Readers of the National are unlikely to need a reminder that Sunday marks the second anniversary of Scotland’s independence referendum (perhaps to be known in future as Scotland’s first independence referendum).
The anniversary will be a moment for reflection about how much has changed in Scottish politics. We’ve seen a wave of political engagement break, leaving the landscape profoundly reshaped with hugely increased party membership among the pro-independence parties. This year’s Holyrood election showed however that this is mirrored by the entrenchment of the Tories as they attempt to define themselves around attachment to the Union.
On top of that we have the Brexit consequences, which mostly sit under the “known unknown” heading. The case for Scotland retaining its relationship with the EU inevitably changes the case for independence – and though the polls are slow to reflect this I think it strengthens our position. Independence can no longer be misrepresented as an inward-looking and isolationist movement of “separatists”; instead it becomes much harder to deny its reality as an internationalist cause.
No doubt the referendum anniversary will also be another opportunity for Ruth Davidson and her supporters to bang on and on about the constitution while demanding that the Scottish Government stops banging on and on about the constitution. “Why can’t they just get on with the day job?” ask the people who can barely mention any issue without bringing it back to the independence question.
The paradox is that every party is already straining at the limits of the powers currently devolved to Scotland. It’s by no means only the pro-independence voices who are testing those limits, and demands to focus on the day-to-day issues of Scottish politics are often accompanied by proposals for actions which fall beyond the limits of the current settlement.
Last week the UK Government announced the closure of Dungavel immigration detention centre, and a proposed replacement. Since then we’ve also seen damning criticisms of the standard of treatment asylum seekers in Scotland are receiving at the hands of privatised services. Labour MSPs have been demanding change – and quite right too. There is indeed action the Scottish Government can take, but the barriers don’t lie in Holyrood. The UK Government won’t even allow Scottish Ministers to take responsibility for asylum seekers’ health, housing and education, all of which should already be devolved. Despite commitments for a review in the Smith Commission, nothing has changed. We do indeed need a humane and respectful asylum system, most urgently the ending of indefinite detention. But we need to get beyond the limits of devolution to make it happen.
Tax avoidance has been coming up as well, with proposals from myself and Green colleagues as well as from other parties. I welcomed the First Minister’s agreement that loans and guarantees provided by government to private companies shouldn’t be available to tax avoiders, but if we want to go further and actually gather the revenue that’s owed by big business, we need the powers to do it. We also need the ability to co-operate with other countries to abandon the ethos of tax competition which gives tax dodgers their opportunities – it’s the UK Government which has been blocking this action. Once again, the limits of devolution are getting in the way of more radical action.
Even from the Tories’ point of view, it should be obvious that the current situation is too constraining. They may want to pursue very different political objectives than I’m seeking, but that doesn’t stop them week after week demanding action from the Scottish Government when the UK Government is the real source of the problem. Just yesterday in First Minister’s Questions, the Tories were condemning cuts in the Enterprise Agencies’ budgets and demanding more investment in the economy. This from the party which is directly responsible for continual cuts to the Scottish budget and which is planning even more to come. Like the private sector lobby groups for whom every bit of economic news prompts a press release demanding tax cuts for themselves and more spending on the things they benefit from, the Tories cannot claim a shred of credibility or consistency.
From energy policy to poverty reduction, and from fair employment to macroeconomics, this pattern repeats itself. Two years after our first independence referendum, the Better Together parties might not have the self-awareness to see it but they are all now straining at the limits of devolution and advocating policies which ultimately require independence.
None of this is an excuse for not “getting on with the day job”. We do need far more creative use of the powers we do have, but far from undermining the case for independence, a bold approach to the day job will demonstrate how confining those limits are, and will only strengthen the case for breaking beyond them.
This article first appeared in The National.