Eric Joyce: Why the Brexit vote pushed me to support Scottish independence

Written by Eric Joyce on 11 August 2016 in Comment

Former Labour MP Eric Joyce on why he switched from No to Yes after the Brexit vote

Yes campaign - credit: Flickr

When I went into politics, I’d been in the army outside Scotland for my entire adult life.  So when I turned up at Westminster, I hadn’t spent decades absorbing the instinctual dislike of the idea of independence that some of my new Scottish Labour colleagues had grown up with. If I’d been convinced that it was in Scotland’s best social and economic interest to be independent, I’d have happily supported it.

Over time, I kept an open mind about the benefits and dis-benefits to Scotland of the union. But although I was impressed by the SNP’s general organisational and administrative competence, and I got on well enough with their MPs, I was never persuaded that independence was worth the attendant economic and social risk. From a party point of view, even when I was an independent MP and Scottish Labour became a shambles, I still wanted it to survive to be a future force for good in Scotland.

I think my view of independence was the rational, slightly risk-averse one shared by a lot of Scots. Such folk don’t object to independence in principle, but they just weren’t quite convinced that all the arguments stacked up back in 2014.


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At the referendum, still an MP, I gave independence very serious thought right up to the close of the vote. I finally came down on the side of No because I thought big EU states with a potential secession issue, like Spain and France, would prevent an independent Scotland joining the EU. This is obviously no longer the case. And I was, like the great majority of the economists and other experts whose opinion I valued, convinced that being outside the EU would be bonkers – it would badly harm our economy and hurt Scots in all sorts of unforeseen ways too.

The Brexit vote reversed that overnight: all of the arguments we in the unionist camp had used were made invalid at worst, questionable at best. This doesn’t mean they were necessarily all wrong. But it does mean that open-minded, rational No voters should at the very least seriously re-consider things in the light of the staggering new context. They should have an open ear to the experts saying that with independence, jobs in Scotland’s financial and legal service sectors will expand as English and international firms look to keep a foothold in the EU.  And to the reasonable prospect of an eventual £50+ oil price might realistically open the way to a final, generational, upswing in employment, and to security for Scotland’s extractive industries and their supply chain. And to the idea that preserving Scotland’s social democracy in the face of the Little Englander mentality of right-wing English Tories might be worth the fight.

I understand why Tories in Scotland immediately reversed their pro-EU tune and began telling us how super Brexit is. In the end, with Scotland in the union they have a long-term UK Tory government which guarantees the very effective Ruth Davidson a huge – but of course wholly unelected – say in the governing of Scotland through her place as the new prime minister’s most powerful adviser on ‘reserved’ legislation affecting Scotland. The Tories are now the unquestioned voice of unionism in Scotland. For them, what’s not to like?

But what of non-Tories who might still not be that keen to jump ship to the SNP – and there are a lot of them (and maybe even a few Labour-Tory switchers)? How can it now make sense for them to continue to unquestioningly support a situation where an ideological, right-wing English Tory administration, with only a tokenistic Scottish presence, is setting out to impose policy solutions on Scotland? Why would anyone on the centre-left or further-left listen to Labour politicians telling them to “wait and see” what right-wing English Brexiteers David Davis and Liam Fox come up with in 4 years’ time, before putting it into a UK manifesto, trouncing all opposition in England and imposing it on Scotland? Why would they subordinate themselves to the Tories and Unionists for years to come on issues of such profound importance?

The simple fact is that in the light of Brexit, cautious but open-minded No voters from 2014 –  regular folk working in the public and private sectors, pensioners, ‘new Scots’ who have moved from England in later life –  are now taking a serious look again at the merits of independence in Europe, as against the terrible demerits of an existence on the margins. Increasingly, it seems to them that the Brexiting union is the thing which isn’t worth the risk. The safe and sensible choice increasingly seems to them to be to stay at the heart of Europe, but independent and in control of our own destiny.

I’ve been struck by how the overwhelming majority of my Labour and Lib Dem supporting friends who live south of the border think Scotland should now go independent in order to preserve its values against English Tory attack. And I know few Labour folk in Scotland – from any part of the party - who truly believe either that English Labour can beat the Tories in England or that any progressive Scottish party can make headway Scotland as long as they support the Tory unionist leadership. 

I truly hope Labour, or whatever forces of opposition to the Tories emerges from the present mess, will at some time in the future make it back into government in England. But given that no rational person I know thinks there’s anything other than a lengthy Tory ascendancy ahead, the only unionist future seems one where Scotland is led to a mean and dismal right-wing life outside the EU by English Tories and UKIPpers. A life constrained by the economic harm by exclusion from full membership of the EU; where the protections of EU citizenship are forfeited and we put our trust in a prime minister who has always supported leaving the ECHR. One where freedom of movement, to study and to cooperate with our EU neighbours on an equal footing, is denied to our children.

Professional politics is well behind me, thank goodness. But with fromnotoyes.scot I hope to at least help give former No voters some food for intelligent thought – and maybe to help create a consensus in Scotland that Brexit is a terrible risk that we Scots should reject. In the end, I think the same way as a lot of open-minded but careful Scots, new and old, who voted ‘No’ in 2014 are coming to think after the Brexit vote – that it’s time to embrace ‘Yes’ with full confidence in the future of Scottish social democracy.

Eric Joyce was MP for Falkirk West between 2000 and 2015. He was a Labour member between 1999-2012

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