Boris Johnson’s ‘charm offensive’ in Scotland ended up being more offensive than charm, and showed just how dire the debate on independence may turn out to be. As Scottish politicians attacked Johnson for daring to venture north, the prime minister, having previously claimed that Scottish devolution had been a “disaster”, now decided that the moment called on him to argue that independence was “irrelevant” to most Scots.
Journalists have rightly pointed out how both sides’ positions are essentially reversed from where they were on Brexit. This mirror image was best described by Philip Collins in the New Statesman:
“One side of the argument runs that a country should be an independent, sovereign unit. Boris Johnson on Brexit turns into Nicola Sturgeon on Scottish independence. This is then countered by the case that we are richer together and it is foolish to impoverish ourselves for a fantasy account of national sovereignty in a networked world. Johnson on Scottish independence is indistinguishable from Sturgeon on Brexit.”
In many ways, the argument is just Brexit on steroids. Just as the control that Westminster has over Scotland is greater than that which Brussels had over Britain, so too are Scotland and England bound tighter than the UK and Europe were. The separation negotiations would take even longer, and be even more acrimonious, not to mention the difficulties of erecting another land border.
It is for that very reason that we owe it to the people of Scotland to raise the level of the debate above the rhetoric of both supporters and opponents of independence. If you truly want Scotland to stay in the Union, you need to recognise that, since the new millennium, wars, austerity, and Brexit were all forced upon the country against its will, and that it needs to have a greater say in its own affairs.
On the other hand, if you genuinely think that Scotland is better off on its own, you’re going to do the country no good in the long-term by glossing over the potential trade-offs.
We’ve all seen first-hand the consequences of the poor quality of the Brexit debate. A close result, accusations of dishonesty, and uncertainty of what Brexit should look like, led to the result lacking legitimacy in the eyes many Remainers, whose outcome took years of toxic debate to settle. Whatever the results of another independence referendum, it’s unlikely that it would be immune from these same issues.
If we are to learn from these mistakes, then we should ensure that the following. Firstly, Johnson should not stand in the way of another referendum, particularly if a pro-independence government is returned to Holyrood in May. Moreover, in the event that the people of Scotland choose to leave, whatever deal is reached should be subject to a confirmatory referendum.
Finally, we should approach this debate with solemnity rather than rage, and recognise the sorry state of affairs that has led to one nation of the United Kingdom considering the risks of independence just to separate itself from Westminster’s poor governance.
No one really knows whether Scottish independence is a good thing or not, but both sides shouting at each other for months on end will not help us get any closer to an answer. Only if each camp recognises the complexity of the debate, and pledges to make union or separation a success, whatever the result, will we do right by those who will be impacted by the decision.