If you’re on Facebook, you’ll be familiar with being asked to “share” a memory. I’ve been asked to share a lot of memories in the last couple of weeks, as three years ago was the moment when my country had the chance to take charge of its own destiny for the first time in three hundred and seven years. All that needed to happen was enough of us putting a cross in a box, enough of us to have the faith that actually it’s a good idea for Scots to have control over their own affairs rather than a parliament that is eighty five percent English. To pursue our own destiny rather than that chosen by whoever happens to be in charge in London.
Three years ago, we bottled it. Choked. We were clean through and round the keeper, and we shanked it wide.
In the twenty or so years during which Scotland’s parliament reconvened, it had real power for less than a day. The fifteen hours during which the polls were open on September 18th 2014. On the first minute of September 19th 2014, we gave it back. All of it.
Three years ago this week, Scotland voted No after being told that all sorts of horrendous things were going to happen if we voted Yes. Our currency would be worthless. We’d lose the Triple A credit rating. There would be a rise in right wing extremism. Ships wouldn’t get built on the Clyde. Tax office jobs in East Kilbride would be lost. Austerity would get worse. The economy would take a hit that it might never recover from. Scotland would be ripped out of the European Union and isolated from the rest of the world. Scotland would have no voice or influence in any international body and would be unable to have any influence on UK government policy either. The United Kingdom would be a smaller and diminished place that had become the laughing stock of the world.
Wait, haud on……
It’s revealing to look back on my social media timeline from that momentous week. During the few days around the vote of September 18th, I didn’t post a thing. I’d been at a dairy event in Shropshire on the 17th, and not for the first time I was heartened by the warmth of the English people, who offered a hand of friendship and wished me luck, in a gesture as far away from Ed Milliband’s dire warnings of familial division as it’s possible to imagine. On the day of the vote itself, I was too busy trying to get the Yes vote out to bother with social media, and by ten o’ clock I was already in Dumfries for the count. My self-imposed social media blackout for the 19th is even easier to explain. I was blootered.
In light of where we are now, the things I wrote in the weeks leading up to the vote are much more intriguing. I found an audio clip of myself taking part in a short farming debate on Radio Scotland, and I have to say this: it has aged rather well.
Essentially, the “No” speaker told us about all the bad things that would happen if we voted Yes. I asked people to think about what Scottish farming and the wider Scottish nation would look like if we voted No. I raised the spectre, for example, of promises of new powers being shelved (or at least watered down) as Westminster parked the troublesome Scottish Question and put all its energies into the May 2015 election – the result of which could see a European referendum that could see Scotland leaving the EU despite voting overwhelmingly to stay. The only detail I got wrong was the year – Brexit came a year early. Equally, many things have happened that I couldn’t have foreseen. Maybe nobody could.
There was a belief amongst No voters that a defeat for independence supporters would – and should – have been the end of the matter. That we should move on. That we should all respect the result and that things would just continue as before. That we should eat our cereal and get back in our box. You’ve made your point. Now move on.
It is now obvious that this was never going to happen. For a start, the vote has been respected – we are, after all, still part of the UK. But perhaps the better response is this. As old Harold MacMillan said, it’s about “events, dear boy, events”. Circumstances change. Stuff happens. Democracy is a process, not an event, and a one-off vote doesn’t invalidate any future democratic choices, regardless of how much the Daily Mail and Ruth Davidson say that it should. By their logic, we’d never hold another election, ever. One suspects they’d like that just fine.
But it’s 2017 and we are where we are. And yet I look at people who voted against Scotland in 2014 and hear them, rightly, voicing concerns about powers – 111 of them – being “re-reserved” to Westminster as part of the Great Repeal Bill. About the non-arrival of European Convergence Uplift monies for the 85% of our farmland that is designated Less Favoured. About the “Barnettisation” of financial support that could devastate our remote hill farms.
And I listen to all this and I think: what the hell did you think was going to happen?
Because make no mistake, our catastrophic decision to stay within the United Kingdom was never going to be seen as a gesture of trust, but as a sign of weakness. You don’t lose the war and then get to dictate the terms of the armistice. By choosing to lose in 2014, we gave away the best – the only – bargaining chip that we had: the possibility that we could become an independent nation. The narrative since 2014 has been about Westminster exploiting that weakness. It was always going to. It’s what the establishment does.
Often, it’s only with years of hindsight that we see the true picture, but the timeline since 2014 seems very clear. What we are witnessing is an assault not just on independence but on Scottish Democracy itself.
Post September 18th, the vow of enhanced devolution lasted about ten minutes, after which David Cameron came to the front of Number 10 and announced EVEL, effectively reducing Scottish MPs to second class citizens. The unionist parties – Labour in particular, made sure that the Smith Commission was as watered down as possible, so that new tax powers were income-tax only. They knew fine, of course, that they were setting Scotland up to fail. As the block grant is reduced, an SNP Government can do one of two things: it can cut public services or it can raise income tax. Therefore, anything Holyrood does is portrayed in the unionist media as one of two things – Tartan austerity or the highest taxed place in the UK. We are trapped. Heads they win, tails we lose.
Then, and unexpectedly, the Tories won a majority in the 2015 General Election and were compelled to hold an EU referendum – which, of course, Leave won.
This was the moment when things really started to go backwards for Scotland, who faced being taken out of the EU against its democratically expressed wishes.
But as I’ve argued before, for all its awfulness, Brexit provides an opportunity for Scotland. We are lucky. We have something that the people in England who voted to remain don’t have – a lifeboat.
We were told in 2014 that we were better together, that we were an equal and valued member of our precious family of nations. I knew it was baloney then. Now we all should.
Brexit provides a clarity that wasn’t there three years ago. Back then, we thought our powers were permanent and sovereign. And yet, when the Westminster’s government’s wish to bypass parliament over the triggering of Article 50 was challenged, the Supreme Court ruled that it required an Act of Parliament; but it also stated that none of the devolved administrations need be consulted over Brexit – or anything else. The Sewel convention was therefore ruled to be just that – a political convention, not a law.
The house of cards is wobbling. The Scottish Parliament is neither permanent nor sovereign. Our powers are lent, not given. Power devolved is power retained. Brexit is seeing every single power that we fought so hard to win being “re-reserved” and we’ll only get back those, if any, that London sees fit to return.
And then this. The Scottish Government has already democratically passed the Section 30 bill. It has a pro-independence majority in Edinburgh. More than half of Scottish MPs want independence. The current administration came to power in 2016 on a manifesto pledge to seek a second plebiscite if Scotland were to be taken out of the EU against its democratically expressed wish. That’s as triple-locked, cast-iron, unarguable mandate as you could possibly imagine.
And yet it’s not recognised by the unionist parties in Holyrood, who say there is no mandate at all. This is, at the same time, democratically indefensible and a clear statement that they do not consider the Scottish Parliament as sovereign. Which is to say that Britain, not Scotland, is their country. That Scotland is not a country at all. This is your Brave New World.
This should worry every single person in Scotland. It is perfectly legitimate to believe that Scotland should not be independent, and if you believe that then you should make the case. I’m all ears. But it is entirely illegitimate to deny the right of the democratic majority to ever pose the question, particularly when the parliament you sit in has voted to do precisely that. That, regardless of your views on the constitution, is a flat-out assault on democracy itself.
So: Holyrood isn’t permanent or sovereign. The DUP bung has ended Barnett. The Supreme Court ruling means that anything passed by Westminster in our name is legally watertight. The endgame is the rolling back of the devolution settlement and the end of the Scottish Parliament itself.
It won’t happen overnight, but Brexit provides the opportunity to take as many powers away from Scotland as possible, making it impossible to grow our economy and thus removing the case for independence. And even if we then tried again, who would support us? We’ll have left the EU by then and have no higher authority to appeal to for support. And we’ll get no change whatsoever from an emboldened establishment who will now be in charge forever. But, hey, look on the bright side. At least we won’t have the inconvenience of another of those terribly divisive referendums, and we’ll be spared the embarrassment of sometimes having to disagree with another human being. We’ll avoid the hassle of walking to the village hall to put a cross in a box. What a pain in the arse that is, eh?
We voted No in 2014 but It’s high time to take a look at ourselves because we’ve reached a point where stubbornness just becomes bloody stupid. Time to look at our country and what’s being done to it. Time to imagine our children’s future in a place where the government says you don’t matter. A future outside the world’s biggest market and the most integrated trading of westernised democracies. It’s time we got over ourselves.
We’re three years on from the most calamitous decision in Scottish history. Scotland has never been afraid to think large. And to think for ourselves.
Time for all of us to think again. Today would be as good a place to start as any.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News