Rob Davidson

Is Scottish Independence now Liberal?

Support for Scottish independence is growing off the back of Boris Johnson’s handling of Brexit and Covid. Liberals have been pro-devolution but anti-independence for fairly Liberal reasons to date, but has Brexit changed all of that? Is Scottish independence now more Liberal than British unionism?

In 2014, when Scotland held the last independence referendum, I was living in Hong Kong. The SNP had declared that emigrant Scots wouldn’t be allowed to vote and so I was mercifully spared the need to make a decision on the issue.

I did have an opinion, but I was torn – the heart said “maybe” to independence; the head said “don’t be an eejit.” At the time I had two reasons for thinking it might be worth it overall:

First, I vaguely thought that having more tax powers could benefit Scotland the same way that it had benefited the Republic of Ireland: the smaller, poorer nations marginally undercutting their richer neighbours to attract companies, jobs and net tax gains. Similarly, immigration powers might help Scotland’s falling population (no Tory Home Secretary in Westminster would care about that).

The second reason was more prescient, as it turned out. I’d thought it would be more efficient and progressive for Scotland to be an independent EU member directly linked to Brussels instead of having a belligerent England always pulling us back from closer integration. But even I never thought we’d be Brexiting only a few years later.

Both of these were fairly Liberal notions that mildly favoured independence. Of course, lowering taxes can have illiberal consequences depending on the government in charge - but, as a general principle, localising powers to match local needs while seeking closer international integration to ensure regional cooperation are both Liberal aims.

On the other hand, nationalism and the mythology of Braveheartism didn’t seem terribly Liberal or helpful - and neither did all the economic projections based on oil revenue that were surely never going to materialise.

Back then, independence lost with a surprisingly narrow margin. Today, public support for independence has picked up a steady majority. Scots voters may not be entirely converted to the vision of sunlit uplands of independence, but they are definitely put off by Johnson and his approach to Brexit and Covid. The desire to leave is stronger than the dream of destination but it’s a strong desire nonetheless.

Has anything changed though?

It is clear that Brexit - and Johnson’s version of Brexit - are anything but Liberal. Potentially libertarian, perhaps, but the level of deregulation and race-to-the-bottom-ism is guaranteed to empower only a limited few, and reduce liberty overall.

Further, Johnson’s cronyism, plans to attack our independent watchdogs and to rig our constitutional mechanisms indicate a Britain that will soon rank high amongst the growing horde of ‘illiberal democracies.’

The same old arguments are being thrown about in favour of independence, but a new and convincing one is that Scotland should leave England behind so it can rejoin the EU.

Liberals have been strongly outspoken against Johnson, and his approach to Brexit too. It has been described as an "environmental disaster", worse than the "financial crash", it will "ruin our hospitality industry" (very important in Scotland) and that in the fallout over fishing, "lives will be lost". It’s fairly apparent that Liberals agree: Brexit Britain is a less Liberal, less progressive place.

With this backdrop, the question almost becomes: Why the heck should Scotland stay to be tied to such illiberal disaster? The economic disaster of separation has become "Scotland can’t afford to remain part of the union." The factionalism and divisiveness of breaking up a union has become "which union do you want to be part of?" and the EU is a bigger, more Liberal union than the UK has ever been.

But once again I find myself torn (and still not living in Scotland - so I’ll be spared from choosing, once again, if a second referendum does happen): I want Scotland to be a Liberal country that is closely integrated with the European Union – hell, any sort of close trade deal or EEA agreement would be better than what Johnson is aiming for. But I don’t want England to become a rogue “city-state”, left to its own devices, becoming ever more illiberal as the Tories dominate and corrupt for decades more.

This is where maybe I return to my Socialist roots rather than my Liberal ideals: We need to see this as a ‘global struggle.’ That doesn’t mean doing a Che Guevara and facilitating armed insurrection on the outskirts of Carlisle, but it does mean we can’t just cut our losses as one of our neighbours descends towards Singapore-on-Thames.

It is vital for Scotland’s future that Johnson and all his cronies get ousted from London, and that will happen much more easily with Scottish MPs going to Westminster. Sure, they might be SNP MPs or Lib Dem MPs or Labour MPs (and it might require a rainbow coalition) but we need a change of leadership in Britain, or else the only government cutting taxes and regulations to undermine their neighbours will be Tory England, not Scotland.

I think there is an argument to be made for Liberal solidarity: for derailing the illiberal democracy that is developing around Johnson, and for stabilising the region starting with our own backyard; not just jumping ship to join the bigger union.

Maybe all that puts the argument into a battle between two approaches to Liberalism. There is one that walks away, and there is one that stays to fight - but only one of those leads to a more Liberal future in the long run.

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