There are days which are seen by history as truly defining. They shape the eras which fall on either side of them and come to be judged as the pivot points on which history then turns, for good or ill. Today, 29 March, threatens to become one of those days. I say threatens because I cannot pretend that I believe the triggering of article 50 by the Prime Minister is anything other than a sad day in the history of Britain, and the European continent as a whole.
I believe in the independence of nations – Scotland included. But I believe just as strongly in the interdependence of nations – the need for countries to work together to tackle challenges and seize opportunities that few can do alone. That is why an independent Scotland would always seek to work closely with others, across the British Isles and beyond. So it is the fact that 29 March marks the point at which the UK starts to turn its back on a near half-century of close cooperation with its partners on the European mainland that makes it so dispiriting.
For all the warm words from Theresa May about a continued close relationship with the EU, the hard Brexit on which she seems intent means an end to the era in which we have got used to the easy exchange and movement of goods, services and people themselves.
The kind of Europe we have today – one in which we can not only trade freely and without barriers, but in which people can live, work and do business without having to give a thought to visas, work permits and a myriad other regulations – would have been unrecognisable when the UK joined the European club in 1973.
In particular, younger people take it as a given that they can crisscross the continent at will. The closing of that door of opportunity to any extent will come as a tremendous shock to many.
Brexit – especially the hard Brexit shaped by May’s inability to shake off the agenda of the Ukip-tinged rightwing of her own party – threatens to be an act of self-harm on a scale barely understood. In Scotland alone, Brexit could cost the economy more than £11 billion a year by 2030, and is predicted to see 80,000 jobs lost over the next decade. Those effects can be multiplied significantly for the UK as a whole.
The threat to public services, the NHS in particular, is very real, with warnings of a direct negative impact on health service staffing. And the implications for key sectors such as higher education and research funding remain desperately uncertain.
However, Brexit is not just economically foolhardy. It also threatens to undermine the ability of countries across the continent to collaborate on vital issues such as climate change and security.
And, closer to home, the triggering of Article 50 is also politically and constitutionally reckless. The full effects on Northern Ireland, which currently faces the possible reintroduction of direct rule, remain to be seen.
Similarly, there has been no serious attempt to engage with compromise proposals which would keep Scotland, which voted decisively to remain in Europe, inside the single market. The result is that we must now ensure people in Scotland are given a choice between the hard Brexit deal now being negotiated and independence.
Scotland’s place in Europe was a central issue in the 2014 independence referendum. It was asserted by many in the “No” campaign that only a vote against independence would ensure Scotland’s continued place in the EU. How desperately hollow those claims now ring today.
The Scottish Government was re-elected last year on a manifesto pledge which said this: “The Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum…if there is a significant and material change in the circumstance that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”
That manifesto was endorsed by the largest constituency share of the vote of any party in the history of devolution. The election also returned a pro-independence majority to the Scottish Parliament – together with the result of the EU referendum that gives the Scottish Government a cast-iron democratic mandate for an independence referendum.
The Scottish Parliament this week voted to mandate formal discussions with the UK Government on the process to give the people of Scotland a choice on their future. For a Prime Minister who yesterday proclaimed Brexit as an exercise in self determination to now seek to block Scotland’s own right to self-determination would be democratically indefensible.
My purpose – as it has been since last June – is to seek discussion and compromise. The Prime Minister says now is not the time for an independence referendum – I agree with that. But the PM has also indicated that she believes the details of the final Brexit deal will be clear in around 18 months to two years from now, which is the timescale I have indicated would then be appropriate for people in Scotland to be given a choice on their future.
That choice when it comes – as come it will – will be between an outward-looking vision of an independent Scotland taking its place in Europe and the wider world on the one hand, and on the other an inward-looking Britain which has, almost inexplicably, decided to retreat into post-imperial isolation.
This article originally appeared in the Guardian.