The cause of Scottish independence could be set back a generation by a no-deal Brexit, writes Joyce McMillan.
At the end of of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, there is a remarkable passage in which Stevenson imagines the final parting, on Corstorphine Hill outside Edinburgh, between his hero, the young Lowlander David Balfour, and David’s romantic Highland Jacobite friend Alan Breck Stewart. Alan is to return north, and perhaps into exile overseas; while young David, having come into his inheritance, proceeds down the hill into the streets of Edinburgh and to the door of the British Linen Bank, to become a pillar of the new, bustling prosperity Scotland was beginning, by the mid 1700s, to find in the Union – although all the while feeling a huge sense of loss.
This is one of literature’s great images of Scotland as a nation, part proud, romantic and defiant, but mainly – particularly since the Union of 1707 – content to get on with the practical business of making a living. It offers no guidance, though, on how Scotland should conduct itself in times like these, when Britain itself goes off the rails, embracing a nationalist project as impractical, romantic and nostalgic as anything Alan Breck Stewart might have proposed, and cruising stubbornly towards what every analysis suggests will be economic disaster.
Under these circumstances, both Alan Breck Stewart and Davie Balfour might be equally appalled at the damage to Scotland’s prospects. That would not, though, prevent them from disagreeing profoundly about what should be done next, and how quickly; and that is more or less where the Scottish National Party finds itself today. In the middle of the current Brexit crisis, one wing romantically declares the inevitable demise of the British state, and urges the party not only to seize its moment – presumably for some kind of unofficial referendum, or unilateral declaration of independence – but also to refrain from lifting a finger to prevent Britain’s Brexit folly. “It’s not the job of the SNP,” they cry, “to save Britain from a mess of the Tories’ own making.”
Yet if it’s easy to imagine a latter-day Alan Breck Stewart joining that cry for action, and for shameless exploitation of the current crisis, it’s also not hard to envisage the horror with which a middle-aged Davie Balfour would view such a prospect. Scottish nationalism is either about national identity pure and simple, or it is a project designed to advance the long-term sustainable well-being of the people of Scotland; and it is clear that under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, the party leans heavily towards the latter vision, insisting that – for Scotland – independence is simply the fastest route out of a UK tacking towards extreme forms of free-market isolationism, and into some kind of sensible, high-performing Nordic-style social democracy.
And so long as that remains the SNP’s stance, it seems clear that it must do everything in its power to prevent a no-deal Brexit, up to and including considering voting for, or at least abstaining on, Theresa May’s deeply flawed EU deal, if she succeeds in pushing Parliament to the point where a disastrous ‘no deal’ is the only other possible outcome. It is already known that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Scotland stands to take a disproportionate economic hit, perhaps losing up to seven per cent of its GDP; an economic blow on that scale will entail real human suffering, at a time when the most vulnerable in our society are often in desperate straits. And it seems to me that the SNP, as Scotland’s government, cannot make itself complicit with that disaster, however unpalatable the only available alternative.
And beyond that basic moral imperative, there are also more practical political reasons for the SNP to prioritise stopping Brexit. The first is that in the event of no deal, the damage inflicted on Scotland’s economic prosperity and self-confidence might itself take the possibility of Scottish independence off the table for a generation. In arguing for Scottish independence, the central task of “yes” supporters is always to shift Scotland’s deeply internalised image of itself as too small, too poor and too incompetent to succeed as an independent country. The idea that the economic misery consequent on Brexit would make it easier to demonstrate that case is fanciful at best.
And then finally, there is the fact that the people the SNP now needs to convert to the cause of independence are by definition not conviction nationalists, either Scottish or British, but people who tend to put pragmatic considerations first. Many people in the centre ground of Scottish politics are doubtless shocked and dismayed by what they have seen at Westminster over the last few years; not least by displays of a swaggering Union Jack retro-nationalism that can only be described as delusional.
If there is one thing that appears to alienate these Scottish voters equally, though, it is the sound of the SNP seeming to adopt the same stridently nationalistic tone, on Scotland’s behalf. Instead, it needs to stick scrupulously to the path of arguing for independence as the best practical way forward for Scotland in the 21st century, particularly in medium and longer term. To do anything else is to indulge in precisely the kind of sub-rational nationalist grandstanding that is now undermining Westminster’s credibility with many voters; and to risk the very image of responsibility and stability, in an increasingly volatile world, that offers the SNP its best chance of being able, some time in the next decade, to win a vote on Scotland’s long-term future.
To say that this is a hard path to tread, in a time of such crisis, is to understate the pressures on the SNP now, ramped up as they are by the inevitable tensions and exhaustions of 12 years in power at Holyrood. To lead Scotland to an independent future, though, the “yes” movement will finally need both Alan Breck Stewart and David Balfour on board. And Davie, the pragmatic Unionist, will not be changing his view without a long, hard, level-headed look at which party, and which camp, really seems to have Scotland’s practical best interests at heart; and at which, in the maelstrom of Britain’s great Brexit crisis, behaved most like a party of reason, of enlightened common sense, and of basic human decency.