Trevor Phillips: Time to shape this nation

The sentiment of this welcome sign at Gretna is one that causes much debate. Picture: Getty Images
The sentiment of this welcome sign at Gretna is one that causes much debate. Picture: Getty Images
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When it comes to independence, constitutional ins and outs are nowhere near as important as the big question – what kind of Scotland do we want to live in, writes Trevor Phillips

Dr Robert McLean, was a rare beast – unchallengeably working class, unmistakably Scottish, and uncompromisingly internationalist. He was a big man. Big in stature. Generous in nature. Capacious of intellect. And endowed with a panoramic vision for the future of his city, his country, and his world.

He was independent-minded, thoughtful and innovative political figure – a nightmare for any party disciplinarian. Though I don’t think he would have described himself this way, Bob McLean was a natural member of the awkward squad. That is what made him a thought leader and a risk taker. He had the imagination to picture the future, and the confidence to persuade others not to be afraid of it.

That perhaps is the reason that many of us would wonder today what Bob would make of the debate which is now rolling in Scotland ahead of the referendum in 2014.

To start with I think that he would have called for a civil and generous debate. So far, politicians, north and south of the Border have, in general been decent and stuck to the issues. That’s vital; whatever the outcome we will have to live together whether as family or as neighbours. Any victory founded on bitterness and rancour will be no victory at all, merely a prelude to continuing division and friction.

But I think Big Bob would have been impatient with those who are transfixed by the minutiae of governance. He might be saying: “Before we get started on the constitutional niceties, shouldn’t we talking about what kind of country we want to be?”

At the heart of his concerns would have been the issue that drove his political life – the quest for greater equality and equality of opportunity. The reason that I for one made common cause with Bob McLean was that he, like me, felt that our life chances had been transformed by our time at university.

We were people whose lives had to some extent set out by the accidents of our birth – his by the place in which he was born and lived, me by the culture and race I inherited. Education transformed our lives because it broke the iron shackles between our birth and our destiny.

Bob would have been asking again and again, what will independence do for equality in Scotland? Will we be a fairer nation or not? But this debate can’t just be about money. The promise of a bigger and better welfare state, more secure jobs, higher wages shouldn’t be all be what makes the difference between Yes and No.

And nor should it just be about the politics. We will all have failed if this comes down to exchanging one out of touch elite for another equally elite group of politicians, just nearer and with a different accent.

This is an opportunity to debate a much bigger question – what kind of Scotland do Scots want? Make no mistake, the underlying issues here aren’t just about tax, or oil, or about flags. The reason that people all over the world are paying attention to what happens here is that many of the issues that should be under discussion here are being hotly debated in nations all over the globe.

The real challenge of the 21st century is twofold: how do we live with our planet; and how do we live with each other? The debate about Scotland’s future should not be an insular one about the relationships inside one state; but a vital one shared by many others about how we share a multipolar world, intimately bound by new technologies.

That is why I disagree with those who say that identity should not be at the heart of the referendum debate. Of course to turn this into an argument about ethnicity would be disastrous. We need only look at the continuing conflict in the Balkans, and the rise of ethnic nationalism in Greece, Russia and Hungary to see the horrors that lie down that road.

This is a real and present danger even in countries we tend to regard as liberal-minded: it is reported that polls today have made the far-right Danish People’s Party that country’s most popular political force; and until recently, the Dutch government depended on the far-right leader Geert Wilders for its parliamentary majority.

Well-off societies like ours are enjoying more freedoms, and accommodating more public differentiations of identity. But with that public freedom comes the fall-out from the clashes of our differences – over gay marriage for example.

However, the real problem isn’t the fact of human difference; it’s the spirit and the manner in which we negotiate our diversity. The question of how we manage relations across the many lines of identity difference is becoming the most fissile question in our society today. And post 9/11, 7/7 and the Glasgow Airport attack, I literally mean fissile.

So our referendum debate will be taking place on dangerous grounds that could leave Scotland – and the rest of Britain – deeply divided. There is one issue that illustrates clearly the need for everyone to be both careful – but also completely honest – immigration. I have no doubt that as we run up to the referendum it will become more and more significant.

I think that it is inconceivable that whether in or out of the Union, Scotland can prosper without further immigration. This is an ageing nation, in an ageing Union, which in turn belongs to an ageing continent.

The growth sectors of hospitality, tourism, finance and professional services are already crying out for new blood. Frankly, no matter how much fun Scots have in boosting the birth rate, unless we can find a way of putting three-year-olds in front of computer terminals, Scotland will need to import skills and labour for decades to come.

So what will Scotland, in or out of the Union, do to avoid its looming labour market armageddon? Would independence-free Scotland to meet its economic needs more effectively? Or would it leave the country unable to compete with the pull of the south, rather as the Canadians have found? They have, for a generation, welcomed millions of new immigrants, only to find themselves all too often a way station for those whose real destination is the US.

Everyone has to be honest about this. Those who favour Union have to acknowledge that right now policy at Westminster is tilting towards a more unpleasant, populist and restrictive approach to immigration that would be a catastrophe for Scotland if it were really implemented.

But how differently would a newly-elected Scottish administration in an independent country approach immigration and citizenship? Would it be more open to migration? The answer to this can’t be fudged. For those who favour independence it would be nothing short of a monstrous con to talk the language of a more liberal and modern immigration regime now, only to reverse the position later.

Let me admit a small personal stake in the answer to the question of who is Scottish. More than a century and a half ago, my great great grandmother, who was born into slavery, was transported – illegally – from one part of the Caribbean to another. Along the way she gave birth to the child of a sailor, who we are pretty sure was Scottish. Would my one-sixteenth heritage give me a free pass to a new Scotland?

I hope that the doors to the north are never closed to me – Scotland’s commitment to equality has been a vital influence on the whole of the UK. Whatever Scotland decides, I for one, will want to ensure that its values continue benefit all the peoples of Britain.

• Trevor Phillips is a journalist and broadcaster and was the chair of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission up to September 2012. This article is based on a lecture, supported by The Scotsman, he will deliver tonight at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.