26 November 2019

A fate worse than Quebec: the perils of Scotland’s ‘neverendum’


Some people simply cannot accept defeat. Or indeed the outcome of a democratic vote. And I’m not just talking about Remainers and Brexit.

As Nicola Sturgeon’s disastrous interview with Andrew Neil showed, a second referendum on Scottish independence remains both bafflingly illogical and realistic prospect in the near future: the same Westminster that couldn’t carry out the mandate of the Brexit referendum may now bring life to the SNP’s fantasy in the form of Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn who will give Sturgeon the green light to take Scotland through this arduous exercise once again.

‘But Azeem, Scotland’s referendum debate represented the pinnacle of democratic engagement! We had the entire Scottish nation, and indeed most people around the UK engaged in debate, informing themselves of the issues, taking control of their own political futures!’

But having the debate was not the point – or at least not the only 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.

But apparently none of that is good enough. It turns out that for the SNP at least, all of its fiscal and economic ‘concerns’ 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 tantrum like children 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 simply 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 – some pinnacle of Western democracy this is!

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. There was another referendum in 1995, with the separatists losing again, but this time by 50.5% to 49.5%. Independence has remained the top political concern ever since.

The continuous debates on independence in Quebec have 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, crime or health, are 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 is still a game of Us vs. Them. And no good will come of it.

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Professor Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College