New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
17 March 2017

Why sentiment, not statistics, will sway the next Scottish referendum

Millions of Scots still refuse to make the divisive choice between being Scottish and being British. Are they enough to save the Union?

By Douglas Alexander

This week, we discovered that Nicola Sturgeon’s answer to new divisions, grievances and borders is . . . more divisions, grievances and borders. Since the vote on 23 June last year, it has become fashionable for some on the “liberal left” south of the border to cope with their Brexit grief by supporting, for Scotland, more nationalism as the answer to nationalism. According to this perspective, the rise of nationalism across Europe is negative, except on this island.

I understand and share the widespread disdain for David Cameron’s misjudgement in trying to solve an internal party management problem by means of a referendum, which has created a much, much bigger national problem. But to put it bluntly, two wrongs don’t make a right. Millions of Scots are squeezed between nationalist narratives north and south of the border – and we identify with neither.

There’s really only one statement by Sturgeon that you need to read to understand the judgement she has reached. It’s the First Minister’s admission last September that, for her, independence “ultimately transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends”. That single sentence reveals that this latest referendum call owes more to old nationalist orthodoxies than to new circumstances.

Let’s remember that it has been less than three years since, as Scots, we voted in unprecedented numbers (the turnout was 85 per cent) and chose to remain within the United Kingdom by a clear 10-point margin.

The “official” narrative of the two-year-long campaign which preceded that vote was that it was a festival of civic democracy. For many of us, our experience was somewhat different. Certainly, the 2014 referendum energised Scotland, but it also divided Scotland deeply: it divided families, neighbours, communities and workplaces.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

At a time when Scotland is falling down the international education league tables, when hospital waiting lists are lengthening and when powers to redistribute wealth and opportunity more equitably remain unused, most Scots feel that there are better ways for the Scottish government to spend its time.

The SNP’s latest argument is that another divisive referendum is now justified because Brexit has changed everything. The party claims that leaving the EU single market is so disastrous for Scotland that . . . it must now leave the UK single market (a market to which our exports are worth four times as much).

If the tumultuous weeks and months following the vote on 23 June 2016 taught us anything, it should be to ask the difficult economic questions before deciding to disdain experts and simply walk away from our neighbours.

There is little serious disagreement that one of the reasons why the nationalists lost in 2014 was their failure to provide credible answers to sensible economic questions, whether on the reliability of the oil price, the currency of a post-independence Scotland or the significant financial advantage that Scotland gains from the operation of the Barnett formula.

The public expenditure backdrop in Scotland currently includes a fiscal transfer from the UK of £1,700 per person, which amounts to £9bn per year – allowing us to spend more on essential public services. Far from ending austerity, separation would extend and deepen it in Scotland. Having just witnessed one form of nationalism take us out of Europe with little thought for the consequences, we should be wary of another form of nationalism repeating a similar mistake in Scotland.

Why choose to add greater insecurity and uncertainty to the insecurity and uncertainty already created by Brexit? Why choose an approach that guarantees division and rancour rather than an approach that could build consensus by consent?

And what could that consensus involve? We could repatriate powers on devolved issues directly from Brussels to Edinburgh. We could also consider new constitutional arrangements within the UK to ensure effective engagement between the Scottish government and the EU on devolved issues. A new approach could retain the strengths of the British partnership and allow Scotland to make different choices, including over relationships with Europe.

However, the clear lesson of the EU referendum is that while policy matters, economic evidence is not enough. To win a referendum, economics must be matched by emotion, and statistics must be matched by sentiment.

This is doubly important in a post-trust environment – of facts and “alternative facts”. The nationalists’ cry this time will be less “devo max” and more “grievo max”: seeking to entrench a sense of “us and them”, to amplify difference and to use the Brexit vote to conflate the people of England with the politics of the Tories and Ukip.

My sense of Britishness is no more defined by Nigel Farage and Ukip than my sense of Scottishness is defined by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.

I am proud to be Scottish and proud to be British – and to share what we have with our neighbours on these islands.

My Scotland embraces the idea of solidarity and the inspiration of John Smith – and stretches from Gregory’s Girl to the work of J K Rowling.

My Britain is the country of the BBC and the NHS – and stretches from Robert Burns’s “A Man’s a Man” to William Blake’s “Jerusalem”.

There are millions of Scots who still refuse to make the divisive choice between being Scottish and being British, who still believe in solidarity, in sharing and in interdependence. They made their voices heard on 18 September 2014 and – not in denial of the Brexit vote but in defiance of further grievance, division and borders – must now make that case anew.

Douglas Alexander is a senior fellow at Harvard University and Labour’s former secretary of state for Scotland

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy

This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain