I have devoted, perforce, the last couple of years to trying to stop Brexit. Scotland’s view is clear, we voted to remain within the European family and that has been my instruction. But as we approach the exit day more and more attention is going to the other potential answer to the Brexit shambles if, despite all our efforts, we cannot turn it around for the whole of the UK.
More and more people are asking me "when will there be another independence referendum?". Invariably I reply that there is no question of "if", it is only a question of "when" but that depends on a great many variables.
First published in the Sunday Herald, 10 February 2019
So my response to a question on January 23 on Good Morning Scotland was that we’re not yet ready for a fresh referendum because there are too many practical questions as yet unanswerable precisely because of the shambles Westminster is inflicting upon us. That our collective patience is rapidly running out is completely understandable, given the mess the UK Government and the official opposition have put us in, but this is precisely the time for cool heads to prevail and recognise that we need to know what Brexit will look like before we make our next, decisive move.
I refuse to accept the false equivalence between Brexit and independence that our political adversaries are increasingly peddling. The main reason Brexit is so difficult is because its proponents, Tory and Labour alike, simply cannot agree on what the term means and what the future should look like. If you don’t know where you’re going and how to get there, then of course the leaving process will be difficult!
That is where independence is different. Independence is about principle, but also practicalities. It behoves us as serious people to explain in detail to folk how life will change and how life will stay the same. The deeply dishonest Leave campaign has shown us what happens when such a change is considered without any detail or indeed bearing with the world as it exists.
In 2014, we put a realistic and detailed proposition before the people of Scotland. We will do so again next time. We cannot put the same proposal forward for two reasons, firstly because that proposal was rejected and secondly because the landscape is likely to be very different due to the material change that Brexit represents.
Crucially, our proposal was predicated upon all the nations of these islands being in the EU, if the rest of the UK does leave (and us with it) then we will need a different proposal. Only once the current uncertainty has dissipated can we can lay out the detailed proposition people have a right to expect if we are to ask them to put their trust in us.
Crucially, this proposal must be based on reality. The key reason why over the last two years Brexit has been such a grotesque spectacle is that, from the beginning, the Leave campaign has been utterly ignorant (wilfully or otherwise) of the most basic realities of the modern world and the relationships between states. Our independence proposition must be – and will be – based on facts and reality.
Through no fault of our own, there is still too much uncertainty about the future relationship of the (r)UK and the EU, which an independent Scotland will be part of. Like Ireland, independent in Europe, we cannot pretend that Brexit is just a British thing and that independence will immunise us from it.
We have a land border with only one country, and in our interconnected world Brexit will still be relevant to us. And not all negatively, indeed an independent Scotland within the EU will be an incredibly attractive place to relocate to. Just how much more attractive has not yet dawned on many folk, but it will.
As I travel the country, my sense is that a good proportion of people who were unpersuaded in 2014 are now much more open to the independence question, but many are not with us yet and they have real questions that need real answers. “We’ll sort it out later” will lose them before we start. We are not yet able to provide them, through no fault of our own, but we will be soon.
I suspect the clarity we need will come quickly when it comes, and the broken Union we are part of will visibly have a lot less going for it than independence in Europe.
In the meantime, there is plenty of planning that we must be getting on with – and we are. The good news is that we can already be certain of a great deal. Scottish independence will mean being part of the EU and being part of Nato; it will mean being open and welcoming to anyone who chooses to make Scotland their home; it will mean ramping up our already substantial efforts in international development co-operation and help those less fortunate; it will mean leading the way in clean, renewable energy; it will mean equal opportunities and access to healthcare and education for all our citizens. Any Brexit will be inferior.
So Brexit affects independence for now, we recognise that, but independence does not depend on and will in no way resemble Brexit, provided we keep our cool just a little while longer. People up and down the country are keen for conversation.
Many are disquieted by the UK they thought they knew suddenly looking and sounding very different to how it did, and are thinking hard about independence. We don’t have all the answers yet, that is the reality of our situation and it is an honest and open stance to take. But there is nothing stopping us having the discussions.
We can mobilise, we can be visible and open about the challenges we face. We might not have a date, because we do not have a proposition yet, but we already have the biggest part of the answer – our passion for a better future than the one Westminster is offering us.