From Spain with Love: Referendum reflections

One of the things I struggle to rationalise to politically interested friends and frenemies is how I’ve become even more interested in Scottish politics despite having left Scotland for Spain. I adore politics, but I’m reminded of Gore Vidal saying, ‘he liked politics too much to get involved in it’.

I consider it a political evolution; it’s actually quite a relief to be out with the six o’clock news party tribalism and to look at the issues and their implications in big, giant blocks of what happens if we do something and what happens if we don’t. It’s the expat zeitgeist.

A year after a conclusive ‘No’ vote in the Scottish referendum and my preference is still for Scotland to stay in partnership with the other three nations. I respect the will of my fellow Scots and, as someone who lives in Spain but holds British citizenship, my pragmatic concerns are now manifestly international: European Union membership; a network of diplomatic representatives and, if needs be, military capabilities to safeguard my interests; the economic conditions of Scotland and how this impacts currency, exchange rates and interest rates to my UK creditors; and, perhaps more ideationally, what it is we bring to the world stage as a country. Say what you will about domestic politics, but as soon as you’re abroad you become acutely aware of what your country stands for and how others feel about it.

Pragmatism might occupy my thinking, but it is the latter point that speaks to my heart. The history of our partnership may be a historical irrelevancy to many back home, but I can assure you it is a perception which is alive and well in the eyes of people abroad. From the Battle of Trafalgar to cups of tea, culture and military capability go hand in hand. People know just as much about our status as a military force as they do about One Direction. They cannot be separated. The lesson that the SNP didn’t accept in the referendum campaign was that Scotland and England are synonymous with each other – that UK identity exists loud and proud. Cultural traditions from kilts to whisky are acknowledged, but they are by no means differentiated from the actions of the UK Government. Scotland is not a subset, nor it is a mystery; it is part of the whole. In many ways, it is ironic to come abroad and see and hear the logic for our own union, particularly when listening to the restless debate about Spain and Catalonia.

A year ago to the day that we witnessed the result of a mass exercise in democracy, I’m reminded of my own reflections when watching the process during what was the third week of my Iberian exile. I agree with much of what I argued and standby Alex Salmond when he said this scale of democratic process was “not unique – but rare – and something which should be cherished”. No one was killed and protests are different to violence in the streets. There was no coup. It was historically special.

Whatever the will of the Scottish people is, I’ll respect it, now and in the future, but I stand by both my preference and my legitimate questions and concerns given my personal circumstances. They are true for all Scots, wherever they are in the world.

The big anniversary gift is the predictable announcement that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon intends to include the process to a second referendum in the SNP’s 2016 manifesto. The other was the release of Alex Salmond’s would-have-been victory speech in after a ‘Yes’ vote. If there is one surprise in the speech it’s that it is disappointingly simple and appallingly written. Perhaps that was the point: solemn understatement to the audience as champagne corks popped in the backroom. Perhaps it was sincere, perhaps he would have ad-libbed, who knows. In any event, it is agreeable to the extent that it reads like a news bulletin, advising people that, “Today, tomorrow and for the next 18 months our lives, businesses, shops, schools and hospitals continue exactly as before.”

What is certain is that it is his resignation speech, if not his concession speech, which will be remembered in its own right in the annals of history; the ‘dream shall never die’ was the title of his own autobiography and it was dignified, statesmanlike and worthy of a Scottish leader.

But in victory, as in defeat, an easy malaise can form. The mud slinging has resumed between the Conservative Party – the only real Unionist party left at Westminster (Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has declared himself a Socialist, not a Unionist) –  and the 57 strong SNP group there. Did the former deliver on ‘The Vow’ to deliver maximum devolution? One says yes, one says no.

What was predicted and what is occurring is that the SNP are now beginning to hold the UK Government to ransom with the threat of another referendum. This is both political and apolitical; a post-referendum duty to hold to account the Government and its campaign of promises. Further powers are to be devolved as promised, and the threat of a second referendum cannot be used as a backdoor for the party-political case for independence; it should be used to ensure there is a settled constitutional framework that reflects promises made and a vision for a more equitable, federal structure for the UK.

It’s very much like a spouse threatening divorce, or at least bringing about a divorce hearing if the other doesn’t comply with the initial demands. The Prime Minister had a point at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, September 16 when he asked the SNP group leader, Alex Robertson, to outline his grievances and to say which promises had not been delivered. If there is to be a real discussion over what has and has not happened, it must be explicit.

Politics will always continue, but we must not conflate ideological politics with ideological visions for the constitutional and political organisation of the British Isles. The status quo is a depressing indictment against both camps. That the SNP hasn’t deduced that most people vote for them on their policies, and not for their commitment to independence, is bad politics, particularly when polling suggests 1 in 3 Scots are less likely to vote for the SNP if they include a pledge for a second referendum. Yet the fact that no party has maintained a zeal for constitutional reinvention and reform is sad and a sincere disappointment for Unionists and, perhaps, some ‘Yes’ campaigners who were hoping for a transformative settlement at the very least after the ‘No’ vote.

In the end, it is ordinary Scots who will be the collateral damage of ideological crossfire that has devolved into an undercurrent of passive aggressiveness that no one quite wants to acknowledge anymore. Another referendum or referenda would be all consuming. We cannot afford to waste time on them when Scotland has other, more pressing, issues to deal with. The SNP’s record is far from idyllic and the future should first begin with closely examining that objectively.

On a selfish note, and to return to my original point, these are debates and issues for expats too. The world is unmistakably dangerous, even more so as the tumult of the Middle East reverberates across Europe. The certainty of our relationship with the EU is a necessity. We might live abroad, we might love where we live, but our hearts and our passports say British and we have a right to an opinion too. I support the will of my countrymen but ask that when they have expressed it, our political masters accept it and make the very best of it. Certainty breeds stability, and last year’s historic referendum was unequivocal.