Well, here we go again! Having presumably got the answer ‘wrong’ in 2014, Scottish voters are to be asked once more whether or not we wish to leave the United Kingdom. Isn’t it amazing how quickly these ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunities come around?
While the timing of Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement on Monday caught many by surprise, its content was entirely predictable. For months, the First Minister and her SNP colleagues have been preparing the ground for the launch of so-called ‘indyref2’. Who knows, maybe the mauling Scotland’s rugby team took at Twickenham last weekend just tipped Ms Sturgeon over the edge.
What is certain is that Scotland is set to be engulfed in yet another divisive referendum campaign for which there is no overwhelming public appetite. Certainly that is the case here in Orkney, where the answer last time round could scarcely have been more emphatic. Indeed, it was enough to prompt some headstrong nationalist supporters to call for the Northern Isles to be ‘punished’.
It is hard to see how indyref2 will be any less divisive. In fact, with a public already suffering from referendum fatigue, there is good reason to assume that divisions that already exist in communities across Scotland will be opened up further. At precisely the time when our country is crying out for its politicians to bridge those divisions and bring people together, the SNP seems intent on doing the opposite.
Nicola Sturgeon claims to have been left no option. Yet while Theresa May’s pursuit of a ‘hard’ Brexit, for which she has no mandate, is undoubtedly reckless, piling the uncertainty of independence on top of the uncertainty of Brexit hardly seems a recipe for success. The answer to one type of narrow nationalism is not yet more nationalism.
As for the claim that this latest referendum is about protecting Scotland’s place in the EU, this is simply not credible. Since Monday, the First Minister and her Brexit Minister, Mike Russell have repeatedly failed to confirm whether or not they will pursue EU membership, concerned perhaps not to alienate the third of Yes voters who also voted Leave.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has already made clear that Scotland would have to ‘join the queue’; itself an exercise in futility while Spain retains a veto over our membership.
So the process upon which we are now embarked risks taking Scotland out of both the UK and out of the EU: by any measure, the worst of all worlds.
As for the campaign itself, lessons must be learned from last time. The economic case for independence is indisputably weaker, with the slump in oil prices and EU membership under threat. Even Ms Sturgeon’s key economic adviser, Andrew Wilson conceded recently that the SNP could no longer afford to base its case on oil revenues, as it has to date. Yet the Brexit campaign confirmed that dry statistics and appeals to the head are not enough. A more positive, emotional appeal is required.
That appeal should recognise that most people have different layers to their identity. In my case, I am deeply proud of my Sanday roots and to call Orkney my home. I am passionately Scottish but feel British and European as well. I see no inherent contradiction in the ferocity with which I cheer on Scottish athletes at the Commonwealth Games, British athletes at the Olympics and the European team in Ryder Cup clashes. It reflects the subtle but important historic, cultural and social ties, as well as the obvious economic links that bind us to the rest of the UK and Europe.
As a liberal, I firmly believe in empowering individuals and communities to fulfil their potential. This can best be achieved, however, by breaking down not putting up barriers. Unfortunately, the current wave of populism and nationalism at home and abroad feeds on people’s fears and encourages them to focus on the things that divide rather than unite. That route rarely ends well.
By pulling the threads that bind us together, things can quickly unravel in ways that are unexpected and irreparable. It is why we need to begin reversing this trend in our politics.