To work out Scotland’s place as a nation and within Europe we need perhaps to look at where we are now, and then where we could be going.
Scotland has had its own Parliament since 1999. Since then it has taken on an increased range of powers in areas devolved to it (including health, housing, law and order for example). As a result of the 2014 Independent vote, it is acquiring powers to set its own rates of taxation (which it has so far not used) and the ability to put in place its own benefits. It does not control immigration, defence or foreign policy. In the 2016 EU referendum 62% of Scots who voted, voted to remain, making it by some margin the strongest pro-EU nation within the UK.
Scotland feels different to England. The transport infrastructure works (when Scotrail aren’t on strike, and even then it still better than it is in England). Healthcare has not been subject to the repeated changes that England has suffered from, but the health of Scots is in need of improvement. School education has fallen behind where it ought to be. Higher education is free for Scots, creating a very distinctive feel to undergraduate courses that is less consumerist than in England. Towns and cities are less divided in Scotland – you see the full range of human experience much more readily than the more segregated approach down south.
And of course, Scotland is significantly more pro-EU than England. This might be down to the SNP managing to get its voters out in ways the English political parties failed to do. It might be due to Scotland being a beneficiary of EU funding (although that didn’t stop Wales voting to leave). It might be due to the SNP managing to be a counter-voice to whatever is going on in England, and so voting EU in Scotland being about contrariness. I’d also like to think it is about a recognition that Scotland might actually be more European than England – and with that a sense that Scotland has the potential to be a great Social Democratic nation in ways that England seems to have long abandoned.
So what about the future? Well there are some issues. Scotland is in the UK, and the UK as a whole has voted to leave the EU. Yes, the vote was itself a failed attempt by the Conservatives to deal with their own militant anti-EU wing. Yes, it was a campaign that showed all the very worst aspects of our media and which demonstrated the paucity of our political discourse. My own view is that we really need a vote on the terms of any Brexit negotiation before leaving the EU, as that is the only way to actually compare EU membership with something tangible. But assuming we don’t get that, Scotland is going to exit the EU along with the UK.
The next logical step would be for Scotland to demand another independence referendum, and the first Minister has already indicated that, if she believes that is in the best interest of Scotland (and I think the clue might be in her Party’s name), then that should happen. I worry about independence because Scotland is a small nation, and it seems to me that much of what it seeks to achieve in terms of social justice depends on risk pooling that might need to work on a larger scale than its 5 million souls. Equally, I worry about Scotland not yet having a strong view of what it wants to be if separate from the rest of the UK.
One view, expressed by Sir Nicholas Macpherson, is that Scotland could become a low-tax, small-state economy. I hope this isn’t on the cards. Along with low-tax tends to come low-skill, huge job insecurity and an economy based upon being cheaper than anyone else. That seems to go directly against the words of our First Minister so far, and would also go against the grain of Scotland’s links with Europe.
Instead, an alternative is to look to Scandinavia and to work toward a high-skill, high-investment economy. A country that respects public services and invests in them. This is going to mean taxes go up. But I believe Scotland has the infrastructure – and the standard of living – to support this. Equally, if we are to address inequality and move towards social justice, there is little more powerful than progressive taxation to address that. It will mean significant investment in our schools and in improving health services, hopefully without the repeated drives to reorganise them seen in England. It will also mean devolving powers to local areas and giving them the resources to effect real change. This seems to me to be something Scotland can achieve if its government sets its mind to it. A distinctive anti-austerity message that is pro-European and very different to what is going on in England.
If Scotland is able to make a case in these terms, then I’m sure it would be welcomed into the EU in the future. But in the meantime Scotland can be European by remembering its links to European ideas of social justice and by putting in place a clear plan for achieving them. The Scottish Parliament already has sufficient powers to achieve this, so it can be done irrespective of any future independent referendum. It would also make a much stronger case for independence if Scotland was able to show itself to be even more different to England in terms of its approach to taxation, welfare and public investment, and through this difference, be able to show its concern for European social justice. Now that really would be a vision for Scotland in Europe.