Scottish independence referendum is welcome in these bleak times

Scottish independence referendum is welcome in these bleak times
7 min read
15 Mar, 2017
Comment: And it is precisely these times that have made this referendum necessary, writes Sam Hamad.

As a lifelong supporter of Scottish independence from the UK, I'm not going to pretend the announcement from Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, that she would begin proceedings for a second referendum is not an extremely welcome political development in otherwise bleak times. 

But it's precisely these bleak times that have made another independence referendum necessary. 

What's more, most proponents of Scottish independence - including the governing Scottish National Party (SNP) - certainly didn't want a second independence in these circumstances, namely the now certainty of the UK leaving the European Union with a "hard Brexit".

The SNP campaigned vociferously for the UK to remain part of the EU. It was, after all, Sturgeon that proposed to David Cameron that something as important as a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU ought to be binding only if it were agreed in every constituent nation of the UK. 

This is the standard practice of referenda in most democracies that have a federal or devolved power set up.  Of course, then Prime Minister David Cameron rejected this.

The lacklustre Remain campaign faltered and the Leave vote won in England and Wales by decent margins, but the opposite happened in Scotland and Northern Ireland. An overwhelming majority of Scots, some 62 percent of us, voted to Remain in the EU. 

The British government were well-warned by the SNP government in Edinburgh that an imbalance in the vote between Scotland and its southern neighbour would lead to the possibility of a second independence referendum. 

In their manifesto for the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2016, the SNP vowed very clearly that a second independence referendum would be likely "if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will".

Despite Theresa May's claims that the Scottish government has no mandate to enact a referendum, the SNP won the 2016 election on that manifesto with an unprecedented 47 percent of the vote, compared with the Tory government's mere 36 percent share of the vote - whihc was enough, seemingly, to empower them to hold a referendum on EU membership. 

And Theresa May has played a central role in ensuring that a second independence referendum is likely. Upon being appointed prime minister by the Conservative 1922 committee, Theresa May first struck a conciliatory tone when it came to recognising the imbalance of the EU referendum vote between England and Scotland. 

In July 2016, May pledged that she "won't be triggering Article 50 until I think we have a UK-wide approach and objectives to negotiations".

The Scottish government requested that Scotland be allowed to retain access to the European Single Market, as well as assurances on guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens resident in Scotland. But these proposals were completely ignored by Theresa May 



Taking the lead from May's inclusive tone, the SNP drew up proposals. In fact, contrary to the media that seek to portray the SNP as exploiting the situation with Brexit to further their own pro-independence interests, their proposals offered several concessions. 

There was no demand for a second referendum, nor did they seek to undermine the democratic will of those who voted for Brexit. Instead, the Scottish government requested that Scotland be allowed to retain access to the European Single Market (ESM), as well as assurances on guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens resident in Scotland.

But these proposals were completely ignored by May. The ambition of the British government was now to have a hard Brexit. Membership of the ESM requires freedom of movement for workers within the EU, but this, as May stated very clearly, was completely unthinkable - after all, the Leave vote had been won due to appeals to nativist, xenophobic English and British nationalism. 

This kind of politics is now central to the British government and is demonstrably much more valued than the democratic will of Scots to remain in the EU.

Sturgeon was therefore forced to move towards a second independence referendum. It is the only logical response to what she called "the wall of intransigence" with which her attempts to reason with May have been met. Scottish independence is the only means through which Scotland's democratic will to remain in the EU can be reasonably applied - the Scottish government gave May ample opportunity to avert this from happening. 

 
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Indeed, Sturgeon is still allowing the British government the opportunity to stop a second independence referendum by offering any sort of compromise over the ESM - but to no avail. 

And this gets to the heart of the wider issue for Scotland of the insufficiency of the British Union as a supposedly democratic institution. Even beyond the issue of Brexit, Scotland, as a member of the Union, faces a democratic deficit - Scotland as a nation elected one Conservative MP, yet it is still subject to Tory policies that adversely affect Scottish society. 

For example, the budget given to the Scottish government every year by the British government has been subject to austerity cuts by the Tories, making it difficult for the SNP to enact their progressive programme. The Scottish government has been forced to use its precious resources to avert Tory policies that were overwhelmingly rejected in Scotland. 

When Scotland first elected the SNP in 2007, it was the culmination of a rebellion of Scottish voters against a Labour Party that had shifted to the right and was the primary antagonist in UK involvement in the criminal Iraq War. 

The SNP reflects a civic form of Scottish nationalism that is overwhelmingly on the progressive left economically, while opposed to war and the imperialistic policies of the British government. In 2011, after enacting a series of popular reforms to the left of Labour, the SNP rather unthinkably "broke the system" at the Scottish parliament and won an overall majority, paving the way for the independence referendum of 2014.

Scottish political culture when it comes to the economy, particularly the consensus of hardline neoliberalism and the subsequent Tory austerity that has devastated public services and ruined people's lives, are generally more progressive than that of England. 

While in England, the dominant narrative is that immigration is the root of all evil, Scots have for the past ten years voted for a party and devolved government that is openly pro-immigration



The Brexit vote was one signifier of this wider political disparity - while, in England, the strain on public services was blamed completely irrationally on immigration and thus the EU, in Scotland, the blame was allocated to those responsible for straining such public services through cuts and stealth privatisation of things like the NHS, namely the British government. 

While in England, the dominant narrative is that immigration is the root of all evil, Scots have for the past ten years voted for a party and devolved government that is openly pro-immigration and has been at the forefront of campaigns to get the callous British government to take in more Syrian refugees. 

While the British parliament recently voted down an amendment to the Brexit bill that would guarantee the rights of EU citizens, the Scottish government has sought to reassure EU citizens that they are their rights are secured and they, themselves, are safe in Scotland. 

With Labour offering no coherent opposition, Britain faces decades of uninterrupted Tory rule. The choice will rightfully be portrayed as one between a progressive European Scotland and a UK ruled by an inward-looking, increasingly xenophobic Tory government.

During the first independence referendum, the British government and the main Unionist parties all united to make a "vow" to Scotland that, should it vote to stay in the Union, it would have an "equal voice" to the rest of the UK - and the Scottish government would be given powers that would combat the ideological disparity. 

Well, Scots did vote to stay in the Union, but the vow was never delivered. Given Theresa May has completely ignored the democratic will of Scots to remain in the EU, it seems as if the issues that led to the first Scottish independence referendum have not only been completely ignored, but have been given an entirely new logic.

If the British Union dies, its gravediggers will have been the British government itself. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.