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1 February 2021

I have cherished the Union but I would now vote for Scottish independence

Brexit has destroyed the arguments against both a second Scottish referendum and a Yes vote. 

By Martin Fletcher

I had a Scottish grandmother. I went to Edinburgh University. All my adult life I have cherished the Union and believed it benefited both Scotland and England. I would hate to see it end and I dislike the SNP, but I have to say that if I were Scottish I would now vote, with a heavy heart, for independence. In my view, Brexit has destroyed the arguments against both a second referendum and secession.

In my lifetime I have watched the historical ties that bound the two countries loosen – the joint enterprise that was the British Empire, with Scottish and English soldiers fighting side by side in two world wars. North Sea oil fuelled Scottish nationalism in the 1970s, as did the destruction of Scotland’s heavy industry during the Thatcherite 1980s. And slowly but inexorably over the past 75 years, Scotland has soured on the Conservative Party, meaning that for about 40 of those years it has been governed by a party in distant London for which it did not vote. So have many English voters, of course, but they do not comprise a separate country.

Then came Brexit – an idea driven by English nationalism and a Conservative government, which had, by the time of the 2016 EU referendum, only one MP north of the border. Scotland emphatically rejected EU withdrawal, with 62 per cent voting Remain, but that made not a jot of difference. 

Its plea that Britain should at least remain in the EU single market and customs union was completely ignored as the government negotiated a rock-hard Brexit over the next four years. A UK survey by the Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft in 2018 showed that 63 per cent of Brexit supporters would choose to leave the EU even if it meant Scotland leaving the Union. 

 [See also: Paul Mason on why the English left should not resist Scottish independence

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In the light of such English contempt for Scotland’s views and interests, and for the notion that Scotland is an equal partner in the Union, is it scarcely surprising that the past 20 opinion polls have all shown a majority of Scots now favouring independence. Brexit has forced them to choose between England and Europe, and they are opting for the latter. As, reluctantly, I would in their position.

It is true that an independent Scotland could not be certain of securing EU membership, with Spain fearful of encouraging its Catalan independence movement. But come the crunch would Brussels really exclude 5.4 million people who had already been members? Would it pass up the chance to underline the heavy price of Brexit? I very much doubt it. 

It is also true that Scotland depends heavily on the UK for trade and fiscal support, and would face a tough transition to EU membership, but there is no reason why it should not prosper after rejoining. Though small, there would be ten member states even smaller, and the EU is designed to protect their interests.

Boris Johnson will not readily give Scotland the chance to secure its independence, of course. He argues that the country rejected independence just over six years ago, and that there has been no “material change in circumstances” to warrant another referendum so soon. 

That is manifest nonsense. Brexit has changed everything. Back in 2014 the Scots narrowly voted to remain a member of a UK that was still an EU member state, but that UK has gone. They instead find themselves part of a UK that has undergone a profound economic, political, diplomatic and cultural transformation; a UK whose traditional values of openness, tolerance and international cooperation have been replaced by something very different; a UK whose dominant member, England, now rides roughshod over the rest. At the same time they have had all the advantages of EU membership, and their European identity, ripped away from them.

David Cameron had no doubts about Brexit’s significance when he warned voters that the 2016 referendum was “the most important political decision the British people will have to make at the ballet box in our lifetimes”.

[See also: The quiet collapse of Scottish unionism]

There are two other reasons why Johnson, for all his present protestations, will eventually find it impossible to deny Scotland a second referendum.

First it would be rank hypocrisy to champion the repatriation of sovereignty from Brussels to the UK, as he did in the EU referendum, but to deny Scotland the chance to vote on the restoration of sovereignty from Westminster to Edinburgh (the SNP looks certain to win an overwhelming mandate for demanding a second referendum in May’s Scottish parliament elections). 

Second, to refuse Scotland a second referendum post-Brexit would change the very nature of the 314-year-old Union. It would become a union of coercion, not consent. As such, the “Scottish issue” would at best become a running sore, plaguing future British governments just as “Europe” has plagued past ones. At worse the Scots would find a way to make themselves ungovernable. Nationalism is a powerful beast: the more it is suppressed, the more virulent it becomes.

The real reason that Johnson refuses to countenance a second referendum is, of course, because he is terrified of becoming the prime minister who lost Scotland – and with good reason. He knows the power of the three-word slogan “Take Back Control”, and how hard it is for supporters of an imperfect status quo to counter.

He knows that economic arguments tend to be trumped nowadays by arguments based on identity and emotion. A Sunday Times poll last month showed that most Scots now favour independence, even though 42 per cent thought they would be worse off and just 36 per cent better off.  

He knows that the SNP would avoid explaining in detail how an independent Scotland would function, especially as the oil price has plummeted – just as the Leave campaign masterfully avoided setting out a detailed post-Brexit scenario for Remainers to attack.

Johnson also knows that a Scottish divorce from the rest of the UK would be horrendously complex, and would probably involve the creation of a hard border with England. But he bulldozed through a Brexit that involved a hideously complex divorce from the EU and a new border in the Irish Sea.

In short, the Prime Minister is in a terrible bind. Brexit has spiked his own best arguments. The Scots intensely dislike him, so he is damned if he ventures north and damned if he doesn’t. And in the wake of Brexit they are unlikely to be bought off with yet more financial bungs or constitutional fixes. 

Sad to say, the Prime Minister’s best hope of saving the Union is that the SNP’s warring factions, the Salmondites and Sturgeonistas, tear themselves apart.

[See also: Will Alex Salmond’s rage be the downfall of Nicola Sturgeon?]