Burden of Proof

By Alec Ross

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!” (Robert Burns)

Alec RossHere’s a question. If the union didn’t exist, would we join it?

I only ask because in 2014, in the fevered weeks before Scotland’s first independence referendum, this was essentially the question posed by a farmer at meeting hosted by a Lanarkshire farmer. 

And this is essentially what she said. 

What if we asked the question the other way round? What if we looked through the looking glass from the opposite side?

Imagine, she said, an independent nation being asked to decide whether to surrender its sovereignty to a larger union. It would be allowed a measure of autonomy, sure, but the important stuff would be handed to another nation. It would be used as a military base by the dominant power and yoked to an economic model over which it had ceded all control. 

It would have to be  desperate, she said. Only a nation in which the institutions of governance had collapsed or which had been economically devastated would even begin to consider such a wanton act of self-harm. Essentially, it boils down to this: who speaks for Scotland? Does Scotland decide what is best for Scotland, or do we outsource those decisions to a different country whose government we didn’t vote for, and whose removal will never be in our gift?

Essentially, she said, that’s it. Is Scotland a country or is it not? Who shall speak for Scotland? The rest – currency, the colour of your passport, our future relationship with our European friends – is noise. Independence gives us the power to be normal, to have the powers to decide all of these things and more. Powers that absolutely every other democracy on the planet takes for granted. Powers that are denied Scotland, even by – no, consistently by – people who sit in an Edinburgh parliament paid for by all of us. Which begs – once again – the question for Scotland’s chief British Nationalist party. If you vote against the very parliament – and the very country – in which you sit and whose people you represent from the proceeds of their taxes: what, pray, is the point of you? And why are you still here?

As ithers see us

For me, the biggest obstacle faced by those who in 2014 were advocating the banal, workaday, normality of an independence status enjoyed by pretty much everybody else was that we were always on the back foot. We were forever begging for a piece of what should be – is – ours by right. It always fell on us to make the case for what was clearly a no-brainer. The case for Scotland voting against independence- you’ll be in diplomatic exile, you’ll lose the HMRC jobs, you’ll be booted out of the EU, there there’ll be a lurch to the right – is now utterly discredited.

Aye. Right enough. Remind me, how did that go?

We need to change the burden of proof. Not so much “can Scotland be independent?”, but “why can’t it be?”; and “what are the consequences for Scotland if it is not?”. What was it Robert Kennedy said?

“Some people see things as the are and ask why. I see things as they never were and ask ‘why not’?”

I’ll tell you why not.

On the way down to Wales on Tuesday I stopped off for dinner and discussion with the guy whose business I bought last year. Despite living in Worcestershire and having no connection to Scotland aside from knowing me, he is a firm supporter of Scottish independence.  Frankly, when we meet we talk of little else.

He opened Tuesday’s discussion with a mild rebuke. “In all the years I’ve known you”, he said, “you’ve never told me that Scotland needed permission to hold a referendum. I couldn’t believe that when I read it. That’s appalling”.

It’s revealing that he was able, from being one remove away from the debate, someone outside the bubble, to make me see ourselves as ithers see us. To point out that this outrage – having to beg simply to ask to vote for a state of affairs that everybody else sees as a fundamental reality – is, like meekly accepting the outsourcing of our democracy, is abnormal. The very fact permission has to be granted means that we cannot possibly be in an equal union. We are by definition a subjugated junior partner. But many of us don’t see it, so long have we lived with it.

“Eight years in it, feels like you’re gonna die   

But you get used to anything 

Sooner or later it just becomes your life”, sings Bruce Springsteen.

Eight years? Try three hundred and twelve.

We accept the unacceptable. It was fascinating watching and listening to the way the stations reported on the European election results. It seemed to be a rolling loop about the rise of Farage and the disastrous result for the Conservatives in England. It felt very much as if everyone was afraid to talk about – or had made a pact not to mention – the tartan elephant in the room. Scotland voted de facto to remain. Even Orkney and Shetland voted for the Liberal Democrats – who campaigned on a “Bollocks to Brexit” ticket (which beats “Strong and Stable”, you have to admit). It was almost like they realised that try as they might the overwhelming evidence – that Scotland is on a diametrically polar opposite journey to England – meant that they simply couldn’t fashion an “SNP / independence bad” story meant that all they had left was to simply ignore it. 

I sometimes feel that the mainstream media, when presented with some of the best material and the most turbulent and interesting environment to record it, has utterly choked. Blown it. Missed a sitter. Rather than write nuanced copy about the shifting sands of British – and, especially, Scottish – politics, it goes for the low hanging fruit of who will be the “Next Prime Minister Who Can’t Deliver Brexit” to be elected by 0.2 percent of the population. Which is why The Scotsman’s circulation figures are slightly below those of the Stornaway Gazette. Hell mend them. You reap what you sow.

Incidentally – at the time of writing, the odds on Boris Johnson have shortened alarmingly. Aye, that Boris Johnson. The Boris Johnson who was sacked twice for dishonesty, who was described by Tory advisors as “never prepared” and “an embarrassment”, who called black people “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and compared Muslim women to bank robbers. A charmer.

So this is my occasional reminder to No voters. You casually handed Scotland’s democracy to these people. It’s your fault. You need to take ownership.

It seems that just about every Tory wannabe – from Ruth Davidson up (although “up” is relative – the bar is low) is trying to outdo the next one in the “I won’t allow Scotland a vote” stakes. Which brings me to another couple of concerns about the media.

Firstly, it’s poor form when it seems that absolutely nobody is asking Scotland’s democracy-denier-in-chief Ruth Davidson why she now would deny Scotland a second vote on its future when she said she wouldn’t oppose one as recently as 2016. Or, for that, why she would now serve the Poundshop Trump that is Johnson when she had previously ruled that out. These are, surely, obvious questions to ask.

But Ruth has made a career out of this. Politicians are signposts or weathervanes, said Tony Benn. By that benchmark, this lassie is birlin’ in a storm. And if you try to appease everybody you end up with nobody. Her “no to a second referendum” schtick has now lost her four elections on the bounce. Even unionists are rumbling her as the one-trick pony that I always knew she was.

So we can largely ignore a woman and the words that even her core support know to be baloney. So let’s talk about something much more important. Which is this.

The Scottish government has about as big a mandate to hold a second and decisive independence referendum as it’s possible to imagine. Scotland has a majority of pro-independence MPs in Westminster (Thatcher herself saw this as not just a mandate for a vote, but for independence itself). It has an independence majority in Holyrood. The SNP manifesto explicitly states that there may be a second plebiscite in the event of a material change of circumstances. Like being booted out of an EU we want to stay in by a another country’s government that we didn’t vote for. And last week’s election was Scotland saying: Brexit? Not in my name. Now is not the time.

It’s always been accepted as fact that Scotland needs the permission of its neighbour to ask the question – again – about independence. Well, mebbes aye. And mebbes no.

Look beyond the bluster and this has been a good week for Scotland.

As it is framed, this week’s referendum bill is clearly within the competence of Holyrood and cannot be challenged as dealing with matters reserved to Westminster. Legal challenges to an independence referendum are now far more difficult. Sixteen year olds have the vote. The framing of the process has now been placed in Scotland’s hands. I wrote a piece last week expressing my frustration at the perceived reluctance of the Scottish Government to call a second independence referendum immediately. Maybe I was hasty. 

Last week, Mike Russell played a blinder. Independence is now within our competence.  And it is now not a matter of if – but of when.

At the end of a turbulent week, Scotland has made it clear. It’s our call. 

Let’s finish this.

Alba gu bràth

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9 replies »

  1. Left me with a smile. What a piece of writing.
    I’ll be circulating this to some ‘No’ friends.

  2. Thank you for another good article Alec … pleased to say that, following recent Crowdfunder, we expect to have the Dumfries & Galloway Indy Hub van on the road next month – taking the positive Indy message across our Dum Gal region and beyond …

  3. The Trump in The Whitehouse…..Bonking Boris in Number 10…..has anyone seen ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’?

    • Hi Rae – I never used my personal FB account to share anything political, until I found an article by Alec on Orkney News – good balanced article, so I shared it .. and family read it because they didn’t find ‘Orkney News’ intimidating … nobody did as much as a ‘like tick’ but, when we got together at a family gathering, a few folk said ‘been reading your stuff from Orkney News’ … I still limit very much what I put on personal fb – but Alec’s are certainly up there with the best …

      • Hi I C,
        Alec, as you say, gives a very balanced point of view. He manages to write a clear, concise article even when the subject is complicated.
        That makes easy, informed reading for the likes of myself.
        We need more down to earth writers in Scotland like Alec. Independence for our country would then be a dead cert 👍

  4. Outstanding article Alec, just had it sent to me on Facebook, well said and keep up the good work!

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