The debate over Scotland’s future must go beyond independence versus union


“The way forward must be an open, civil debate that looks at the issues and puts forward all the options for Scotland’s future.”

This week, Nicola Sturgeon launched a new campaign for an independence referendum in 2023.

Polls show that regardless of opinion on whether or not Scotland should be an independent country, the majority of the Scottish public do not believe a referendum should be held next year. I would say the SNP do not believe there will be a referendum next year, their announcement is more about stoking the division to win most of the Westminster seats in Scotland in the next general election.

That said, I am of the view that the constitutional impasse in which Scotland finds itself is unsustainable, results in bad government and rewards political parties for maintaining divisions, so we need to find a way to track and fix the problem. While it is hard to see how the issue will be resolved without another referendum, it is certainly not for next year and it cannot simply be on SNP terms.

For eight years now, pro-independence parties have been preaching to converts that Scotland’s problems can only be solved by independence. Likewise, pro-Union parties simply ignored half the population and claimed that the 2014 referendum settled all outstanding questions about Scotland’s future.

This has led to a Scottish political landscape where, for many, the only question that matters is whether you are for or against independence. We have a government in Scotland which is failing on so many fronts and yet with half the population supporting independence and voting for the independence party, whatever their performance in government they are guaranteed to win the most large number of votes and seats.

The other parties continue to play their part in maintaining a polarized electorate, immediately pushing the ‘NEVER’ approach reinforcing the deep divide within Scottish society. The main mantra of the Unionist parties is to tell the SNP to get on with its day job, but too often the day job mitigates the worst impacts of a broken Westminster system and corrupt Tory government. For example, since 2017 Scotland has budgeted £349 million for room tax mitigation and £80.4 million to mitigate the impact of other welfare reforms to protect some of our country’s most vulnerable.

For me, the pressing question is what is the vision of the SNP for the future, how our economy will work and, above all, the role of the state. We hear the rhetoric of nationalizing public services, but the reality is marked government privatization – just look at their proposals for a national care service that is little more than a centralized supply system. We get ill-thought-out state interventions with short-term public relations gains but a lack of long-term sustainability planning. Look at BiFab, in principle a victory for the government which saved a vital company from the administration. But by selling plots of the controversial ScotWind project to the highest bidder with no guarantees for Scottish manufacturing, the SNP is once again rewarding private profiteers at the expense of the jobs they were meant to save. Going forward in this direction, if the SNP gets its independent Scotland, it will mean that it will simply preside over the private playground of the already wealthy.

This is why I believe that the discussion on the constitution is necessary. Not a conversation about simply ‘yes or no’ to an independent Scotland, but a look at the direction of travel for our country, what can be done with the powers Scotland has and what additional powers it needs to achieve to a fairer, more just and equal society.

So let’s not run away from this debate, but let’s engage and, in doing so, make it clear that no party has ownership of the terms of the debate or the conditions for holding a future referendum and the questions that would be put to the people . The SNP says there would be no room for the Electoral Commission to test a question as they want a binary yes or no question and say it was tested less than 8 years ago. My own view is that the ‘Home Rule’ option should be seen as part of the debate, but regardless, the significant and material change since 2014 as a result of Brexit for which Scotland is not ‘not voted’ means the same binary choice can no longer be on the table. The SNP is now proposing independence within Europe which means a hard border with England as we see with the Northern Ireland protocol and that means a different proposal from 2014.

I keep hearing politicians talk about ending division and healing the nation, but you can’t do either by telling 50% of the population they’re wrong. The way forward must be an open and civil debate that looks at the issues and presents all the options for Scotland’s future.

Alex Rowley is a Scottish Labor MSP for the Central Scotland and Fife region

Image credit: Lawrence OP – Creative Commons

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