European Outlook for Scotland in the Aftermath of Brexit
Former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments
A difficult year
2020 will become the year to be forgotten across the world; in the European Union and especially in the United Kingdom, the end of the year has been most difficult. In October, Scotland lost the most famous of her fellow citizens, Sean Connery, the Scottish James Bond.
Like many Scots before him, he left his country to find fame and fortune. He found them and yet few know that Sir Sean was, like me, a member of the Scottish pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party. Another point that we had in common, was our accent or rather our inability to change our respective accents. James Bond was in Her Majesty’s service, but the actor who played him on the big screen was fiercely Scottish.
The question of Scottish identity
Keeping one’s Scottish accent was not recommended in those days in the UK, when the radio, the small and the big screen all spoke in one voice with an indefinable English accent. My French accent has never been a barrier in Scotland, on the contrary it is an asset, the reason why my opinion perhaps weighs more than it deserves. The actor Sean Connery was picked despite his accent, I got elected in part because of mine.
This respect for the opinion of foreigners, of those who have chosen to live in Scotland, is most surprising for newcomers and is explained by the fact that in Scotland there are no foreigners but a population, a people defined only by their being there. My friend and compatriot, Assa Samaké-Roman, shares her experience in her story Scotland: Hadrian and the Unicorn, a great end-of-year gift for those who want to know more. She writes her surprise when, for the first time, she has the following dialog:
“Where are you from?”
“From France. But I live in Scotland now”.
“Really? You’re one of us then, a Scottish girl”.
In the south of Scotland, in England and even in France, this dialog would have been very different. My friend Assa adds that everyone with dark skin and a frizzy hair like her is entitled to the traditional question, “No but, where are you really from?”; not in Scotland. The Scottish identity is so strong that it is easily shared, it is strong because we share it easily, a lesson for those who think that to share one’s identity is to dilute it, to undermine it; in truth, it’s quite the opposite.
Brexit, redefining the English identity
In 1997, I voted for decentralization, the devolution suggested by the European Union as a way to protect Scotland from the worst policies coming from the London Parliament, Westminster. It has worked to some extent, the Scottish Parliament has toned down many policies coming out of Westminster and protected us while our English neighbors have taken the full force of the austerity program sparked by the incompetence of successive UK governments.
And for our English friends there was no devolution. Wales and Northern Ireland were able to redefine and confirm their identities with the creation of national assemblies, and I repeat national, because these are four nations that make up the United Kingdom.
The superimposition of British identity on English identity, which allowed many immigrants from the Caribbean and elsewhere to assimilate and be accepted as British, has isolated the English population. The arrival of waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe and of refugees from the Middle East has accentuated this isolation. Brexit has become the solution to a problem of identity, of English identity, which has not found its way into an enlarged European Union and a decentralized United Kingdom.
Take back control, a populist message
A slogan, a sentiment that proves the English malaise, the desire to cancel devolution to the United Kingdom and the enlargement of the European Union, “Take back control”. Unfortunately for all those who chose their past for our future, they did not understand that it was too late to change course, to turn back. The British Prime Minister has already conceded in Northern Ireland, a concession unimaginable in the last century, an incomprehensible concession for a small number of elderly Conservatives who did not see populism coming. There will be a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, an economic and customs border in the Irish Sea. The current British Prime Minister’s party is set to change its name from the Conservative and Unionist Party to the Conservative and Populist Party. Brexit will not stifle the progressive agenda of the European project, nor the aspirations of the self-governing nations of the United Kingdom to become more self-reliant or, in the case of Scotland, to regain its independence and join the European Union as a member state.
The populist attack on our democratic institutions and our European values is only momentary; like the presidency of Donald Trump, Brexit is doomed to fail in England too, and everywhere else.
Subsidiarity in Scotland
It is clear that there is a democratic deficit in the United Kingdom; the fact is that England does not have its own national parliament, but shares Westminster with the 3 other nations which they have had since 1999. Previously, the democratic deficit in Scotland was blatant, because all decisions were taken by a majority in the British parliament. A majority that could hardly have needed the support of Scottish MPs; it is certain that Scotland has been forgotten by Britain’s two main political parties for over fifty years. This is certainly why the European project so attracted the Scots and created the foundations of our democratic and autonomous institutions in 1999 under the principle of subsidiarity.
The origin of subsidiarity must have been known in Scotland, because it was some Calvinists who first defined the concept, and the Calvinists were followed very closely by the Catholic Church.
This principle has become the cornerstone of the European Union, certainly gaining a consensus by many political movements, including mine. The principle of subsidiarity requires that decisions be taken as close as possible to those they concern, and that they be taken efficaciously. There is a certain pragmatism attached to this principle, which suits me very well, and perhaps best corresponds to the Scottish need to live in a most egalitarian society and also to have democratic, efficient and above all prudent institutions.
The future of Scotland is bright, it is European
After serving in the Scottish Parliament from 2013 to 2016, I was elected to the European Parliament to represent Scotland until the UK left the European Union, an emotional departure to the sound of bagpipes in January 2020, a difficult start of a year to forget. My European colleagues in parliament have been wonderful, their support for a Scotland which has voted over 60% to stay in the European Union is remarkable, their understanding of the reality of the consequences of a very English Brexit on our Scottish institutions shows the respect they all have for this country which has become mine.
Scotland’s contribution to the European Union has come to an end and we regret it. I think of my predecessors in the European Parliament: “Madame Scotland” Winnie Ewing, who contributed to the creation of the Erasmus program; Professor Neil MacCormick, who contributed to the constitutional rights of the European Union and to promote the principle of subsidiarity so dear to the Scottish; our contribution must continue.
This interruption must be as short as possible and my appeal is clear: help us to help you better. The most European country in Europe is Scotland, we have proven that.
Our past, our institutions and our future are European, this Scottish European people is eager to return to the European Union. Our idea of Europe is yours, we may be on the map on the outskirts of Europe but, like our Irish friends, we feel at the heart of the European project.
A guide, a route and a destination
With a Brexit that languished for over four years, our Scottish Prime Minister had plenty of time to prepare our way and guide our returning Scotland to the European Union as a new member state, an independent member state of the European Union.
Nicola Sturgeon took over as head of the Scottish Autonomous Government in 2014; before she was Deputy Prime Minister in Scotland since 2007 and before that she was Leader of the Opposition in the Scottish Parliament from 2004. Her experience and her popularity are on the rise.
The World Economic Forum and the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) recently confirmed a well-known trend, that the best-run countries in the world today are led by women. The recent study tells us that our leaders are consistently and significantly better, especially when it comes to handling the epidemic.
Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity has never been higher with a rating of over 80% for satisfaction, and of over 70% for her governance (source Ipsos-MORI). The polls for the party she leads are very positive, with a majority of the Scottish electorate (55%) preparing to vote for the Scottish Independence Party in May this year. Those legislative elections of next May are the second stage on our road to reunite with our European friends. The second step because the Scottish Parliament has already voted to pass the law for a referendum on the independence of Scotland. The final stage will be the referendum and, for the first time, the polls are unanimous that at this year-end a majority of the Scottish electorate is ready to vote yes.
Scotland, a model to replicate?
The growing popularity of a government and a party in power for 14 years, may come as a surprise. The explanation is simple: the Scottish people regained their political commitment and constitutional interest at the turn of the last century, when Winnie Ewing, Madame Scotland, reconvened the Scottish Parliament after a 300-year hiatus. And the people of Scotland have continued for the last twenty years to want more democracy and more constitutional independence. The independence party accompanied her.
That is why today the party has more than 125,000 members out of a population of less than 6 million. An example to follow for many political parties around the world; its members are our strength.
Democratic engagement is more important than ever, we have seen this with the rise of populism. This populist movement has thrived on the abstention of many voters disengaged and abandoned by the traditional parties of left and right. The answer to populism is not to copy their anti-migration agenda or their aversion to the European project: the negativity of their election campaign is certainly not an asset. Scotland has demonstrated, election after election, that a pro-immigration and pro-European agenda is the only answer to populism.
Since August this year, the Scottish Parliament has invited all foreigners and refugees residing in Scotland to participate in our Scottish elections.
Not only have we followed the European example of opening our democracy to our European friends, but we have now opened this democracy to everyone over the age of 16. I am sure Sir Sean Connery would have approved, he who was unable to vote for his country’s independence in 2014 because he was living abroad. I voted yes for him, I a foreigner who became Scottish, a European of French nationality who lives where life is good, in the country of the first James Bond, an ancient country which has regained its sense of democracy and adapted it to the 21st century.