THE independence debate lies at the heart of Scottish politics. Even when a headline topic is not immediately about the constitutional question, either government or opposition can be relied on to bring it up. Independence, declares the opposition, is distracting attention from vital current issues; on the contrary, the government responds, independence is vital to tackle them.
Both sides can surely agree on one thing – independence would represent a major, systemic change for Scotland. Yet, curiously, serious, substantial and sustained policy debate on independence can often seem more notable in its absence than its presence.
There’s a mixture of reasons for this. A lot of the debate – in the media, between the pro- and anti-independence sides and within the independence movement too – is focused more on the question of whether, when and how a second independence referendum will happen than on what independence would mean.
And this focus is reinforced by pronouncements of politicians, easily grabbing headlines, whether to say there won’t be another vote for decades, or that there will be a referendum bill next year.
Nor is this just a question of media and politicians’ focus on the second referendum question. Political, legal and constitutional academics and other experts regularly weigh in: will the Supreme Court rule a referendum bill out of order, what does a voluntary union mean if there’s no exit route and so on. It’s a key political and democratic question, but it’s not the only one.
What independence would really look like is not a side issue. Yet when the political and policy debate does move on to more substantive issues such as the border, security or the economy, there is a sort of groundhog day feeling to the rather thin nature of the competing political claims.
Take the border. The getting-Brexit-done, border-creating Tories suddenly find that Scotland being in the EU, and England and Wales not, would be immensely damaging for the Scottish economy. The anti-Brexit SNP retort that the border won’t be so hard, and the EU single market is many times bigger.
There is in fact something in both these claims. But there’s only a limited amount of serious research so far to underpin debate on the potential dynamic impacts of the border on trade, productivity, foreign investment and so on.
Certainly, referendum campaigns are not often won or lost on the basis of serious economic research. But there is recognition on the pro-independence side, that a Brexiter-style slogan on a bus won’t do it. Equally, the opposition sees a case has to be made for the union. But this needs serious proposals from both sides.
The fact independence is hypothetical also reinforces a circular and static debate – it never, apparently, moves on. There is, for now, no clarity on when or whether there will be a second vote. And day-to-day, Scotland remains a devolved part of the UK.
Yet neither Scotland, the UK nor the wider world are static. There is a clear Brexit deal (even if the UK government is trying, dangerously, to unpick it on Northern Ireland); the world is in flux – climate change, the pandemic, and geopolitically too. And so there’s plenty that’s new for independence debates to engage with rather than just go round the same basic circuits.
Other factors also limit a sustained, serious debate. One is the relative lack of substantive policy proposals on key areas of independence from the Scottish government. The other is the rather fragmented nature of policy debate in Scotland, with discussion often taking place in silos and behind closed doors.
The Covid pandemic has, inevitably, intruded on Scottish government and SNP plans for setting out its thinking on key issues that would frame the transition to independence in the EU. But Nicola Sturgeon has now given the green light to some renewed work within the Scottish civil service. And, it seems, next year some more substantive Scottish Government proposals will emerge.
This would be welcome. The Scottish Government cannot and should not shy away from setting out its arguments on independence until just weeks before a referendum. And having serious Government analysis of how to re-join the EU, the nature of the Scotland-UK trading relationship on independence day, tackling climate change as a new state, post-pandemic recovery and so on, should be a major prompt to a substantial policy as well as political debate.
That debate will not all come down on the side of the Scottish Government’s analysis. But it would energise and add substance to discussion of the opportunities, challenges and choices that independence poses. In itself, that sense of serious, lively debate might perhaps be more beneficial to the pro-independence side in bringing the idea to life. But that depends on the opposition bringing its picture of the union to life. Substantive engagement, not just slogans, could benefit either side.
Nor are government or opposition the sole or even the main drivers of policy debate (happily enough in a democracy). Sustained, serious debate cannot flourish in silos. There is a tendency in Scotland for different groups to end up rather disconnected – different parts of the pro-independence movement debating separately, or academics talking to each other, pro-Union groups looking for the next sound bite, civil servants focusing on their work directed by their political masters, and media chasing the next headline.
Of course, there are events, debates and discussions, on and off the record, where, to some extent, these different groups meet up. And Scotland’s rather limited think tank sector does it best to join these nodes and silos in some areas. But compared to debate in London or Brussels or Berlin, it feels compartmentalised and limited.
There is no simple solution here: no one person or group is in control of public policy debate. In the end, a serious, dynamic policy debate about independence can only come from a range of political and public policy actors, both partisan and impartial, stepping up their game, reaching out from silos, and aiming at a sustained, much more open, public and interactive debate.
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