Scottish independence: SNP must learn from Tory mistakes over Brexit, and embrace idea of ‘losers’ consent’ from unionists – Stewart McDonald

Conservatives are wont to warn of “another divisive referendum”. But they’ve forgotten that elections are meant to be divisive: it’s what happens after the votes are counted that matters.

Division is the lifeblood of democracy. Underpinned by a system of rules, regulations, norms, and order, with political rhetoric restrained by the strength of argument, it’s a hallmark of a confident, open society. Imagine, for a moment, an election where all parties stand on the same policy platform, or a parliament assembled where its members are only in unison – it would more closely resemble a kind of fake Potemkin democracy rather than a healthy political system.

The much-maligned Francis Fukuyama predicted the emergence of a more depoliticised democracy in his infamous 1989 essay on “the end of history”. Celebrating the victory of capitalism and liberal democracy over fascism and communism in the Cold War, Fukuyama nonetheless lamented the fact that “the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation and the endless solving of technical problems”.

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Fukuyama’s predictions were validated by Conservative politicians who told the public that “there is no alternative” to austerity, and by Labour politicians like Tony Blair, who stood in front of his party conference and told members that those who would seek to debate globalisation “might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer”.

We know now how wrong they were. In 2022, “decoupling” – the disentangling of global supply chains and investment flows – was Financial Times’ word of the year and its pages now feature, with increasing regularity, blistering assessments of the damaging economics of austerity.

These claims were not just factually incorrect, but politically foolish. In attempting to shrink the sphere of public debate, these politicians closed off the opportunity for the kind of debate and disagreement that is necessary for a healthy and vibrant democracy; in doing so, they opened the door to the rise of extremist “anti-system” movements who seek to uproot the foundations of our societies.

Our political system is built on organised division: every single time a voter steps into a polling booth, they are made to choose a winner and a loser. The fundamental error that the Conservative party has repeatedly made is to continue to think in such binary terms after the election is over.

We saw that in the Brexit referendum, when millions of people voted for constitutional change for as many different reasons: from those who used their vote to protest against a political system they thought was stacked against them to the man interviewed in Lincolnshire who voted Leave because he didn’t want his wife’s family staying with them for more than 90 days.

Independence supporters who backed Remain in the Brexit referendum should remember how that felt, and how much worse it would be for unionists if Scotland voted to leave the UK (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Independence supporters who backed Remain in the Brexit referendum should remember how that felt, and how much worse it would be for unionists if Scotland voted to leave the UK (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Independence supporters who backed Remain in the Brexit referendum should remember how that felt, and how much worse it would be for unionists if Scotland voted to leave the UK (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Theresa May, however, appeared to see the political world as one made up of one-dimensional caricatures of Leaver and Remainer. With this, she took a marginal victory of 52 per cent and claimed this as a mandate to prosecute an extreme form of Brexit that she, for reasons known to her alone, believed Leave voters wanted.

Rather than reflect on the closeness of the vote and the enormity of the change she was proposing, she attempted to railroad through a form of constitutional change that alienated half the country and caused irreparable damage to the UK’s institutions and public sphere. The rest, as they say, is history.

In not seeking loser’s consent for the form of Brexit she wanted to pursue, Mrs May sowed the seeds for years of rancour and genuine division. The Scottish independence movement must learn from Theresa May’s mistakes.

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If, like me, you voted Remain, remind yourself how you felt on June 24, 2016. Remember that sense of shock and loss, and imagine how much more intense those feelings will be for a pro-Union Scot waking up in the morning after a majority of the country has voted for independence.

After a Yes vote, every person in this country – regardless of how they voted, or if they voted at all – must feel at home in the new Scotland that is built. This is the only way that the project of independence will ever bear fruit: if it’s an enterprise for everyone.

For just as it demands division, democracy also requires unity. As one pro-Union gentleman who wrote to me after my last column pointed out, we will all suffer if the constitutional debate devolves into two sides waging a war of attrition against the other. We can craft a more sophisticated debate than that.

The same gentleman also made an interesting proposal: that unionists should be invited to the SNP’s special conference in March to put forward their point of view in an open, friendly, and respectful environment. How refreshing it would be if more unionists were to adopt this attitude.

Our democracy could do with it: we need the spark of the dialectic between pro-independence and pro-Union Scots to move our national debate forward. Instead, the attitude in Westminster continues to be the same as it has been for years: eyes shut, fingers in ears. Social media is often just as unengaging and dispiriting.

The awesome task of birthing a new Scottish state requires us to have the confidence, imagination, and faith in our fellow citizens to ensure they’re heard. We must never become a movement that talks over voters’ heads.

I’ve said before that I believe there is a majority for independence in the country waiting to be won. I’m convinced, wholly, that a winning independence campaign is one that prosecutes sound arguments well but has a keen understanding of those citizens whose political preference is for the Union. We have a role in creating the conditions for those voters to accept a result they don’t want. Far from being shy about seeking loser’s consent, we should embrace it. The new Scotland would start off as a better version of itself as a result.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



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