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A second independence referendum will ruin Scotland

Some people simply cannot accept defeat. Or indeed the outcome of a democratic vote

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

It is now half a year on from the referendum on Scottish independence which promised would settle the matter of Scotland’s relationship to the rest of the British Isles, and here we are again talking about it again. Of course, the poll would have been the referendum to end all referenda – but only if the Scottish National Party (SNP) had won. Because despite the commitment in the SNP White Paper on Independence that it will be a once in a lifetime event, Nicola Sturgeon has this week refused to rule out holding a second poll.

Indeed, since the referendum, both Sturgeon and Salmond have reiterated that the SNPs highest goal and raison d’etre is Scottish independence. Apparently there would need to be “material change” in the circumstances before another referendum could be held, but the SNP retains the right to define what constitutes “material change”. So that could simply be another Conservative-led government in Westminster combined with an opinion poll in Scotland showing that the people don’t like it.

Some people simply cannot accept defeat. Or indeed the outcome of a democratic vote. Somehow it is only Westminster that is undemocratic, regardless of what they do. The SNP, as the manifest incarnation of ‘the people’ of Scotland can only be democratic – by definition. The Stalinist logic to all this is compelling. For now, we have been fortunate enough that only Westminster has been fashioned as the ‘enemy of the people’. Well… Westminster and any academic or business leader who questioned the fantasies underlying the SNP’s economic case for independence. I know, as I was one of them.

Democratic pinnacle

“But Azeem,” some might say. “Scotland’s referendum debate represented the pinnacle of democratic engagement! More than anywhere else in the Western world in recent history, we have had the entire Scottish nation, and indeed most people around the UK engaged in democratic debate, informing themselves of the issues, taking control of their own political futures!”

Some people simply cannot accept defeat. Or indeed the outcome of a democratic vote. Somehow it is only Westminster that is undemocratic, regardless of what they do

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Yes, certainly. The way in which the politics of the referendum engaged us all made me genuinely proud to be Scottish. I wish we were equally engaged in political debate about all the issues that affect us, and not just in Scotland, but at the UK and European level too.

But having the debate was not the point – or at least not the sole point. The referendum posed a question about who we are and who we want to be. The point was not to shout at each other for a year. The point was to try to come to a conclusion. So we had a vote. One side was the clear winner. Together we decided that we were British, not just Scottish, after all.

And for its own part, the rest of Britain has indulged us beyond flattery. They granted us our referendum when we asked for it, they promised us just about everything we said we wanted in exchange for staying in the union, i.e. further devolution, and it continues to pay us a per-capita surplus for public services under the Barnett formula, taking out much of the pain for our country of the recent collapse in the global price of oil.

Not good enough

But apparently none of that is good enough. It turns out that for the SNP at least, all of its ‘grievances’ and all of its fiscal and economic ‘concerns’, all of ‘what it wanted for the people of Scotland’ were merely the pretext. It is clear that the only thing that they care about is independence – come what may. We had been promised a referendum – an opportunity to have a conversation and come to a conclusion about the future of our country. What the SNP is forcing upon us instead is what Brian Wilson called a “neverendum” – effectively throwing a child-like tantrum until the other side decides that the argument is becoming too tiresome to bear and gives into the demands of, let us not forget, a minority – vocal they may be.

Let us also not pretend that this is harmless fun. Or indeed, no more than healthy democratic discourse. Rather, it is a loud statement that we cannot, as a country, make a commitment about our future together. And that we do not respect the outcomes of legitimate democratic discourse – if this was the pinnacle of Western democracy at work, how come the immediate result of the poll was a flourishing of conspiracy theories and borderline xenophobic outbursts?

I would like to hold up a mirror to Scotland, to show what we are actually proposing to do by indulging the SNP’s obsessions. All this has happened before, in Quebec, Canada. Their neverendum started in 1980. Despite the first vote being lost by the separatists by 40% to 60%, they have not given up and independence has remained the top political concern to this day.

Continuous debate

Some friends from Quebec told me how the continuous debates on independence in their homeland had serious social and economic consequences. Families are still divided by the argument, for one. Communities are split. Serious debate on political issues that affect people’s lives much more directly, such as education or health, crowded out.

Not to mention that any planning for the future, or any kind of investment that would cross borders at all, in businesses, in public and private infrastructure, in long-term economic planning, has been put on hold. To give just one example, Quebec used to be regarded as the financial capital of Canada, but in that climate of political uncertainty, many large businesses migrated out of the area and never returned. Toronto benefited hugely as a consequence.

The price of nationalist obsession is always depressingly predictable. And for all its froth, it is a sad truth that the SNP’s “civic nationalism” is not different. It still a game of Us vs. Them. Us, the Holyrood-happy “Yes” campaign of “progressives” vs. the meagre “Nos,” be they “unenlightened” Scots, Westminster, Tories or whatever incarnation of the devious English.

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Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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