them to prove it and to do all they can to support that effort.
However, given the way things have gone so far – with the Brexit shambles they are presiding over – it is the Tories who are actually making the case for independence.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald