You don’t need me to tell you that this election has more at stake than just who walks the crumbling corridors of Westminster for the next five years.
Massive constitutional change looms over the UK. For three years, the Tory Brexit tragicomedy has rumbled on, now complete with a scruffy yet carefully scripted buffoon in its lead role. Prime Minister Boris Johnson (a phrase many within his own party would have shuddered at the thought of in saner times) is intent on pursuing an inward looking, populist-led Union that embraces the Trumpian era of post-truth and ignores the voices of dissenters. Here in Scotland, we have a different vision. With that in mind, here’s why I’ll be casting my vote for the SNP on December 12th.
I am not going to begin with independence. Why? Because independence is merely a means to an end, not an end itself. What’s the point of self-determination if we’re not going to use it to do things differently? A favourite trope of the SNP’s critics goes something like this: “Instead of focussing on independence, why don’t you get on with the day job? What has the SNP ever done for me?” Well, I’d like to talk about exactly what the SNP has done for me.
I joined the party in 2016. I was living in England at the time, as I had done for my entire life up until about three months ago. I did not necessarily consider myself an independence supporter (I’d have used the term “sympathiser” more readily) and certainly would not have described myself as a “nationalist”. No, I joined because when I looked at the SNP I saw a left-of-centre party with a proven track record of policy achievements that made people like you and me the priority. A party that looked forward, not backward. A party with a vision for an open and inclusive Scotland and a credible plan to make that vision a reality. Since I moved here, I have seen those achievements and that vision first-hand.
Let’s start with the NHS. As a sufferer of ulcerative colitis, a condition I will have to take medication to combat for the rest of my life, I’m accustomed to visiting a pharmacist to pick up my monthly prescription. I was not accustomed to leaving my wallet at home when I did so. Here in Scotland, the SNP have abolished prescription charges, saving people like me over £100 a year. This afternoon, I have an appointment for an eye test, for which I will not hand over a single penny. These services should be free, and in Scotland they are. I’d invite you to ask yourself who you trust more to look after our NHS: the Tories, who have presided over a decade of cuts and privatisation; or the SNP, who have acted on the principle of a truly free health service during their twelve years in government?
Next to tuition fees, an issue in which the Tories, Labour and (need I remind you) the Lib Dems are all implicit. As a graduate of an English university now enrolled on an MSc programme, my student debt stands at well over £50,000. Here, my Scottish friends have a tiny fraction of that debt. I am fortunate enough to have had the means to go to university despite the crippling debt it would saddle me with, but I know many here in Scotland who would not have gone if it wasn’t for free tuition. How much potential are the Tories allowing to slip through the cracks simply because young people don’t have the financial means to support themselves? That is not a party, not a country, that believes in social mobility.
Since moving here it has become starkly clear to me that Scotland is just different to England. From the seemingly trivial – we have different bank notes, architecture, and at times unfortunately, weather – to the more pressing issues of our broadly different socio-political attitudes, there can be no doubt that Scotland is a distinct nation from the rest of the UK. I don’t think this tension between competing visions has ever been more readily apparent than now, and that’s all because of Brexit.
Scotland did not vote for Brexit, and it wasn’t even close. 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU, a far larger majority than those who voted No to independence in 2014. The SNP Holyrood government has since offered to compromise with the Tory Westminster government time and time again, but they have been consistently ignored. Initially, the SNP proposed a solution whereby the entire UK would remain in the single market. Failing this, they suggested Scotland could stay in the single market even if the rest of the UK left. The Tories said such a compromise was completely unworkable. Then Boris Johnson came back from Europe with a deal that does pretty much exactly that for Northern Ireland. I was in Brussels last weekend where a civil servant – an entirely neutral source of information – told me there was no good reason whatsoever that a similar solution couldn’t be implemented for Scotland.
But the devolved administrations have been denied any role in the Brexit negotiating process. The Sewel convention dictates that the devolved parliaments and assemblies must give their consent for any legislation that would affect devolved competences (which obviously Brexit would), yet Boris Johnson has shown a total disregard for the conventions and laws that protect our democracy. It is not just that we in Scotland are being dragged out of the EU against our will, it is that our voice has been systematically silenced during the process. Scotland is a pesky inconvenience to the Tories – it won’t shut up and stay in its lane. This is not a union of equals and for that reason it is time to file the divorce papers.
So yes, we do need to talk about independence. Scotland is in a very different place now than it was in 2014. The people of Scotland were promised that a No vote would protect their place in the EU, protect the economy and lead to greater devolution of powers. Five years on, the news is dominated by Brexit, the pound has plummeted, and Scotland has less of a voice than ever before. Brexit has exposed Westminster as a tyranny of the majority where English interests are put first.
Whilst the SNP are very explicitly pro-EU, it is misguided to pitch this election as a choice between two equivalent unions. There is no equivalency between the Brexit and IndyRef movements and that same European Parliament civil servant gave me a very clear conceptualisation of why. The UK could hold its Brexit referendum with no obstacles. Scotland could not – our government is bound to ask the permission of the UK government to consult the people on independence. The UK, within the EU, is still sovereign. Scotland, within the UK, is not. Independence is not about taking sovereignty from one union only to give it to another. It’s about claiming sovereignty from a union which gives us none and sharing that sovereignty with a union that actually serves our interests and respects our voice as a small nation (the veto powers the EU gives to member states shows the influence small countries can have). This is not an ideological decision – it is a pragmatic one.
Economically, the Yes side lost the argument in 2014. But Brexit changes everything. It is true that 60% of Scotland’s exports go to the rest of the UK. It is also irrelevant. The SNP are not advocating cutting off all trading ties with the rest of the UK, why would they? Brexit has shifted our perception as to what is normal when nations leave unions, but the kind of economically disastrous divorce that the Tories are pursuing need not be replicated in an independent Scotland. I certainly have no desire to see any kind of hard border with England – the country I was born in and where most of my friends and family still live.
Brexit has already damaged the UK’s economy and it hasn’t even happened yet. Scotland can leap from the sinking ship into a sea of 27 other nations all participating in frictionless trade and allowing the free movement of migrants on which the Scottish economy depends. Small, independent, left-of-centre nations such as Denmark and Finland have thrived economically within the EU. What’s more, the sense I got from Brussels is that an independent Scotland is unlikely to have many problems joining the EU, a fact even pro-Union newspaper The Scotsman would back me up on. Brexit has shown that we cannot trust the Tories to manage Scotland’s economy for us. Only independence, and only the SNP, can provide the economic security that we all depend on.
Scotland is a socially liberal, economically left-of-centre nation. The UK is not. For that reason, the Conservative and Unionist Party clearly do not represent Scotland’s best interests, but neither do Labour or the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats have positioned themselves as fiercely pro-EU and conveniently forgotten that the easiest route to Remain is now independence. Labour know they are finished in Scotland – they have failed to support the constitutional change that their broader policy goals depend on, policy goals that in many cases have already been achieved by the SNP. That is all independence is – a means to an end. You do not have to be a nationalist to support it, just a pragmatist.
By James MacGregor Palmer