Scottish independence: Liberalism is most effective counter to SNP and Tories' competing nationalisms – Alistair Carmichael MP

Where does the constitutional debate go next? According to Nicola Sturgeon, it has all already been decided.

Thousands of Canadians rally in Montreal in October 1995 in a bid to persuade citizens of Quebec not to secede from Canada (Picture: Andre Pichette/AFP via Getty Images)
Thousands of Canadians rally in Montreal in October 1995 in a bid to persuade citizens of Quebec not to secede from Canada (Picture: Andre Pichette/AFP via Getty Images)

“If they think it’s about playing a waiting game, I’ve probably got time on my side as well. You look at the demographics of the support for independence — well, I’m not sure that’s going to get you out of this conundrum.”

Well, that’s it, then. And we saved people the trouble of voting!

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Last week saw the re-emergence of the “wait for the oldies to croak” theory of nationalist triumph from the First Minister – the idea that independence is inevitable, because polling suggests that young people are more likely to back separation from the rest of the United Kingdom than older generations. Just wait a little longer so that the wrong people stop voting, and you can inch yourself across the finish line.

Some in the Conservative camp, meanwhile, claim that independence will never happen – because young people will inevitably become more risk-averse as they get older. By the Tory version of the story, once Scots hit 50 they magically find themselves with an investment portfolio, a subscription to the Wall Street Journal and an aversion to any political change.

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Both of these views are blinkered – and, frankly, complacent. We should have higher ambitions than some kind of “demographic destiny”. When we are talking about no less than the future of Scotland, our people deserve a little more by way of ideas and ideals, and a little less talk of inevitability.

Partisans on both sides of the constitutional divide are kidding themselves if they think they have a lock on our country’s future. The case for independence has not been made – but the stability of our shared community with the rest of the United Kingdom cannot be treated as an afterthought either. In a liberal democracy, we have to respect one another enough to make the case for the values of interdependence and shared prosperity, year on year and day by day.

Don’t believe me? Look at the case of Quebec.

The French-speaking province of Canada first clearly rejected independence in 1980 but the constitutional debate continued to rumble on (sound familiar?). After another vote was called, Quebec voted secession down again – by the narrowest of margins – in 1995.

The shift – a swing of almost 20 points in 15 years – should have been, by Nicola Sturgeon’s narrative, a sign of the inevitable trend toward the break-up of Canada. Those of us with a vague grasp of world politics, however, will be aware that Canada has stubbornly refused to dissolve itself to fit our First Minister’s narrative.

Instead, support for Quebec sovereignty has drastically declined since the 1995 referendum. Now, the once-dominant Parti Quebecois has been relegated to third place in Quebec regional elections, turfed out by Quebeckers who – rightly – came to see endless debates over sovereignty as a distraction from the issues that matter. A warning, perhaps, for the SNP that their own complacency over failings on health and education, ferries and finances may cost them in the end.

What changed was not the demographic “inevitability” of Quebec, but the democratic debate and exchange of ideas. In the aftermath of the 1995 referendum, Liberal leaders and academics alike took on the issues raised by nationalism and independence and responded.

They challenged nationalist narratives head-on and reinvigorated discussions on the federal make-up of Canada. They changed minds – and made the case for a Canadian society of both diversity and shared common interest.

The shift against independence in Quebec, however, did not come about through complacency or conservatism. Where Canada had measured Liberal leadership to mitigate the political risk of secession, our own nationalists have been lucky to face off against a Conservative government that makes antagonism – and their own brand of nationalism – the new status quo.

Those amongst the Scottish Tories who suggest that young people will “naturally” become more sceptical of change risk making the same mistakes as their nationalist counterparts.

We all remember how older voters swung the vote in favour of leaving the EU in 2016. Risk-averse votes were “supposed” to back the status quo in the face of dire economic warnings – but people have a stubborn habit of making their own minds up despite attempts to put them into neat categories. Rightly or wrongly, individuals make individual decisions.

You can learn a lot about the broad sweep of public opinion and demographic change through polling – but polls are a snapshot in time, not a crystal ball looking into the future. For nationalists and non-nationalists alike, the route ahead is not something that can be taken for granted.

Across the world, we are awakening to the reality that liberal democracy is not simply something we have “done” as a society – it is a set of values that we must renew with each new generation. We have to constantly re-learn and reinforce the ideal of a shared society with different values, nationalities and communities, against those who see the liberal democratic compromise as something that gets in the way of their own ideology, whether nationalism, populism or authoritarianism.

The debate over independence – like that over our democratic values as a whole – cannot be reduced to waiting for the old to die off or for the young to “see sense”, to the extremes of SNP or Tory nationalism. It has to be won through hard work, fighting complacency, and the right ideals at the heart of our politics.

The First Minister thinks that time is on her side, and she may continue to have a willing ally in the destructive tendencies of the Tories. In the contest between liberal democracy and nationalism, however, the ideas and values that work are with the liberals.

Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland

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