In August 2014, completely out of the blue, I got a call from a Norwegian television journalist and writer called Annette Groth. She had heard me on Radio Four taking part in a programme about Scotland’s imminent independence referendum, and wanted to talk to me. I took her to a public debate, and the interviews and footage she took formed the basis of a programme she would later make for her channel, NRK.
In the pub, after the meeting, she told me stories about meeting Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley (she’d covered Northern Ireland during The Troubles) and Nelson Mandela. Being with Annette was like encountering an eye-witness to history, and remains one of the privileges of my life. She returned to Stranraer in 2017 to meet me again as part of her research for her now published book on the British Isles in the age of Brexit.
Yesterday, she contacted me again with a simple question. “Will Scotland be independent?”
This is my answer to her question, and she has kindly allowed me to share it with you.
It was wonderful to hear from you and I’m delighted to learn that you are fully recovered from Covid 19. We are all fine here – both Mhairi and I are continuing to work and the boys are back at school. I worry about their future though – the furlough scheme ends next month, Brexit is definitely happening and this devolution-breaking, peace-threatening (something I know is close to your heart) international treaty breaking Internal Market Bill went through the House of Commons last night. Although twenty-one Conservative members abstained, every single Scottish Tory voted to effectively end devolution. The Secretary of State for Scotland, my local MP, voted against Scotland. These are the worst of times.
The issue is being debated in Holyrood next week, and in my opinion any MSP who fails to support the protection of the devolution settlement from a power grab forfeits their right to sit in chamber. If a person votes against the effective existence of the parliament that they sit in, then what is the point of them? And why are they here? Such is the madness of outsourcing your democracy to an alien political culture.
Our Edinburgh parliament has already voted not to support it, but with an eighty seat majority in London they pretty much do as they please, and have driven coach and horses through a devolution settlement voted for by 74% of Scotland back in 1997.
As to the your question of the likelihood of Scotland’s independence, the word I keep thinking about is “timing”.
Firstly, some good news for the growing number of us who see Scotland’s future as a normal independent country.
The last six opinion polls have support for Yes at 53-55%. That is of course a complete reversal of 2014. There’s also a leaked poll commissioned by the UK Government that puts Yes at 56%. Support amongst young people (who are the important ones here) is 80:20. Interestingly, 40% of Scottish Labour voters now support independence, so unless they continue to blindly champion the union they will continue to be irrelevant – something that Kier Starmer has come to realise. Even some Tories are openly admitting that denying democracy isn’t a good look and, as a position, unsustainable in the long term. Brexit and Covid (and in particular the way Scotland has tackled both issues) has seen support rise to a place where it is now the settled will of the people of Scotland.
I think what people sometimes don’t appreciate is that the UK that joined the EEC in ‘75 was a wholly different beast to the one leaving the EU in 2020, because we now have a devolution settlement that is inconveniently getting in the way of the hard Brexit that has been the objective of these disaster capitalists from the start. Brexit has simply proven the truth of Enoch Powell’s great maxim: “power devolved is power retained”. The internal market bill effectively gives a veto over all Holyrood legislation. It will also allow Westminster to repeal standing Scottish legislation if it breaches so called “mutual recognition” – which means, for example, that they could repeal our successful laws on minimum alcohol pricing whilst controlling funding over devolved areas – and, make no mistake, that funding will go towards shoring up votes in Tory marginal seats, and there are precious few of those north of Carlisle. Scotland will effectively be starved of funding.
That’s why I say “timing”.
In 2012, Westminster granted a section 30 order allowing a referendum – because they thought they’d win by miles. In the end, they only got over the line by breaking purdah, tampering with postal votes (something the Scottish Conservative leader admitted) and politicising the treasury and the civil service, many of whose members were rewarded for their loyalty with gongs and life peerages.
So there’s two issues here.
One, I wouldn’t entrust the running of a second referendum to a Westminster that cannot be trusted. And, two, Johnson won’t grant a vote when he knows he’ll lose.
And there’s a third, crucial “timing” issue. Brexit is happening. The internal market bill is now law. And Covid is getting worse – mass unemployment and civil disobedience will follow. Westminster may enact emergency powers and suspend devolved governance. Without a structure of administration in Scotland we can’t call a vote, far less win one. And we don’t have Scottish elections until May 2021. That will be too late. And what is the point in a Brave New World in which the earth is scorched ?
So here’s a shorter answer to the question. Scotland can win its independence but we cannot wait. We must get on the front foot and call an election before a) the power grab and b) Brexit. A nationalist majority would then view the result as a mandate to begin the process of withdrawing from the United Kingdom. And, in the meantime we talk to the EU about becoming the new 28th member and about currency – we absolutely cannot be tied to a discredited, devalued, post-Brexit sterling.
My hunch is that the Internal Market Bill will in time be seen as the tipping point, and that all this will end up in court. Interestingly, Joanna Cherry QC MSP – who successfully stopped Boris Johnson’s prorogment of Parliament – notes that the IMB actually breaks the 1707 Act of Union because the act enshrines an obligation to respect the Scots Law that devolution is written into. If that proves to be so, Westminster has – as with Ireland, as with Europe – acted in bad faith and broken an international treaty and Scotland is well within its rights under international law to simply walk out of the room.
That is perhaps a longer answer than you needed, and if so, I’ll end with a shorter one.
As we say in Scotland, “nae tide hauds back forever”. In other words, some forces are simply too strong to resist. I sincerely believe that this is the case for a Scotland that yearns to right a three centuries old wrong and return to the mundane and imperfect normality of self-government enjoyed by democracies across the world.
Wishing you well with the speech, continuing good health, and every success with the book.
When this is over, come to Scotland. I’m buying.