In my last post, I was inspired to write about the (often voiced) claim that Brexit shows us how messy the process of Scotland becoming independent would be.
I argued in that post that such a proposition sweeps under the carpet the racism and incompetence that characterised the Leave campaign – an oversight (intentional or not) that is malicious and sinister or just deeply ignorant and insensitive.
In this post, I want to deal more directly with the differences between the move for the UK to leave the EU and the proposal that Scotland becomes independent.
This is an important argument to make. It matters firstly because it helps to clarify that Brexit is not the template for any seccession or withdrawal. Secondly, however, it illustrates that the smoothness or otherwise of the Scottish independence transition, if or when it comes, is in the hands not of fate or the inherent nature of secession but of those who guide it.
So here, in no particular order and in a hopefully bite-sized and snappy format, are the differences (as I see things) between the process of the current process of Brexit and the past and current proposals for Scotland becoming independent.
1. Europeanism and internationalism
A fundamental philosophical difference between the campaigns for Brexit and the movement for Scottish independence is their approach to Europe.
Brexit is inherently anti-European – or specifically anti-EU (though arguably, if you want to case migration from the EU, then you have something against a vast proportion of Europe by default).
The Scottish independence movement has, in recent decades, been about being a part of Europe as a full and equal member. Now, you might argue about how easy that will be (though I’ve hopefully sufficiently addressed the reasons why Scotland’s EU membership will be a formality in a previous post). But viability aside, the desire is unquestionable: those who want independence mostly see the EU as something worth staying in.
And whether or not you want to be a part of the EU is – as we’ve all too painfully learned lately – a pretty substantial difference.
Allied to that is hopefully the pretty clear point about the perceived value of immigration.
Brexit was driven by anti-immigrant sentiment. Indeed, those who have been killed, attacked, spat at or forced to leave the country is testament to that. The idea of us leaving the EU is intertwined by the idea that foreigners, especially those from the EU, are bad. Or at the very least, we should have fewer of them.
Scottish independence, however, is motivated in part by a rejection of this and a desire to be independent precisely so that more people can come here. Many of the arguments in favour of independence rest on the premise that we are an under-peopled (maybe more accurately, a de-peopled) country, whose success depends on getting more people to come here to fill labour gaps, help make small communities viable, and bring new energy and ideas. It’s long been SNP policy (and even more so Green policy) that immigration is a force for good and that citizenship should be much more open than it is now.
As an admittedly not scientific example, search on Twitter for the phrase “move to Scotland” and scan down for those tweets that have replies. Check those replies out, and they are overwhelmingly from folk in Scotland telling those thinking of moving here that they’d be very welcome to do so. Try to find a tweet from a Scot telling someone from elsewhere that they should bugger off, and I suspect you’ll search in vain.
I can’t think of many more stark differences in political philosophies than “let’s get rid of people” versus “let’s get more people in”.
3. Left versus right
That point in turn makes it necessary to highlight another clear difference – that of left-wing and right-wing politics, a spectrum that, though not the only game in town in terms of categorising politics in the UK, is still a big influence.
In Brexit, the spectrum fairly broadly overlaps with the left-right spectrum. Left-wing parties and movements broadly supported EU membership due to the idea of international solidarity, breaking down barriers, and the protection for workers the EU represents, while the right is generally in favour of Brexit. There are exceptions to this, but it is broadly the lay of the land.
For Scottish independence, the left and especially the hard and radical left were and still are overwhelmingly in favour of independence. The movement against it has, admittedly, been a range of left and right (albeit I’d argue (and indeed have done so here, here and here) that much of the left-wing argument for the Union rests on an idea of “solidarity” that actually is fundamentally right-wing and racist).
So once again, the left-right spectrum perhaps isn’t what it used to be as a gauge for politics, but if you find two movements sitting pretty far apart from each other on that spectrum, then you’re going to struggle to draw too many parallels between them.
This is a boring example in my list, but an important one.
With Brexit, nobody really knew what was being proposed. Arguably, with less than a month until the cliff edge, we still don’t. Sure, it’s either going to be May’s deal or a “no deal” Brexit, but that’s a question that is beyond I think the best political soothsayers, and even then the impacts of either are going to be dangerously unpredictable in a lot of ways.
Part of the problem, as I referred to in my previous post, was that there was minimal research and preparation done by those who advocated Brexit (or by those who called the referendum). Throughout the campaign and – more alarmingly – since the vote, we have seen the scary spectacle of different groups of people arguing for different kinds of Brexit, and all claiming some sort of mandate from the 52% who voted for whatever it is they voted for.
A soft Brexit, or hard? Norway, Switzerland or Canada? I have no idea, and neither did they. Yes, there were some commonalities – the idea of us being a member of the EU would of course end under all Brexit visions, and there was a fairly broad consensus across Brexiteers that anything that kept those nasty Poles out would be a good thing (albeit that bizarrely many supporters of leaving seemed to believe it would help to keep those nasty non-Europeans out too). But beyond that, nobody seemed to have a clear idea about how closely we would align with the EU’s rules or whether indeed we’d remain subject to them or not.
Contrast that with the plans for Scottish independence. The Scottish Government produced in 2013 the weighty tome “Scotland’s Future”, a 650-page book (and website) that outlined their plans for how an independent Scotland would be created and what it looked like. It covered pretty much every aspect of the independence process, responsibilities of the newly independent government, and relations with the rest of the UK and other countries in the world. It was a massive piece of work.
Yes, you can disagree with the contents of the book (indeed, 55% did so at the ballot box). Yes, you can dispute the viability or desirability of the proposals. Yes, you can call the Scottish Government optimistic, misguided, deluded or whatever. And let’s not forget that even many across the pro-independence movement took issue with parts of the book. But for the purposes of this blog post, the quality of the content of Scotland’s Future is not the point. The point is that the Scottish Government put the work in and came up with some clear ideas. While we can dispute how much the proposals would hold up in the negotiations with the UK or in the early years of independence, what is beyond dispute is the mandate it would have given the Scottish Government as they began those negotiations.
Plans can be good, or they can be bad. But plans are plans. And it’s fair to say that the Scottish Government had one, and those advocating Brexit did not.
Linked to that is one seemingly small detail but one which Brexit has proved to be incredibly important. And it’s one I’ve been thinking about often.
One of the most impressive aspects of the campaign for Scottish independence was the cross-party nature, with supporters of the SNP, Greens and small hard left parties lining up with those of no stated party and admittedly small numbers of of supporters of the Unionist parties.
More than that, the Scottish Government envisaged what it described as “Team Scotland” being involved in the proposed eighteen-month negotiation period, which would be made up of negotiators from across the Scottish political spectrum. The idea was that politicians from all parties and none would be a part of the Scottish Government’s teams in the negotiations with the UK Government – those who had been fighting each other throughout the independence referendum would, on the day after a Yes vote, receive invitations to work together to get the best deal for Scotland.
While it was a great political gesture, it was also a very practical step. Imagine, to take just two examples, how valuable the perspectives of former chancellor and Better Together chair Alistair Darling or the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander might have been in the finance side of the negotiations. Yes, you might have chosen to criticise the competence of those two individuals, and yes they might have rejected the invitation. But the key point is that the Scottish Government stated all along that such a cross-party approach would have been their preference.
Contrast that with Brexit, where – in a change that is of monumental significance to the UK – the UK Government has refused to work with others, where the idea of a government of national unity has never been voiced by anyone other than fringe voices, and the Labour Party has committed itself to bringing down, rather than working with, the Conservatives. Whether you like Brexit or not, the sight of Westminster parties battling like ferrets in a sack has been unedifying, embarrassing given that the EU has been watching, and above all a missed opportunity. Add to that the disregard that the UK Government has shown to the Scottish or Welsh Governments’ views on Brexit, or indeed to the views of any other parts of society who have principled or constructive points to bring to the table.
There was, and remains, no sense that the UK wishes to leave in any manner that represents togetherness or consensus. And that, whether we end up leaving or not, will reap an ugly harvest politically and socially.
So those are five reasons why the road to Brexit tells us nothing about the road to Scottish independence. They are reasons that, I confess, I’ve somewhat taken off the top of my head. I am sure there are more, and I am sure I’ve missed some other obvious differences – if you can think of any, post them in the comments.
But hopefully the five above are adequate proof by themselves that Brexit is in no way a mirror for Scottish independence, and that comparing the two movements or processes is an act of either ignorance or wilful deception.
Scottish independence, as a proud, outward-looking, multicultural and inclusive idea is one of the finest peaceful democratic movements the world has seen.
Brexit, sadly, is pretty much the diametric opposite. If nothing else, though, it can serve as a constant reminder of firstly how not to do a secession and secondly what is so deeply wrong with the United Kingdom that so many are keen to be independent from.