Why opponents of Scottish independence must confront the Union’s flaws

Supporters of the UK need to address the just and real grievances of Yes voters.

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Writing here last week, Martin Fletcher declared that were he now living in Scotland, he would vote for independence. He wrote as someone who once “cherished the Union”, having studied at Edinburgh University. He would still “hate to see it end”. Brexit, however, had “destroyed” the Union for good. 

I can see where he’s coming from. Like Martin, I came to Scotland for university (though to Glasgow, not Edinburgh). Unlike him, I stayed on. I’ve never felt I live in a different country. But in recent years, I've seen how Brexit has changed the debate over the future of the UK. Remain-voting friends who, in 2014, voted No almost automatically, have felt their affinity to Britain fray. For some, support for the Union has become transactional and conditional. Others have fully crossed the divide, won over by the liberal pro-EU nationalism of our local MSP (one N Sturgeon). My continuing support for the Union appears now to be the oddity.

Martin's analysis rather overlooked the fact one million Scots voted to leave the EU in 2016 – around the same number as those who voted for the SNP in the 2016 Holyrood elections. But his analysis had more than a grain of truth to it. Brexit, followed by four, long years of confusion and disarray over the terms of our departure, has eroded the UK's reputation as a safe harbour. Then along came Covid, which – for all its trauma – has shown Scotland can do things its own way if it wishes. No wonder support for independence is at historic highs.

[See also: While Boris Johnson remains in charge, the Scottish independence movement is unstoppable

And yet, as Martin also correctly identified, independence offers up its own complications. Were Scotland to join the EU it would inevitably face a hard border with England. A London School of Economics report recently estimated that the economic costs of independence on the Scottish economy would be two to three times greater than the impact of Brexit. For all that Brexit has strengthened the emotional and political case for independence, it has weakened the already flaky economics. Perhaps that’s why support for secession isn’t even higher – and why Scotland still remains polarised. 

The economic case against independence is a crucial one, of course. But even to me, an ardent No voter, it feels barren. A Union held together solely by economics is like a couple keeping a marriage going because divorce costs too much. It’s why the think tank I help to run – Our Scottish Future – believes that a better argument must now be made.

First we believe that, in the wake of Brexit, the UK government should show it wants to learn lessons following the chaotic mess it has just put us through. We are looking for some signal that the distant and unresponsive Westminster and Whitehall machine is prepared to reform. That means reform of our governing structures, so they connect better with the rest of the nation. It also means reform of our outdated political institutions, so they better serve the country they purport to represent. 

[See also: Why support for Scottish independence is more fragile than it appears

And second, we believe the onus is now on pro-UK supporters in Scotland to show how change can happen. Devolution is a great Unionist success story. Powers over significant parts of our economic and cultural life now lie in Edinburgh, thanks to changes made within the UK. We need to show Yes voters that the things they rightly want for Scotland can already be achieved. We need to demonstrate how cooperation with the rest of the UK – not confrontation against it – is the way to make Scotland stronger. Collectively, the pro-Union movement has failed to do this in the post-referendum period. It is now incumbent on us to do so.

After speaking to many Yes-voting Scots over the past few months, my sense is that Martin’s own heavy-hearted support for Scottish independence reflects a wider mood. It’s the lack of a positive alternative – either from the rest of the UK, or from within Scotland – that is leading many to conclude that independence is the only way forward. I can’t say I at all blame them. If the pro-Union side is to get a hearing from these voters, then it needs to reach out to them, and act on the just and real grievances they’re expressing. If not, and if the Union really does end, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

Eddie Barnes works for the Our Scottish Future think tank

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