Joyce McMillan: A new Scottish vision can avoid further division

To find a way ahead in uncertain times, we need a plan that does not depend on the constitutional issue says Joyce McMillan

There is a mistaken belief south of the border that Brexit makes Scottish independence inevitable. Picture: Getty
There is a mistaken belief south of the border that Brexit makes Scottish independence inevitable. Picture: Getty

The Twitter message on my screen is short, and a little desperate. “Come on Scotland,” it says, “blaze a trail out of this mess.”

It’s a response from a well-known London-based writer and commentator to a post-Brexit-vote news story that the Westminster government may not “allow” Scotland to hold another independence referendum; and it sums up the attitude that many on the English left and centre-left are now taking, to the matter of Scottish independence.

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Back in 2014, many of them opposed the idea, dreading the prospect of an England with what seems, at the moment, like a permanent Tory majority.

Now, though, since the EU referendum, it’s become fashionable on the London left to proclaim Scotland’s exit from the UK all but inevitable; and to argue that it will be a good thing if at least part of the UK stands up to the current tide of xenophobic and isolationist thinking, and refuses to become part of it.

The problem is, though, that from a Scottish perspective, this latest wave of metropolitan enthusiasm for a Scottish breakaway seems like just another example of London conjuring up whatever Scotland - wild, romantic, or social democratic - it happens to need at the time.

Part of the blame, of course, lies with Westminster’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Just as it encourages the Conservative Party to imagine it has overwhelming majority support in a nation where it won only 37 per cent of the vote at the last general election, so the SNP’s 45 per cent support in Scotland, filtered through the Westminster system, allows them to win more than 90 per cent of Scottish seats, and to create the impression, in London, that the party enjoys overwhelming support in Scotland.

Those of us who live here, though - with an electoral system that delivers a parliament broadly representative of the real balance of Scottish opinion - have a much clearer view of the situation; and what is obvious, from this angle, is that while the SNP remain by a long way Scotland’s most popular party, they do not have majority support in the nation, either for the project of Scottish independence, or for anything else.

This week’s tense negotiations over the Scottish budget certainly demonstrate the essential democratic virtue of this kind of system, as compared to the brutally majoritarian one now on display at Westminster.

At the moment, though, our clear view only serves to highlight how grim our situation is, as a small nation that has played out almost every card in its hand in the effort to stay on a social democratic path, and now faces the strong possibility of the complete failure of that project.

We must recognise that the future Scots broadly seemed to want, within the EU but also within the UK, has been put out of reach by events entirely beyond our control; that we are now faced with a brutal choice between a UK on the brink of profound change of a kind we opposed, and an EU weakened by the UK’s looming departure; and that faced with that choice, people in Scotland are still more likely to cling to Westminster than choose independence.

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The underlying question that arises - beneath all the sound and fury of the debate about a possible second referendum - is therefore about what people who really care for Scotland should do, now, to increase the country’s strength and resilience, in the testing times to come.

And whereas further recriminations about recent constitutional choices will only deepen Scotland’s painful divisions, it seems to me that it should not be beyond the wit of Scottish civil society - our universities, trade unions, environmental groups, women’s groups, business organisations, and others, working together - to begin to push our politics towards a clearer focus on our possible economic and social future, and to start to develop a vision that is both more credible than the 2013 White Paper on Scottish independence, and, in these sober times, more inspiring - a vision of a smallish northern nation that invests in sustainable energy at local as well as national level, that welcomes newcomers as an addition to its ageing working-age population, that stands up for human rights, that cherishes its distinctive voice in the world expressed through all the arts, and that, in the best Nordic style, protects the dynamism of its economy by making sure that the fruits of development are well distributed through society.

The key to making this kind of vision matter under current conditions, though, must be to decouple it to some extent from the debate on independence, and to look deeply into the factors that will shape everyday lives in Scotland whatever our constitutional arrangements.

If Scotland does face a second independence referendum before 2021, the existence of a new vision for the nation’s future will focus discussion, and provide either a stronger and more positive basis for a decision to stay in the UK, or - if Scotland opts for independence - the blueprint for an exciting new phase in our story.

And either way, it could protect us from the demons of despair that seem likely to stalk western politics in the coming years, offering a gleam of hope in a landscape that now seems likely to be marked, for some time, by increasing division, restriction, hatred and conflict.

The chances of such a document emerging are faint, of course; if it comes only from the Scottish Government it will not be able to play the same healing role, and it’s hard to imagine Scottish civil society currently rousing itself to the kind of massive effort it made in the 1990s, when it put together the plan - and the overwhelming popular support - for the Scottish Parliament we have today.

Yet this weekend marks the old Scottish quarter-day of Candlemas, always celebrated on 2 February.

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And so here, even if we are not yet ready to blaze a trail, I light a candle for the idea of Scotland’s fair, prosperous and sustainable future, and for those who are willing to work for it; in the hope that these troubled times will begin - like dark times before them - to produce the vision we need, to bring us through into better days.