Scottish Independence: Of Bias, Politics, and the Need for Serious Debate
Things are looking up for independence when the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, says: ‘The government will always give full and equal respect to constitutional nationalism and the desire for an independent Scotland, pursued through peaceful and democratic means.’ Except, of course, he didn’t – he was talking about a united Ireland.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, we learn, apparently just like their London counterparts on Brexit, that the Scottish civil service is biased towards independence. This claim was based on an email about Covid travel exemptions from Scott Wightman, Director of External Affairs, to Scottish government ministers and officials, in mid-2020, suggesting that Spain would block Scottish independence if they were not given exemptions (given, he adds, Spain’s relatively low levels of Covid prevalence at the time). He writes: “The Spanish Government will conclude it is entirely political; they won't forget; there is a real possibility they will never approve EU membership for an independent Scotland as a result."
Cue Labour and Tory quotes that this demonstrates a wholesale capture of Scottish officials on one side of the constitutional divide. This is, of course, very silly. The Scottish government has a strategic aim of independence in the EU. The civil service has produced several papers on this goal, including one on re-joining the EU as an independent state.
And advising government ministers on how their decisions may impact internationally would seem to be part of the external affairs job description. I don’t agree with Scott Wightman’s particular view that this would have been taken so badly by Spain as to block EU membership for ever. But that’s beside the point. A career diplomat, whose previous postings include being High Commissioner to Singapore, will know full well how to divide personal political views (whatever they are) from official advice.
This non-story is partly just a demonstration of the very low level of Scottish political debate. But it also reflects wider unionist concerns that periodically bubble up. I was talking to a former UK official last year about the paradiplomacy row over Cabinet secretary Angus Robertson attending meetings without UK officials present. This former official was particularly fed up that UK embassies were having to organise meetings for Scottish ministers where they knew the ministers would not put the UK position on topics such as Brexit (that’s awful isn’t it?). What had clearly never occurred to them was that Scotland taking a pro-European position on the EU, against Brexit, is widely and warmly received in the EU and tends to demonstrate that there are some sane parts of the UK still. In other words, it’s potentially a plus for UK-EU diplomacy.
This same former official went on to suggest it wasn’t possible to know if UK officials could trust Scottish civil servants – they might, after all, support independence. This too, like the Wightman story, is all very silly. But it’s also highly indicative of the mindset of some diplomats and officials at UK level. Now, most foreign office officials (and officials in other departments) do not take kindly to Tory suggestions they’re not doing their jobs properly or professionally because they’re all part of the anti-Brexit mob. Faced with the fact of Brexit, they had to try to make it work however they’d voted. Yet it’s ironic to find amongst some UK officials that same fear that politics may trump professionalism – not for them, obviously – but for Scottish officials.
Politics, Covid and independence
Nicola Sturgeon’s evidence at the Covid inquiry last week ended up focused especially on the question of WhatsApp deletions and lack of minutes of the central coordinating ‘gold’ group of ministers. These are serious questions – though not the only ones. Scotland, like the rest of the UK, locked down late – something Nicola Sturgeon says she now regrets. On the specific email about Spain, Nicola Sturgeon said she took decisions on travel exemptions based on scientific and economic grounds. More broadly, she said that “ None of those [Covid] decisions were influenced by political decisions or trying to gain an advantage for independence.”
Certainly, the series of policy papers around independence that the then First Minister had announced in January 2020 were paused over the next two years as the pandemic took priority. Does that mean no Scottish government minister ever thought or talked about independence in that time – obviously not. Not least as support for independence in the second half of 2020 was at its highest and most sustained – related, in part, to how competent Nicola Sturgeon’s daily briefings were compared to Boris Johnson’s shockingly chaotic briefings in London.
In fact, as the current Scottish government has, in recent months, pushed out a number of policy papers on a range of themes, with little follow up or sustained communication strategy, hindsight might suggest that pausing all the papers and analysis back then was not the best decision in terms of capitalising on that swing in the polls to independence. But the media outcry there would have been if independence papers had come out in 2020 and 2021 can indeed be imagined.
Where now for debate on independence?
Overall, it is clear that hostility to Scottish independence from UK media, and from Labour and Tory politicians will remain – and will take a neuralgic form quite different to how the constitutional choice around a united Ireland is commented on. Certainly, Keir Starmer and Labour have not been held back from joining in the chorus by the fact that, as shown in the latest Survation poll, over two-thirds of those under 45 years old support independence.
Yet, ironically, what might change that neuralgic, hostile and dismissive tone to some extent would be if support for independence went up to a sustained and clear majority. It’s easier to dismiss independence when support is hovering around 48 per cent than when it’s on 58 per cent. But the current doldrums of the independence debate and widespread air of pessimism do not suggest that sort of movement is on the cards any time soon.
Some are doing their best to create dynamism in the debate. The Scottish government’s recent paper on EU accession curiously avoided discussing the specific and vital role an Association/Trade Agreement with the EU would play in the transition period prior to joining the EU. But the activist group Yes4EU recently ran a whole day event on this key question – serious, sustained discussion of an Association Agreement as part of an EU accession process.
We know the constitutional debate in Scotland is not going away, whatever the respective fortunes of the SNP and Labour in this crucial general election year. The more serious that constitutional debate can be, on all sides, the better the quality of politics we will have.
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