At the time of writing, no decision has yet been taken to propose an independence referendum. On the contrary, we continue to seek compromise with the UK government, although we have not seen any evidence so far of any real willingness on the part of the UK government to compromise.
Yesterday’s leader column in the Times levelled two charges against the Scottish Government in relation to a possible independence referendum in the wake of the Brexit vote.
First, it said that a referendum would have no justification and second, that should one be proposed, the Scottish Government would be acting in bad faith.
However, the purpose in writing is to set out, respectfully, why the charges levelled at the Scottish government are unfounded.
First, the issue of justification. In 2014, one of the biggest issues in the independence referendum was that of Scotland’s EU membership. The No campaign said, in terms, that a “yes” vote would imperil it and a “no” vote would secure it.
Another key strand of the No campaign was the assertion that Scotland was an equal partner in the UK. The prime minister was clear when, as home secretary, she argued for “a future in which Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England continue to flourish side-by-side as equal partners”.
The argument was made that Scotland didn’t have to choose independence because our voice was heard within the UK. We were exhorted to lead the UK, not leave it.
Since then, 62 per cent of all those in Scotland who cast a ballot in the EU referendum voted to remain. All bar one of our 59 MPs voted against the triggering of Article 50.
And yet, two years on from being told that rejecting independence would safeguard our EU membership, we face exit from the EU and from the single market and customs union. And far from our voice being listened to, our efforts at compromise are being rebuffed.
Many fair-minded democrats may consider that this would be justification enough to consider again the question of independence. But, in truth, the justification would be even more solid.
Elections to the Scottish parliament took place less than a year ago. The SNP fought those elections on a manifesto that anticipated the situation we now find ourselves in, even though we hoped that it would not arise.
Our manifesto said this: “The Scottish parliament should have the right to hold another referendum . . . if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”
The SNP was re-elected to government with more votes and seats than Labour and the Tories combined. So as well as justification for a referendum, there is also a cast-iron mandate.
Which brings me to the issue of good faith. The day after the EU referendum, I chose not to immediately exercise that mandate. Instead I said I would explore all options to protect Scotland’s interests. I wanted to find a way of squaring Scotland’s Remain vote with the UK-wide Leave vote, as well as listening to those in Scotland who voted to leave.
I was heartened when the new PM said she wanted to agree with the devolved administrations a UK-wide approach before triggering Article 50.
In good faith, the Scottish government published a compromise position, entitled Scotland’s Place in Europe. We accepted, reluctantly, that we would leave the EU, but argued for the UK to stay in the single market or, if that was not possible, for the UK to seek as part of its negotiation an outcome that would allow Scotland to do so — and to agree to a rebalancing of power across the UK to take account of the post Brexit landscape and enable any different decisions that Scotland might want to take.
Instead of meeting us halfway, however, the UK government’s approach has been “its way or no way”.
It ruled out UK single market membership with no consultation with the devolved administrations. It has talked about special deals for the car industry and others, but refused to countenance any form of differential approach for Scotland.
And far from discussing new powers for Scotland, it has failed to even guarantee existing powers in areas such as agriculture and fishing — raising fears that devolution will be undermined rather than enhanced.
If an independence referendum does arise, it will not be down to bad faith on the part of the Scottish government, but to sheer intransigence on the part of the UK government.
It is not too late for the UK government to change course, but time is running out.
One last point. If there is to be a referendum, those of us advocating independence will face tough questions. We will have a duty to make our case.
But so, too, will those who oppose independence. Brexit, with all the uncertainties it entails, will make it impossible to present the UK this time as a “safe haven”. And with so many of the promises made by the No side in 2014 already broken, it will be more difficult to get traction for a Project Fear approach.
Indeed, ridiculous threats of a hard border and an end to trade with the rest of the UK will ring even more hollow when those making them are at pains to assure Ireland of the opposite.
In a debate that would be about the kind of country we want to be — an issue bigger and more fundamental than EU membership — key questions will be these: should we allow Scotland’s future direction to be determined by Westminster governments we don’t vote for or should we take charge of shaping our own destiny? Must we settle for our voice being ignored or should we, with independence, forge a new partnership with our friends across the UK based on real equality.
Right now, it is the high handed attitude of the UK government that is bringing these questions into ever sharper focus.