Scotland and the European question

The debate on the UK’s position in Europe is about to become an all-consuming issue. Writing in The World in 2016 special edition for The Economist, Nicola Sturgeon says demand for another independence referendum could be unstoppable.

Twenty-five years ago, the globe was in a state of flux, the like of which had not been seen for generations. The fixed points of global politics which had held sway since 1945 were being challenged and even overthrown as talk emerged of a new world order.

From the fall of the Berlin Wall in Europe, signalling the end of the Cold War, to the release of Nelson Mandela heralding the end of apartheid in South Africa, old certainties were being cast aside.

As an aspiring young politician at that time, still to face my first electoral contest, the possibilities thrown up by that whirlwind of change were exhilarating.

However, the intervening quarter of a century has proved the old adage about the more things changing the more they stay the same.

Few could have predicted the course of the last few years, with the global financial crisis providing the backdrop for a global system that is as challenging as ever – from the need to address the twin challenges of climate change and energy supply, to the constant fallout from conflicts large and small, such as the huge humanitarian crisis which has consumed Europe as it struggles to cope with an influx of refugees unprecedented in modern times.

So the promised new world order has not materialised, and instead what is needed are new ways of tackling problems in a world which is as unpredictable as it has ever been.

My own country’s political journey over the last 25 years has been extraordinary.

Scotland first of all voted for re-establishing our own national parliament, after a gap of almost 300 years before my own party, the SNP, offered people the chance of voting to become an independent country once again.

The referendum we held did not result in the Yes vote I and so many others had passionately advocated – but from that campaign and contest has grown something truly remarkable. Scotland now has one of the most politically engaged and enthused populations anywhere in the developed world.

And that engagement gives me great hope for how some of the biggest challenges we face collectively as a global community can be addressed. Not because Scotland alone holds the key to the world’s problems or because we have any unique insight into their solutions, but because the simple message we have learned from our own experience – that a country and its communities can be changed for the better by the simple acts of getting involved – is something that can be applied universally.

Democracy, participation and collaboration are the key pillars on which any coordinated approach to solving global problems must be based.

The first two of those go hand in hand. Democracy needs to be fostered where it is weak and fragile, but participation in democratic processes also needs to be encouraged, especially when it comes to ensuring women are better represented at all levels.

I am immensely proud of the fact that the government I lead in Scotland now has one of the few gender balanced cabinets anywhere, but that fact in itself shows how much further the world needs to travel when it comes to issues of gender equality.

Put simply, the human race cannot make the most of its talents and ideas when, in too many places, half the populace are effectively disenfranchised.

It was my predecessor as First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, who wrote in these same pages three years ago that it is not the size of a country that matters but the size of its ideas.

That is a simple truth, and one which becomes ever more appropriate with every passing year, in an age where ideas and messages can be communicated globally within milliseconds and in which the power of a nation’s innovation counts for more than a country’s military might.

It is a brave or a foolhardy politician who indulges in too many predictions for what is likely to happen even a few weeks ahead, let alone for a whole calendar year. So in terms of the challenges facing the world in 2016, I will confine myself to one key observation – that the debate on the UK’s position in Europe is about to become an all-consuming issue, with potentially huge political and economic consequences.

Put bluntly, I am far less certain of the outcome of Prime Minister David Cameron’s in-out referendum on European Union membership than I previously have been.

I hope the result will be for the UK to remain in the EU and that is an outcome which I and my party will campaign for vigorously.

And I have already made clear that a result which saw Scotland vote to remain while the UK as a whole voted to leave, potentially seeing us dragged out of Europe against our will, may well see the demand for a second independence referendum become unstoppable.

But I believe Mr Cameron and his government risk that scenario because of a likely gulf between what his promised renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership will deliver and what is expected of it.

Collaboration between nations, the third pillar I mention above, is key to addressing the global challenges we face – and I fear the UK Government’s approach in dealing with our European partners runs counter to that.

Image from The Economist.