Brexit has lessons for an Indyref2

Written by Colin Mair on 22 January 2019 in Comment

Former Improvement Service chief Colin Mair says the case for a second indendence referendum was learn from the Brexit guddle

Colin Mair - Improvement Service

Brexit has been argued to make the case for independence clearly: Scotland voted to remain but finds itself leaving Europe because it is part of a UK permanently dominated by English preferences.

The argument suggests the only way of avoiding this domination is to become independent as even a federal model could not resolve the numerical imbalance between the populations of Scotland and England.

Paradoxically, however, many of the arguments put forward against Brexit could also be seen as arguments against independence.

‘It is nuts to leave an economic partnership that accounts for a large proportion of our trade’ could be seen to be at least as true of Scotland’s membership of the UK as it is of the UK’s membership of Europe.

Equally, if it is wrong to abruptly abandon a partnership of over 40 years’ duration, it might seem almost mad to abandon one of over 300 years standing.

If Brexit should not proceed until every last detail of future customs, trade and immigration arrangements are sorted out, would that not apply to independence as well? If the Brexit referendum imposed a binary framework on very complex, non-binary issues, might that not also be true of an indyref2?

The issues around Brexit and around independence are fundamentally different: the former is largely about how the UK uses its sovereignty while the latter is about whether Scotland has sovereignty at all. However, there are potential lessons from Brexit that should inform how the case for independence is taken forwards to a future referendum.

Much of what has emerged from the absence of detailed thinking and planning about Brexit also potentially applies to an Indyref2. The broad question of independence implies more detailed questions about what our future trading, customs, currency, border control etc. arrangements with the rest of the UK, and Europe, will look like.

 The Brexit experience suggests that asking a broad question in the absence of detail on such matters is less than helpful, and that a referendum might usefully come at the end of a process of discussion and negotiation, not at the beginning.

If that is right, a lot of what was dismissed as merely disruptive, or “project fear” in the first referendum may be detail that it is necessary to have sorted in advance.

In reality, the absence of credible detail on key issues like currency or EU status probably swung indyref1 towards the no vote and therefore needs addressed respectfully in any future campaigning.

A second learning point from Brexit is about the limits and dangers of identity politics if unrelated to coherent vision and commitments. “Taking back control” was a key theme in both the 2014 vote and the Brexit referendum.

Exactly what we wanted control for, and what we wanted to do with it, was not sufficiently clearly articulated. In the Brexit context, this has allowed people with otherwise democratically unsellable social and economic views to hide behind national identity and sovereignty, and in indyref1 it made independence seem like a weird end in itself, rather than as the route to a better Scotland.

Asking people to vote for independence on largely identity grounds, and leaving discussion about the Scotland we want until independence was won, did not work as a strategy last time round and is even less likely to work after the Brexit experience.

It is understandable there is fear of linking independence to particular policy agendas, and the risk of putting some potential supporters off because of that, but identity is about values and commitments.

 Beyond those unshakeably for or against independence, most other people want a clear purpose to what they support and some honesty about costs as well as benefits. That was not done well enough in the Brexit referendum or in the first independence referendum.

The final lesson from both indyref1 and the Brexit experience is that polarisation and animosity is unlikely to help during or after a referendum. Characterising those who hold different views as the “enemy” or “traitors” makes it harder to move on after what will almost always be close results. In Brexit, it has made getting to credible, positive future options difficult as controversy drowns out objectivity and totemic “red lines “close down the space for creative thought.

The argument for an independent Scotland does not require negative stereotyping of the English or of Scots whose current preference is to remain within the UK. It does involve outlining a compelling vision for Scotland in the future and showing why and how independence would be necessary to deliver that vision.

For me, that vision is of an egalitarian Scotland, with our social solidarity underpinned by universal public services and a guaranteed income for all citizens funded through sufficient and progressive taxation.

It is also a vision of a radically decentralised Government system where the Scottish Parliament does not ape the top down, “we know best” culture of Westminster. If you live in Ullapool, Kilmarnock, Glasgow or even Edinburgh, “top down” Holyrood is scarcely preferable to “top down” Westminster.

I think that accords with the political culture of Scotland but it would require far greater control of governance, welfare, economic and fiscal strategy than is ever possible under devolution. This is not because the UK parliament is” unfair” with respect to Scotland. It is because any democratic Government at UK level reflect the values and preferences of the bulk of the population it serves and, in the UK, they are not Scottish.

Equally, any UK Government setting macro- economic or fiscal strategy will necessarily do so with a focus on where the bulk of economic activity happens and, again, that is not Scotland.

Such a focus is understandable if framework is that of the UK, but that also defines the problem: Scotland being a very small part of a much bigger country rather than a small sovereign country in our own right. This is not about English malice: it is a matter of scale and economic geography.

 This was illustrated by the treatment of North Sea revenues: against overall UK fiscal capacity, these revenues were helpful but never transformative and were simply spent as they came in. For a small country like Norway, they were transformative and were prudently invested to create future opportunities. They would have-been transformative for Scotland as well but this is not a morality tale; it is a scale tale

A very important part of the “Commission for sustainable Growth” analysis was its emphasis on capturing the benefits of being a small country, and on the very distinctive needs of the Scottish economy and labour market as we go forwards.

For example, Scotland would require a far more expansive immigration policy than is remotely likely at UK level if it is to have a sustainable workforce over time.

For me, the point of independence is a different and better Scotland, and I do not think that transformation is possible if Scotland remains in the UK.

I accept entirely that there will be Scots who think my vision is nonsense, and Scots who share my vision but do not think independence is the way of realising it. That is where the debate should focus in advance of another referendum, not on constitutional and identity issues in isolation from what we actually want for Scotland.

Learning from Brexit, that debate should also explore the practicalities and costs of independence, as well as its benefits, and the analysis of the very serious economic challenges that would be faced in the first phase of independence is part of that.

However, independence is for life and not just for Christmas, and the severe challenges Scotland will face as part of a post Brexit UK need honestly set alongside the challenges of independence.

Underlying challenges of demography, inequality, productivity etc will need to be addressed either way and, without sovereignty, that will be harder.

If such a debate is avoided or suppressed, we will have learned nothing from Brexit and will probably end up with the same guddle.

Success in a future referendum is more likely if those who support independence actively sponsor a challenging debate on the vision, values and practicalities of independence than if we hide behind tribal identity or sentimentality.

 That debate will mean the advocates of independence need to have a coherent and comprehensive prospectus: quite rightly, “suck it and see” will not wash. A robust debate will also help refine that prospectus further.

Everyone has seen how Brexit has gone wrong. There is no point in repeating that in Scotland.

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