Andrew Wilson: Free at last to vote for best of both worlds in reforged partnership of equals

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
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SO WE now know when we will choose. And whatever else we think of our country, Scotland is already free. We can choose whichever future we desire.

That is a good thing. Our elites will do their best to influence our decision, of course, and thunder and noise resounds from the vested interests and the ­entrenched. It always does. But their ­power has waned as the real-time evidence of the need for wholesale reform has grown.

These are truly epic times when so much is in flux in a world of monumental change. The old certainties are gone. In this context the smears, fears and scares that once would have us pause or cower are but whispers in the gale-force winds blowing through our economy, society and the way our government works. Change is coming whether we stand still or chart our own course. The option is do or have done unto you.

So this is our vote to make. We were once told the making of it would be ­illegal, but like so many other canards in this debate we can forget and ignore that one. We shall be asked to decide “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Before we answer, we had better reflect on what we think that actually means. At its simplest expression it could mean that Scotland joins the United Nations as its 194th member. Given that there were only 51 at its inception, we would be part of a normalising trend as power has moved closer to people as the old order fell and the world globalised.

But that would be but an emblematic rather than a meaningful truth. Cyprus is a member of the United Nations after all. But truly independent? In reality, of course, all countries must cede and share sovereignty and power with others if they are to pursue the best interests of their people. Even mighty empire states like Britain struggle to exercise policy sovereignty in the face of global markets, as a glance at last week’s Budget detail would confirm.

And as clarity emerges from the Scottish Government about the starting point for our possible journey as an independent country, what’s increasingly clear (and welcome) to me is that we will recognise much of tomorrow from looking at things as they are today. Which begs the question: when does our home rule journey without end, become separation and partition? All sides now agree (don’t they?) that the powers of the Scottish Parliament should be extended, in many cases pretty comprehensively. At what point does that logical normalising process of evolution we all agree about become an unacceptable revolution that must divide us? Is it the ability to set the rate of VAT? Is it the power to abolish the bedroom tax?

Because the picture too often painted is one of emotional and irrational extremes. Under no circumstances in the prospectus we are being asked about will there be a border in any more meaningful terms than there is now. The opportunity for different policy solutions on either side will just be greater, which was the whole point of devolution in the first place, yes?

No-one is credibly suggesting an end to the single UK market or the free movement of labour, capital or goods. You won’t need a passport to move around the islands. My family in London will be no more foreign than my family in Ireland are now. And to suggest as much is out of touch with how we see ourselves today. We won’t even end the monetary union which means close and continuous co-operation on regulation and fiscal policy as well. The same must also be true on defence, with the notable exception of nuclear weapons.

And all of this is possible by agreement, consent and co-operation as no-one is incentivised to beggar their neighbour, especially after three centuries of shared endeavour and history. And it will all be under one Queen in a continuing United Kingdom, after all. To borrow and twist a phrase from a Sicilian novel: for everything to change, everything has to stay the same. So why change at all if nothing changes? The policy power will be shared from having a hold of it in the first place rather than having a fractional say in how it is run. The responsibility for the tools we deploy, and how, will be in our own hands rather than with a government where we get the leaders we elect only once in a while.

We truly will have the best of both worlds: the most modern nation and closest partnership in the world but with the tools of a normal country to carve our own destiny and make our own choices, albeit constrained by the realities 193 other countries face every day. We don’t have that just now. We can do better.

What’s striking is that there is a continent of common ground between those of us who want proper Home Rule within the United Kingdom and those of us who want to “be an independent country”. But the political elites will have us believe the visions are islands apart. Where true division lies is between reformers on all sides and conservative centralisers who think government as it is (or a nickel and dimed version of it), is fine. Between those who believe in self-belief and those who want to rely on others for hope despite the evidence it never comes.

It’s time for the progressives on all sides to recognise each other for what we are. A new Union between two old countries: modern independence within a United Kingdom?

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW