“For now we see through a glass, darkly” – The Bible, 1 Corr 13:12
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.
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.
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.
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 but welcome the successful deal with Westminster and pledge to endorse and support it.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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…
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”.
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“.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.