Brexit and IndyRef

Looking back five years on….

Published: 19 September 2019

Brexit has shown that a referendum cannot resolve complex questions...It may give authority to a broad framework and guidance on a direction of travel but will not bring finality.  Too much will be left open to interpretation and the context will change in the future raising new and unexpected questions.  The political battle will continue, perhaps within a narrower range of options.  Relationships will still have to be negotiated and renegotiated because these evolve, affected by changes to the partners to that relationship and external conditions.

Simple geography dictates that relationships of some kind cannot be avoided and that these evolve and change over time.  There can be no prospect of either a complete break or final resolution unless a massive separatist wall is erected and even that would require constant attention.

Similarly, the idea that an independence referendum could finally resolve all matters with regard to Scotland’s constitutional status is fanciful.  Even had Scots voted emphatically for independence in 2014, relations would continue to be negotiated.  This is not to reject a referendum, only to recognise its limitations.  

At the heart of debate are relationships – not a single binary question and not a single relationship. Complexity is ignored and nuance removed when reduced to a simple binary constitutional question.  Each generation has had to consider the Scottish Question anew. And each generation will have to do so into the future regardless of the outcome of any fresh referendum.

It is worth recalling that debates on Scotland’s constitutional status before devolution offered more choice, reflected in the stream of opinion polls suggesting three options: the status quo (direct rule as it was called in Northern Ireland but not in Scotland); devolution; and independence.  After devolution, the options changed to the status quo (devolution as then was); more powers; and independence.  But after 2011, the options shrunk to the status quo and independence.  The Scottish Government tried to inject a third option – variously described as more powers; fiscal autonomy; devo-max – into the debate but this was vetoed by the UK Government.

No third way

One of the problems was that, while there was evidence of public support for some middle position, nobody was willing to put constitutional flesh on its bones.  The ensuing polarised hyper-adversarial debate cut out an option that might have commanded most support though there were intimations of a constitutional third way, if that term has not been too discredited, in the more imaginative deliberation taking place up and down Scotland. It would be better to abandon the set piece televised debates between leaders of the campaigns which generated lots of heat but little light and broadcast a series of judiciously arranged citizens assemblies across Scotland.

Anyone who has observed these debates over time will be aware that what was offered in the Scottish Government’s November 2013 white paper was a far cry from what the Scottish National Party had called independence in the past.  Flesh had been added to the bones of what some will call an ideal, others a slogan.  The SNP had edged towards a recognition that independence came in many forms and was not an absolute.  Ironically, the party embraced the more appropriate notion of self-government just as it was abandoning self-government in favour of independence during its constitutional overhaul in 2004.  Language serves different purposes in politics.  Independence was an idea that would mobilise people. Self-government… not so much.

Self-government had been a compromise agreed back when the SNP was founded.  It could be interpreted variously but notably appealed to those who wanted maximum autonomy without cutting off all links.  Drawing on the wider international context of the time, it was evident that different options existed.  The 1931 Statute of Westminster, which gave considerable autonomy to Dominion states such as Canada and Australia, was well known to the party’s founders who understood that self-government in practice could take different forms.

Lazy thinking

But over time, the SNP became lazy.  Its leaders would argue for continuation of a social union, for a Council of Britain or some variant but neither developed nor gave prominence to these ideas.  The result was that independence became a slogan more than a policy.  A significant change occurred when the SNP adopted its independence in Europe position in 1988.  Considerable effort went into developing the idea, well beyond a slogan.  But somewhere along the way laziness set in again and it was again reduced to a slogan.

The party failed to take account of momentous changes taking place in the European Union.  Membership of the EU meant something different under Jacques Santer’s presidency of the Commission than it had under Jacques Delors but it was as if nothing much had changed as far as the SNP was concerned. The EU has expanded greatly, its areas of competences have grown, its decision-making structures have altered accordingly and the dominant ideology has shifted rightwards.  Each of these developments has provoked important debates in many member states.  In the UK, they have fed a grievance narrative and a demand to ‘take back control’ while in Scotland they have hardly registered as far as debate on the Scottish Question is concerned.

In 2004, Kenny MacAskill made an important contribution when he asked whether there was a need for a separate DVLA or Ordnance Survey, whether, indeed, it would be possible to share certain public institutions.  A couple of years later, Mike Russell used remarkable language in his call for a ‘new union’.  A few years before, such thinking and language would have provoked a harsh backlash within large sections of the SNP.  MacAskill was unusual in having the courage to raise these questions, forcing the SNP to face up to complexities.  This signalled an important stage in the SNP’s constitutional thinking.  The party might be talking independence but was thinking self-government.

Shortly after coming to office in 2007, the SNP offered a white paper as part of its national conversation.  It was a remarkable document in the emphasis it placed on options short of independence and the recognition of inter-dependence.  It signalled a new self-government awakening.  The fingerprints of Neil MacCormick, constitutional thinker and special adviser to the First Minister, were all over the document.  For understandable reasons, the SNP in office focused more on governing within the existing powers than developing this thinking. It was caught off guard by the result of the 2011 election (in which it won an overall majority) as much as anyone. More effort would have to go into what this independence meant before it was put to the people.

Two courses in indyref1

Two very different debates took place during the independence referendum: a hyper-adversarial combat conducted by politicians and open and imaginative deliberation in communities across Scotland.  The extraordinary levels of public engagement in the 2014 referendum were assisted by rich discussion.  Those engaged in the first arena were often oblivious to the second but those engaged with the second could hardly avoid the first.

But while there was much lively deliberation, the 2014 independence referendum proved a reductionist democratic tool.  Only those who were stuck in their campaign silos or took their news from big set piece broadcast debates could have failed to appreciate the deliberation that was taking place.  The rich debate was translated into a winner-takes-all question on the ballot paper. It became clear during the referendum that whoever ‘won’ would face almighty challenges given promises made. It was as if the hyper-adversarialists believed that they could capture all decisions in this one moment, as if everything had to be crammed into the debate and leave no decision for the future.

Much is now made of Better Together’s claim that membership of the EU would be secure if Scotland voted No.  But even amongst supporters of independence few really expected that the UK would vote to leave the EU.  If the SNP and Yes Scotlandreally thought this was likely, they showed little interest in explaining how an independent Scotland would respond.  If the UK (or rest of the UK in event of Scottish independence) voted to leave the EU then this would have a huge impact on Scotland.  The relationship would have had to change.  The independence envisaged was predicated not only on Scotland remaining in the EU but that the rest of the UK too.

Time and truth

One key difference in the independence and Brexit referendums stands out.  The length of the independence referendum allowed for claim and counter-claim over a long period of time. Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it.  Truth needs time to catch up.  Time alone cannot prevent some absurd claim sticking in the public mind but can reduce the possibility.  On a more positive note, time also allows for a much richer and more nuanced discussion.

While some third option was formally excluded from the independence debate, it did finally force its way onto the agenda.  The Smith Commission report can be read as a victory for the third option.  But it was an odd end to a vibrant debate.  A small group of politicians chaired by a respected businessman, but with no expertise in constitutional design, cobbled together a deal in far too short a period of time.  It was the very antithesis of the vibrancy of debate that had gone before.

There are lessons as we approach the possibility of a second independence referendum.  Somehow, the more deliberative discussion experienced in 2014 needs to be given greater space and more prominence – the public debate was after all what it was supposed to be about.  It is difficult to see how to capture this richness especially in some authoritative (one-way) decision.

Alternatives after all?

One issue needs urgent attention if an alternative option is to be considered or emerge.  It should not be the outcome of elite accommodation. Before any referendum is held, more work needs to go into the spectrum of options.  The role of elite politicians and the public needs more thought. There may be a place for a citizens’ assembly but such a device has its limits, not least because they exclude almost everyone from the discussion.

There is an obvious role for the elites.  Periodically, someone will suggest we should consider federalism.  The federalist option goes back a very long way but has never come close to being developed.  It is generous to describe this as lazy evasion.  The problem with the third option is that it has the same status as the SNP’s independence policy had in the past.  Federalism invoked in newspaper articles and speeches is a fleshless skeleton if even that.

In both camps, there are those who are closer to those in the other camp than the binary choice would suggest.  The challenge five years on is to allow the richness of the debate that emerged to find voice again and to play a more direct role in the next stage of Scotland’s continuing journey.  Alternatively, we are destined to more hyper-adversarial combat satisfying only those who see politics as a substitute for football fanaticism.

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