Henry McLeish: A hard Brexit undermines the spirit of the Union, but the SNP needs a better case for independence

Written by Henry McLeish on 26 January 2017 in Comment

A hard Brexit undermines any pretence that real constitutional power was being devolved in the Scotland white paper delivered 20 years ago

A remarkable political year has ended, with political certainties shredded and no end in sight.

The rise of the right, populism and the use of ‘out groups’ are debasing our politics; Trump’s authoritarianism threatens to destabilise the world order; nationalism, Euro-cynicism and xenophobia in the EU may wreak further havoc as France and Germany go to the polls – Austria, Hungary and Italy have already experienced the wrath of restless voters.

Britain, too, is in political meltdown. Brexit has only reinforced the notion of a disunited kingdom and it will move, inevitably, from confusion to crisis to catastrophe.


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Scotland’s immediate future looks less clear. While Nicola Sturgeon continues to run political rings around Theresa May, timing becomes a major headache for Scotland’s first minister. However, offering to delay a second referendum if there is a ‘soft Brexit’ strengthens her position, given it’s unlikely that the PM can so deliver, caught as she is between the rock of the fanatics and the delusional on the right of her party and the hard place of immigration and the clamour to reject the ‘free movement of people’.

For progressives, the post-war political consensus is breaking down – possibly attesting to the death of social democracy? The failure of the Labour Party to understand the seriousness of its plight or the steps needed to reverse its decline is breathtaking. It has to waken up to current dangers and reignite a passion and desire for ideas and policies which will confront the gains of the political right, expose populism, curb the excesses of market capitalism and reinvigorate our democracy.

The immediate consequences for Scotland moving into a new and potentially turbulent year are hard to pin down. There was speculation that a Brexit vote, with Scotland voting to remain, would boost the cause of independence, shift the polls and reignite interest in an early referendum. This hasn’t happened. The Leave decision has raised more uncertainty, complex questions and offered less clarity as to what might happen next. Brexit has changed the parameters and dynamic of the debate on Scotland’s future, and maybe for the best.

The SNP government, 10 years on, is entering a difficult and unsettling period. Serious opinion polls have shown little change in support for independence; there is no clear majority for leaving the Union. The SNP may be pressing for change, but Scots remain unconvinced – they are concerned about how divisive and damaging referenda can be. When is a majority large enough to warrant major constitutional change? However, paradoxically, Brexit may be influencing hearts and minds in ways that were never envisaged when Scotland voted to remain.

Britain, more accurately England, is the problem. But what is the solution? England voted to leave and is now moving away from Scotland. A ‘hard Brexit’ could have disastrous consequences for the economy and will not be in Scotland’s interests. Many of the EU employment, social and fundamental rights protection will be abandoned and we face being removed from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention.

This is not what Scots were offered in September 2014, undermines the spirit of the Union and removes any pretence that real constitutional power was being devolved to Scotland in the Scotland white paper delivered 20 years ago. The Tories are changing the rules of Scotland’s UK membership, loosening those ties, and no one is being consulted.

To be independent in the full constitutional, sovereign and political sense requires a much greater degree of consensus and a deeper understanding of the likely consequences. Scots have to be convinced that they are clear about what is best for Scotland. The traditionalists, fundamentalists and those who argue for Scotland’s independence at any price need no further persuasion, but the majority of Scots still remain unconvinced. A better case has to be made, one in which we talk about the Nordic model, what kind of country we want to live in and have a much more positive and progressive view of what an ambitious country can achieve.

The EU referendum has undermined national solidarity, cohesion and stability and created a bitter legacy that may prove enduringly destructive.

Interdependence in Europe could be a much bigger idea, but Scots have yet to be convinced of the wisdom of independence from the UK, in terms of a positive case in addition to reacting to the decline of the Union and the hostile and right-wing nature of English politics. Progressivism, patriotism and identity may still trump nationalism, populism and nationality. We have to thrive on hopes and dreams, not fears and memories!

Independence has never been tested against any serious constitutional option. Brexit has opened up new opportunities. A radically different and sustainable constitutional structure for the UK could be salvaged from this chaos, where four-nation politics, home rule or a form of federalism could provide a popular and sustainable alternative to independence. Even if Scotland agreed, could Westminster conceive of or deliver such an alternative? The answer to that may ultimately determine whether Scotland leaves the Union.

Change must be rooted in the hearts and minds of Scots. If not, a new vote, at any time, may not settle anything.

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