If Brexiteers Did Indy

“For now we see through a glass, darkly” – The Bible, 1 Corr 13:12

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Yesterday was the first meeting between the UK Brexit delegation and the EU delegation and, by many accounts, it has fallen far short of the UK’s expectations. David Davis spent months drumming up the “Strong and Stable” approach which would see both the divorce deal and the subsequent post-Brexit trade deal negotiated simultaneously. He was told on every front that this wouldn’t happen and simply brushed off the warnings. And then, when push came to shove…he finally accepted that he’s have to negotiate the divorce deal first. This is just the latest in a long string of failures and ineptitudes over the course of the UK’s handling of the whole farcical process and it got me thinking. If Scotland had voted Yes in 2014, what would it have looked like if the Scottish Government had handled that vote the way the UK has managed Brexit.

What if the hardcore Brexiteers did Indy?

Somewhere. In Another Scotland.

Spring 2013

The SNP have been ascendant. Under First Minister Alex Salmond, the party is now in the second year of its majority government. Salmond, who had always been known as a gradualist, had been reluctant to offer something as drastic as an independence referendum. He was far more interested in focusing on domestic policy such as his infamous Tunnocks Tax but after a couple of defections of MSPs to the fringe party Siol na h-Alba in 2010 it was inevitable that independence would have to be an option on the table.

TUNNOCK'S ALEX SALMOND

Salmond tried to soften the blow by concocting a plan by which he would take a package of offers to the UK Government and ask for a series of “more powers”. Only then would he present the case to Scotland to either accept his deal or to demand independence. The date of the referendum was set. 18th of September 2014.

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Winter 2013

The talks with the UK Government has not gone as well as hoped. The general impression in Westminster is, at best, one of “this again?” and whilst they eventually agreed to hand over a few concessions – Scotland would gain the ability to adjust income tax by a couple of pence in the pound and some obscure regulatory powers that no-one could really describe well would be shifted – but the overall impact was clearly going to be negligible. Salmond, of course, plays the whole thing as a glorious success. The Scottish Conservatives are no friends of independence welcome the successful deal with Westminster and pledge to endorse and support it.

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Spring 2014

The Independence Campaign is taking shape. Salmond would head up the Scottish Government’s “official” Remain campaign under the banner “Not Yet”. He’d play up the economic benefits of the close ties with the rest of the UK whilst emphasising the autonomy that Scotland had and would get in the future. In Salmond’s vision Scotland would take the path of Australia. A slow, decades long decoupling from the rest of the UK by which independence would eventually be achieved but…“not yet”.

This, of course, wasn’t going to be soon enough for some. In a shocking move, senior Scottish Government cabinet members Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney break with the “official” position and declare themselves for Leave. They take with them a substantial enough bloc of the SNP to form a rival campaign under the banner “Scotland Now”. The majority of activists from opposition parties such as the Greens, Socialists as well as a minority of members from Labour and the Lib Dems flock to their call for an independent Scotland within Europe.

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Meanwhile, Siol na h-Alba launches their Leave campaign from their constituencies of Brigadoon and Dunroamin pledging “Scotland for the Scots” and the complete severing of all ties with the rest of the UK as soon as possible. Harking back to Scotland’s past as a trading nation and playing up sentiments of traditional “warrior spirit” they are determined to court the most fringe elements of Scottish society to their cause. Though careful to avoid any direct accusations of racism, SnA leaders busily work with their pliant media contacts to insert dog-whistle phrases into their puff pieces. Media attention on the group has never been higher despite them still only having two MSPs (neither of whom were elected under the Siol na h-Alba ticket).

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Both Leave campaigns declare themselves to be the “official” voice of independence and register their interest as such to the Electoral Commission. There is a lot at stake as the official campaign would gain an increased campaign spending limit as well as direct government funding and representation on political broadcasts. After weeks of debate, the Commission eventually rules in favour of Sturgeon and Swinney’s Scotland Now.

Summer 2014

The campaigning is now fierce but cracks are beginning to show. Much of the debate has centred around things like the economy and immigration but the arguments are beginning to sound increasingly vacuous. Few debaters are willing to lay down solid plans or proposals of their own, preferring instead to attack the opposition whenever they mention something, anything. The same soundbites are repeated on the evening pundit shows. Shows like Question Time become dominated by debates about domestic policy and rarely do any clear answers emerge.

Scotland Now comes under increased scrutiny as it emerges that they have little idea about what, precisely, they wish to do with independence. Calls for an Independence White Paper begin to gain traction and the few media interviewers with the nuance to do so begin to ask about procedural questions such as how the Scottish Government would begin negotiations to disengage from the UK. The UK’s constitution, being an “unwritten” document is particularly vague on the subject and the previous examples of disengagement – Ireland and decolonisation – are not altogether helpful in the modern age. Questions, too, about the border, currency and other issues are answered only with platitudes and soundbites.

Not that the other Leave campaign is any better. Asked on what currency Scotland would use, Siol na h-Alba’s leader Niall McFergus simply said “No the Inglis yin!” and refused further questions.

With the date of the referendum fast approaching, public opinion begins to crystalise into two camps. Folk who are leaning towards Remain tend to say that they are concerned about the economy and are either supportive of more immigration to Scotland or are, at least, not bothered either way about it. Folk who are leaning towards Leave tend to say that they are worried about the levels of immigration to Scotland but are either less concerned about the economy or are convinced that it will thrive once the “shackles of Westminster regulation” are cut. The solid majority for Remain has begun to ebb slightly in the polls but little momentum is gained in either direction.

Autumn 2014

Scotland Now finally releases its Independence White Paper. A dismally short piece containing no real information whatsoever, it is ignored entirely by the now rabidly pro-Leave media and is noticed at all only by a few bloggers on social media.

The Not Yet campaign still appears to be on track for a solid victory, albeit not quite as large as once they hoped. Salmond remains as confident as ever behind the podium but, privately, whispers have emerged of apathy within his campaign. Activists are thin on the ground even in potentially target areas. There is little enthusiasm even among political wonks for his message of “the same but a little better”.

Siol na h-Alba releases an extremely divisive political attack advert showing expies of Sturgeon and Salmond personally welcoming crowds of people coming across the border at Gretna. Police Scotland warns of increased tension in communities but McFergus denies any racial connotations in the advert saying that no particular group was represented. They withdraw the ad later that day under the intense negative pressure but the message is sent and lands home with its intended target.

September 2014 – The Week of the Referendum

Siol na h-Alba kick the referendum off with a week of political stunts by organising a “Fête of Scottish Naval Might” by inviting “all patriotic trading vessels” to journey up the Clyde. The reception is…rather less than anticipated.

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McFergus blames media bias for only running photos of “empty stretches of river between gaps in the flotilla”. No photos of more crowded sections are forthcoming officially or otherwise.

Salmond is near invisible on the political scene although his press corps still doggedly assures a solid victory for Remain. The polls have been a statistical tie for weeks and Leave is still nudging upwards…

Brexiteer Indy Poll

Sturgeon and Swinney are seemingly never off the television at this point but a disastrous interview by Swinney on the final Sunday before the polls in which he struggles to outline any solid numbers about immigration figures is widely ridiculed although he does promise that in the event of a victory for Leave, his team will be ready to start negotiations “the following Monday”.

The Results

With a 65% turnout and margin of 51.89% for Leave versus a 48.11% for Remain, Scotland votes to Leave the United Kingdom. It is a result which sends shockwaves throughout the islands. Early in the morning of the 19th of September Alex Salmond resigns with immediate effect saying “The Scottish people have voted and their will must be respected“.

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It is widely expected that the victorious Scotland Now team will take control of the Scottish Government and begin to implement their (still unpublished) plan to remove Scotland from the United Kingdom. In a shock move, however, the press conference which follows the First Minister’s shows the downcast figures of Sturgeon and Swinney apologising, equivocating and, ultimately, also both resigning their positions in the cabinet. The Scottish Government is now in turmoil with fragmented factions of Not Yet and Scotland Now both accusing each other of failing to come up with a proper plan for leaving. The SNP  hastily organise a leadership contest to replace Salmond whilst assuring that they still have the confidence of the Parliament thus can remain in government.

To cap an already historic day, Niall McFergus also resigns as leader of Siol na h-Alba saying “The job’s done. I’m away tae Nova Scotia”.

Obviously, the Scottish Government is in no condition to start talks on Monday 22nd September. The UK Government says that it will wait till everyone is ready…but that its patience is not unlimited.

October 2014

The SNP leadership contest is marked more by who rules themselves out than by who rules themselves in. All of the prominent pro-Leave faces either beat a hasty retreat for the back door out spend their time outright poisoning the attempts of their colleagues to push themselves forward. In the end, the only person left standing is former Justice minister Kenny MacAskill, who had been a prominent activist for Not Yet. Immediately, his tenure is under question both for his role in the former campaign, the fact that he was “not elected” to the position and also due to questions raised during his time as minister. Nonetheless, a government is formed and the SNP’s majority sees it pass its first vote of confidence. The new government vows to take charge of the “mandate given to the by the people” to leave the UK but says that time will be required to formulate a plan. A deal is struck with the UK Government. Once the Scottish Government is ready to begin negotiations it will notify Westminster via the Scotland Office which will then trigger a process by which Scotland will leave the Union two years later.

March 2015

There is still no plan. The Article SO trigger (as it has become known in the press) has still not been pulled. Patience is wearing thin on all sides. The economy is starting to feel the strain of the uncertainty and many are starting to wonder if independence will happen at all. PM MacAskill announces that he has put together his negotiating team but is immediately criticised for it consisting solely of SNP members from the Central Belt. Parties which supported Leave feel betrayed and locked out. Parties which voted Remain demand that the negotiations take into account the whole of the country and not just the SNP’s fiefdoms. Places like Orkney and Shetland, which voted strongly Remain, demand a distinct “place at the table” to ensure their specific interests. They even produce a detailed and extensive White Paper (at least, extensive in comparison to the still non-existent paper from the Scottish Government) detailing their concerns and offering various compromise solutions. The demand for a place at the table is denied and the White Paper is simply dismissed by MacAskill and the Scottish Government. Even a bill demanding such representation which passed jointly by the councils of the islands goes without formal response.

By the middle of the month there is, at last, some movement. MacAskill announces the publication of a Leave White Paper and announces that Article SO will be triggered by the end of the month. Scotland will leave the UK by the 29th of March 2017.

April 2015

MacAskill sends further shockwaves through an already the Scottish political world by announcing a snap election. Claiming that he had an epiphany whilst hillwalking, he claims that it would increase the Government’s mandate to carry through independence and, he hopes, would neutralise the still lingering claims about the means by which he became First Minister. The election is widely regarded as a rubber-stamp exercise given the still-vast lead the SNP enjoy in the polls. The election is set for June 8th but some warn that the Article SO timer is still ticking…

 

June 2015

The results of the general election come in and it is not to the Scottish Government’s liking. An unexpectedly blistering campaign by Labour’s Jim Murphy – who had been widely derided as “completely unelectable” even by members of his own party – utterly smashed through all that was placed before it. From the day of the announcement of the snap election to the day of the poll there was a rapid rise in support for Labour right across the country.

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From hopes of a crushing majority, the SNP fell to one seat short of being able to form a government at all. Scotland was, by now, the laughing stock of the British Isles but MacAskill vows to cling on and see independence through. He turns to Siol na h-Alba – who lost their new leader Tam McGlashan in Dunroamin but scraped a victory (by two votes) in Brigadoon – to prop up his administration. Soon, the media is full of tales of the worst of Siol na h-Alba’s misdeeds. McGlashan resigns and a new leadership contest is run but by this point, no-one particularly cares about the party which started this whole sorry story.

MacAskill remains determined to progress with Independence talks with the UK Government and sets the date of 19th June to hold the first talk. However, coalition talks with Siol na h-Alba are not going well and the first vote of confidence on the new government is delayed amid bizarre excuses such as “the ink needs time to dry on the paper“. A new date for the vote of confidence is set for June 21st – two days after the first of those discussions with Westminster. The Scottish Government seems as if it will progress without a mandate and without even having a secure and stable government.

The First Meeting

Team Scotland arrives in London to meet the UK delegation. The six man (and it is six men, the lack of other genders is noted) team consists solely of SNP members with all other parties locked out completely. It will be the test by which the rest of the negotiations are measured. MacAskill steps into the room. Full of bluster. Empty of any actual documents. Across the table, David Cameron is waiting…

Back to (our) Reality

From the outset, the UK’s handling of Brexit has been one of the most appalling adventures in modern UK politics. It cannot be ignored that for all the weaknesses of the last independence campaign and for all we can argue about where it could have done better, the old accusation that Scotland would have been walked over by Westminster in negotiations simply no longer stands. The UK really has become a joke in the world and this should not be forgotten when the time comes to plan our own negotiations. Although, at the same time, we should not assume that they won’t learn the lessons of the Brexit disaster. I’m just saying that we should learn them first and make sure that our case is absolutely the best it possibly can be.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little bit of allegorical fiction. Maybe, if the UK continues as it has been, there’ll be another chapter someday.

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We Need To Talk About: Social Housing

“Before you can start building [houses] on any scale, every single industry in society has got to be organised and stimulated into production.” – Aneurin Bevan, 1946.

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Credit: The Heilan Coo

The inferno at Grenfell Tower has claimed many lives (as I write, the official estimate for people dead or missing and presumed dead is 58.), has likely wiped out entire families and will have irrevocably changed an entire community forever.

It’s still too early to be fully deconstructing the causes and blames of this disaster but a few things have become widely reported and will likely play into the debate in the months and years to come.

However the blaze started (early reports suggest a power surge igniting a fridge on the 4th floor) it appears that the flames spread rapidly up the insulating cladding on the outside of the building, engulfing the entire structure in minutes and trapping many inside.

It has also emerged that the cladding involved was the cheaper of two options provided by the supplier and of a construction which would be illegal in several countries including the US and Germany. The fire resistant version of the cladding appears to have cost fractionally more – just £2 per square metre, or £5,000 for the entire block of flats. Further, it appears that at least part of the motivation for the choice of cladding was to improve the appearance of the flats for the benefit of nearby luxury high rises.

The Grenfell Action Group has been warning of a catalogue or failures of construction, maintenance and accountability for years. And the complete failure of leadership in the wake of the disaster, especially from PM May, has been appalling. This interview by MP David Lammy, who lost a friend in the blaze, does much to exemplify the sense of frustration and anger felt by a community which justifiably feels betrayed and it is no wonder at all that protests have occurred (so far peacefully).

Of course, the building contractors will all tell us that they are not to blame as they met all applicable regulations. And they’d almost certainly be correct. This is the nature of the relationship between capitalism and government regulations. It will always be the case that companies will meet regulations by the barest minimum that cost allows and will always lobby for those regulations to be decreased if the cost of lobbying is lower than the savings due to the regulation cut (for, in this case, politics can be reduced to just another form of investment).

I’ve been particularly appalled by one article in Bloomberg which takes on the extreme libertarian approach to this stating that all fire regulations should be scrapped because in the perfect world of the libertarian, any regulation which increases cost is unacceptable. Instead, the people who lived in the tower should have rationally weighed the risks of living in the tower with that cost and, if they wanted to, could have moved to some (presumably more expensive) tower nearby which DID include the safety features.

I shouldn’t need to fully dismantle this worldview. The residents of Grenfell did not have the choice of a hypothetical “safe” building next door into which they could move. Even if they did, humans simply are not the machine-like “rational actors” demanded of libertarianism nor do they always have the perfect information required to make such a choice (Could you identify a flammable cladding from a non-flammable one? If the libertarian landlord tells you, could you completely trust them? Could you tell if they were lying? Without any regulations, how would you hold them accountable if they were?)

I have written before, in less tragic terms, on the need for regulations to go well above and beyond the bare minimum. It will be essential if we wish to meet our targets to reduce energy consumption (which will be good for the environment and save a lot of people a lot of money in heating costs). I now believe it’s time to go much further than this. The private sector will always be an anchor against attempts to increase decent housing stock (especially for the poor) and to get the UK’s housing price inflation under control. It’s time for the government to start intervening and build social housing again.

Unconstrained by the needs to seek profit, the government can apply its own regulations, well above the “legal minimum” if need be, and can do some proper planning to ensure that it’s not just housing that’s being built (this has long been the failure of many projects in the past such as the high rises and the out-of-town blocks such as Easterhouse in Glasgow). We need to think about the amenities and the jobs and all the other functions of a town which enables communities to thrive. Common Weal has recently published some proposals on how local areas can control their own land and ensure that their specific needs are addressed on their terms. We can’t keep treating housing as a commodity for the rich, constantly pushing folk to “climb the property ladder”, treating those who can’t to the slums and the land-baggers and simply abandoning them. We can’t keep segregating people and reinforcing the class and wealth divides  and then blaming those on the bottom end for “just not striving hard enough“.

This isn’t to say that high-rises don’t have their place – endless suburban sprawls constantly bite into farmland and wild spaces and often fail to engender any sense of community at all, not to mention the health and climate effects caused by having to drive to reach anything other than your own house and the extra costs of delivering services to low density populations. Smart Cities, well designed with these factors in mind, may be a major factor towards a sustainable future (and I say this as someone who lives in a rural area).

And these cities need a lot of work to build. From brickies and plumbers, through planners and designers, past educators and mentors, to the computer experts who’ll get the smart systems going and keep them running, there is vast potential to employ a lot of people in this enterprise and to inject a huge amount economic activity into the country (in a far more productive manner than the zero-hours “gig” jobs that we’re being fed currently). If Austerity is to be ended, this could be one way to do it. And we know it works because the UK has been through exactly this before. An economy shattered by war from without (rather than Austerity from within) was reconstructed in the 1940’s and 1950’s and is still looked back on fondly as one of the UK’s golden ages. Here’s Nye Bevan talking in 1946 about his plans and how he got them started.

 

“That’s all great”, you say. “But how much will it cost and how do you pay for it?”

Government debt.

Did that put a shiver up your spine? Then you’ve been indoctrinated by the most dangerous ideas of the 21st century. The idea that government debt is a terrible thing.

We’re living in an age where the UK government can borrow on a 30 year bond for 1.7%. Inflation is currently 2.9%. There has never been a better time to invest as right now the debt is (in real terms) cheaper than free!

Applied to the housing market, this could be a major game changer. Not withstanding the ability to directly target areas which badly need investment (preferably by allowing these areas to borrow themselves through a National Investment Bank), the advantages in cost to the occupier are significant.

Right now, a £90,000, 25 year mortgage on a 4% compound rate would cost you about £475 per month and you’d pay back £142,500 over the term. A mortgage based on a government bond at our 1.7% (simple interest, rather than compound) would pay back over the 25 years for a little over £425 per month and, as a particular advantage to the renter, that monthly rate could be fixed for the entire mortgage period (it needn’t even be uprated for inflation as the bond isn’t). Try asking your bank for a mortgage rate fixed beyond five years. Try asking them to predict what the interest rate will be on year six.

BoE Interest Rate Predictions

(The Bank of England can’t do it, and they’re the ones who SET the rates!)

One the debt is paid off, it could be up to the government to decide whether the house remains as a social house and the occupier continues to pay rent (thus subsidising other housing), continues to live in their home rent free for the remainder of their occupation (thus preserving communities long term), or allows them to purchase the house (which would require the government to replace stock in a way that wasn’t done under Right-To-Buy)

And, of course, you can adjust the numbers as required to ensure that everyone can afford a house, built to far higher standards than the private sector will supply, without the need to make obscene levels of profits while doing so and in a location and surrounded by the services required to make that house a home embedded in a community built by and for all of us.

We didn’t need the Grenfell tragedy to have this conversation. People have been speaking about it for years now. The systemic problems in the UK’s housing industry have been apparent and have been either ignored or actively encouraged for too long. Maybe it’s time we started listening and reassessing.

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For Those Who Never Wished For It

This is a guest post by @bunniesforindy whom all of  you on Twitter should go and follow.

Independence will be won by those who never wished for it

I’ve wished for independence for a very long time.

As a kid, I waved Saltires and joined in with half-weepy, half-ironic renditions of ‘Flower of Scotland’. I drew the Lion Rampant in my notebooks. One of my most vivid memories as a teenager was staying up to watch constituency after constituency vote YES-YES for devolution in 1997. So for me, the 2014 referendum was immense fun. The flags, the foam pointy fingers, the laughter and hope and celebration.

The morning of 19th September is best passed over; if you’re like me, you know how it felt. But we recovered, and we fought on. For folk like me, Scottish independence is a lifelong dream, an uncrushable hope, and an absorbing hobby. I think I hoped what many others hoped, that we would gradually, organically win people over to our point of view. Perhaps Home Rule would be a step on the path, which might be long and winding, but in the end, would take us where we wanted to be.

That future has gone. That ship has sailed. That became abundantly clear as I watched Phantom Power Films’ latest “Journey to Yes” video.

This is the first of the ‘Sector’ series of films, and has a different tone from the others. Starting with shots panning across farming landscapes, it combines statistics about Scotland’s dependence on the sector with personal thoughts from Hilary and Carey, a farming couple from South Lanarkshire, about the impact of Brexit on farming. The effect it had on me was quite different from the other films, which are joyful and uplifting. This one was, from the very outset, grim.

Hilary and Carey voted No in 2014, primarily over fears that independence might mean leaving Europe, but also because it’s clear that self-determination isn’t a driving force for them. Carey is English. They have family from down South. They think in international, not national, terms, and despite the positive impact of devolution and the SNP government on farming, they were simply not convinced of the need to throw their eggs into the nationalist basket.

It would be lovely, for someone like me, if they moved to Yes by becoming more like me, by developing a passion for the nationhood of Scotland, a sense of joy about building a new future, and even a developing a mild allergy to the Union Jack. But that’s not what happened. As they continue, it becomes clear that their decision is hard-headed, pragmatic, and centred around the same motivation as their previous vote: Europe.

As they describe their feelings on the morning of 24th June 2016 – their paralysis, their grief (“we cried for two days”) – as they describe eloquently the history of the Common Agricultural Policy and enumerate the effects its loss will have on their business and on farming generally, this all starts to feel very serious, very real, very global, and very much bigger than just a joyful political project for enthusiasts like me.

This is not a fun video. It’s hard to watch. The destruction of the lamb industry through loss of markets. The loss of EU funding. The “new clearances”. It all carries absolute conviction, and Hilary and Carey’s conclusion is utterly compelling. These are the kinds of decisions the foresighted are making now, and this is the kind of ground on which the next referendum will be fought. Not on the idea of branching out from the familiar to the thrilling, or terrifying, unknown, but on the prospect of escape from a trajectory that is so damaging, so ill-conceived and ill-managed, that even those who will shed a tear for the Union Jack, and those with no time for flags at all, will be forced to see independence as the only credible choice.

So what does this mean for us, the dyed-in-the-wool?

It means we need to be sensitive. We need to accept that Scotland will gain her independence through the votes of many who never wished for it. Whether because sacrificing their Britishness feels like a very real loss, or just because they were happy with the way things were and didn’t ask for this upheaval, there will be people, on the morning after the last independence referendum, who feel the way we felt on September 19th, 2014. Some of them will have voted No, of course, but others will have voted Yes. Either way, far be it from us to crow. We’ve been there and we know what it’s like. Let’s show more grace than our opponents did to us.

It means we need to be pragmatic. Many of us, behind the foam fingers, are in fact very hard-headed, very pragmatic. It’s a fine feature of the Yes movement that it can be at times wonderfully exuberant and at other times boringly down-to-earth. So let’s show our best side to those who join us reluctantly. They voted No out of prudence, and that prudence is one of our great assets as a nation. We need to recognise it and value it, whatever our own frustrations over that first result. We need these people. We need all of Scotland.

And it means we need to be realistic about how urgent our situation is. I hear people saying things like “we need to accept the timetable might slip, another referendum in 5 years would be fine.” No it wouldn’t. Not if, in those five years, we lose not just our EU membership but our membership of the single market and customs union, our EU funding, and the residency and voting rights of our EU citizens.

Continuity of full membership would be nice, but if we lose it, we can rejoin. Continuity of these other aspects is crucial – we simply cannot afford to lose them, even temporarily. Even if a transitional deal is set up, every year that goes by means thousands of migrants who give up hope of a secure life here and choose to live elsewhere. And if those who stay are disenfranchised, the referendum vote will be skewed and may be lost.

I’m confident the Scottish Government understands the urgency, but I’m not so confident it’s well understood by activists, and certainly not by the general public. It’s a message that we desperately needs to get across. Many polls have indicated that a majority of people believe independence is inevitable. We need to communicate that it can’t be put off. “It’ll happen eventually…” I’m sure it will, but if we don’t take the chance now, and hold a referendum before we lose our EU benefits, the country that becomes independent 10, 20 years down the line will be damaged and diminished by what’s happening right now.

Independence is not just a project for the enthusiast. it’s a national escape plan, and the clock is ticking.

 

bunny