New powers on offer will give Holyrood the toolkit to build the country we all want to live in
The Yes campaign’s strongest argument for independence is also its simplest – that Scotland should be run by the people who live here. On Thursday, many Scots will vote Yes for this reason, and for this reason alone.
It is an honourable view. It is not necessarily blind to the potential problems of independence, but sees them as secondary to the principle of sovereignty. Problems, after all, can be faced down and – on a good day – overcome. What matters, according to this way of thinking, is to be in full control. It is an appealing view. But it contains a flaw. It ignores an inconvenient truth.
That truth is that very few nations exercise full control over their own affairs. The 19th century idea of the nation state is dead and gone.
What modern nations do now, in the 21st century, is to pool sovereignty with their neighbours. Some powers are retained, and some are willingly shared.
Shared sovereignty was a concept alien to the Scottish National Party in its early years. Its vision was the 19th century nation state, fully sovereign. It was an insular and isolationist view of the world.
Yet eventually the SNP’s thinking matured and embraced the idea of Scotland working in union with other nations.
First the nationalists wanted an independent Scotland to adopt the euro, surrendering key aspects of financial sovereignty to be part of a currency union across the European continent.
When the euro project turned sour, this thinking was transferred to the idea of an independent Scotland sharing the pound in a currency union with the rest of the UK.
Surrendering sovereignty has become a leitmotif of modern Scottish nationalism. Opposition to membership of Nato has been ditched, committing Scotland to the shared defence of all 28 other Nato members. The modern nationalist vision includes membership of the European Union, ceding sovereignty to Brussels. The SNP now embraces the monarchy, proposing that an independent Scotland share the Queen as head of state with the rest of the UK. Macroeconomic and monetary policy would be surrendered to the UK Treasury and the Bank of England. There would be a shared regulatory framework for banks and financial services. And so on. These were the right decisions for the SNP. It makes sense that a small nation on the northern half of an island, on the geographical periphery of Europe, should first share sovereignty with the other inhabitants of that island, and then with the other nations of the continent. This makes sense.
But does it require independence? There are differing views on what now constitutes the optimum level of powers for a small, modern European nation. But it is clear Scotland currently falls short.
For decades this newspaper has argued that not enough power is exercised at a Scottish national level – in Scotland, by Scots, for Scots.
From the moment our first edition hit the streets in 1988 we argued passionately for Scottish home rule. And once the principle of a Scottish Parliament was won we argued for it to have more powers than the Labour party was then willing to give it.
The phrase ‘devo max’ was introduced and championed in our leader columns.
Today we still believe the Holyrood parliament needs wider competencies and greater financial powers – not for their own sake, but to ensure greater accountability, greater responsibility and more effective government.
The optimum balance of powers retained and powers willingly shared has not yet been achieved in Scotland. So how do we achieve it?
There are two ways. We can either accrue powers, building on what we already have at the moment, while staying in the UK. Or we can have full independence, then shed sovereignty until we settle at a more suitable level.
This is the heart of the decision each Scot will take this week: do we add powers to a devolved Scotland, or subtract powers from an independent Scotland?
This may seem a surprisingly cool and detached way of looking at the referendum, given the passions raging in the campaign.
But certain passions are best put aside when we pick up the pencil in the voting booth on Thursday. Passions kindled by ancient antagonisms and centuries-old hurts. Resentments about a perceived English colonialism that supposedly holds back Scottish culture.
A self-regard that sees Scots as morally superior to their southerly neighbours. A toxic strand of nationalism that is capable of regarding fellow Scots as quislings and traitors. These are passions we can do without.
And yet one passion should, this newspaper believes, be embraced on 18 September. That is a deep desire to see Scotland move forward united, not as two warring tribes, but as one Scottish nation.
Of the two paths that lead to the optimum powers for the Scottish Parliament, only one is a route that we can travel as Scotland United.
If we vote Yes on Thursday the margin of victory is likely to be extremely small. We shall start life as a new state divided against ourselves.
In the difficult birth – the potential problems with currency, the EU and Nato have been well aired and do not need repeating here – those divisions are more likely to deepen than to heal. There will be recrimination and reckoning. If you doubt this, ask Jim Sillars.
Despite the assurances of Alex Salmond, the process of negotiation with London will be fraught and bitter. Each side will fight their corner with cold ruthlessness – we will expect that of our negotiators, as the rUK public will of theirs. All will be played out against a background of financial turmoil. Serious damage will be done to Anglo-Scots relations. It is entirely possible that by the end of negotiations in 2016, majority backing for independence will have disappeared. But by then it will be too late.
A No win, too, is likely to be narrow. And it will hard to thole for those who voted Yes. But the independence dream will not die. There will be other referendum days. One of the SNP’s great contributions to Scotland’s story has been as ‘The Power For Change’. Nationalists can reclaim this role after a No vote, in the Scottish national interest. In the meantime we can all shed the binary black-and-white politics of Yes and No and rediscover instead what we have in common.
If we vote No the nation can once again coalesce around the constitutional option that has been the Scottish public’s preferred choice for a decade a much stronger Holyrood parliament, within the UK. Instead of facing the future as a country split right down the middle, 50-50, we can move forward with an overwhelming majority getting behind the creation of a powerhouse parliament at Holyrood. We can face the future united, not divided.
Alex Salmond has played on public distrust of the political classes to sneer at promises of more devolution for Scotland. Scepticism is a virtue, but a categorical manifesto commitment by all three UK party leaders of more powers over tax, welfare and jobs cannot be so easily dismissed.
The UK parties have delivered on devolution: in 1999, with the creation of the Scottish Parliament; in 2004, when Alistair Darling transferred new rail powers to Holyrood; and in 2012, when a new Scotland Act handed over new income tax and borrowing powers, plus stamp duty and other taxes. In the same period, Wales and Northern Ireland have won their Assemblies. Devolution has been offered to English regions and cities. Last year the current UK administration authorised substantial new financial powers for Wales. This track record cannot be denied. There is absolutely no reason to suppose this process of decentralisation will now stop. On the contrary, the dynamic in the whole of the UK is now a move to asymmetric federalism.
This eclipses dim and dusty memories of a broken Tory promise by Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1979, a date that is chronologically closer to the Second World War. In the 1990s Alex Salmond famously said that Labour “couldn’t deliver a pizza, never mind a parliament”. It was a great line from a great communicator. But he was wrong then and he is wrong now.
One of the most common mistakes of this campaign is to claim that a ‘more powers’ option has been kept off the ballot paper. This is not the case. That option is now there, in black and white. It is a vote for No.
Choosing to stay in the UK instead of turning our backs is the right thing to do. And not just because of the political solidarity and common endeavour within Britain that would be lost with a Yes.
We Scots are comfortable with our rich, complex, multi-layered identity: Scottish first and foremost, always; but happy as well to belong to the British family of nations, within a wider union across Europe. And that’s before we add in other kinds of belonging, as a Glaswegian, a Dundonian, a Highlander, a Fifer. Why should one important layer of our identity – Britishness – be denied democratic expression? It makes no sense.
This newspaper believes the path we take this week should be chosen in a way that minimises division. We should take a path we can walk with as much unity as possible, as Scots, on the next leg of our shared, common journey.
Nationalists argue that Scotland must grab full sovereignty before surrendering it to get to the optimum level. But why? Is it really so vital that for one tiny moment in time, Scotland has these full powers, before almost immediately handing many of them away?
Some Scots will say a retooled Holyrood within the UK cannot go far enough to satisfy them – for example on defence. Again, this is an honourable position. But is the difference really worth the convulsion within Scotland, and the rupture with the rest of the peoples of the United Kingdom, that a Yes vote would bring? Is it really worth the gamble with jobs, the gamble with security, the gamble with prosperity? Do we really want a Scotland which, as one MP tweeted last week, has more pandas than banks? For a minority of Scots, defence is a deal-breaker. For the majority of us, however, other considerations are more important. Scotland can be changed for the better with a No vote.
The vast majority of the hopes expressed by Yes activists in this campaign can be achieved with the bold application of powers that will shortly be at Holyrood’s disposal. This newspaper agrees with the Yes campaign that a better Scotland is within our grasp. A more confident, assured and can-do Scotland. An optimum Scotland. But we cannot agree this Scotland is dependent on us choosing independence. That would be to underestimate the people of this country. And that is not a wise thing to do.
Our Scotland is a tremendous country. Ambitious, audacious, brimful of ideas. Flawed, certainly, and sometimes infuriating. But its flaws are our flaws and we have no-one to blame for them except ourselves. They are not the fault of the English. They are not the fault of Westminster. They are the product of our own failings, and failures to act. The powers we have at the moment, strengthened with the powers promised, give us the toolkit we need to build a better future for Scotland, if we have the will.
But first we have to choose to go forward not as two Scottish tribes but as one Scottish nation. Scotland United, within a United Kingdom.