Voters in Scotland can be forgiven for suffering from referendum fatigue at the moment. Less than two years since the independence referendum, the country is once again preparing to decide its future. The arguments, on the surface, appear familiar. For Yes v No, replace Out v In. We are urged to back separation, not this time by Alex Salmond, but by his fellow Scot, Michael Gove. And once more, we are asked to look beyond the sound and fury and seek out the facts beneath.
Superficially, it might seem the same sort of decision. It’s not. For me, the independence referendum was not just about facts and figures — as important as they were — it was about heart and soul; ideas of national and personal identity. It spoke of who we are and what we consider “home”. Removing Scotland from the United Kingdom would have broken up our nation and changed us all. This is not the case this time. I do not diminish the significance of the EU referendum but, in or out, Britain will still stand.
However, I believe there are two key lessons to draw between the two votes. The first is what might be described as the certainty test. In the independence referendum, the SNP was at its happiest when condemning the institutions of the UK. It was at its weakest when trying to explain how exactly it intended to replace them. It didn’t have a clue — most shockingly over the issue of the currency.
I do not accuse my colleagues in the Out campaign of matching Alex Salmond’s egregious fantasy economics. However, there are similarities. Outers offer trenchant criticisms of the status quo. Less persuasive are the arguments for showing how Brexit would be better, or even an agreed position of what it might look like.
Basic questions over restrictions, tariffs or the ability of British workers to operate abroad are dismissed instead of answered. Set against the warnings of Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, the IMF and the OECD about the impact of Brexit, the breezy assurances fall apart. Simply put, Out doesn’t just fail the certainty test, it makes no attempt to meet it.
Is that enough for people to vote to stay in? On its own, I believe not. Because the second lesson I draw from the independence referendum is that people who opt for the status quo are entitled to a positive vision of what that entails.
This was something I tried to set out two years ago by speaking about the UK’s strengths, its character, its diversity, its capacity for good in the world. It is in this vision of an outward-looking Britain which contributes to the world, which seeks to be a willing participant on the continent, that I see the positive case for remaining part of the EU. I agree that it has become a leviathan, that it requires reform, and extends its reach too far. This needs to change and David Cameron has already started to lead the reform. The key point is that we only continue that journey by remaining in. I don’t want Britain to become Europe’s awkward neighbour, twitching the curtains at the world outside, helpless to do much about it.
I want us to be Europe’s critical friend: engaging, encouraging and demanding reform from within. We can lead the reshaping of our continent, and this is the optimistic vision that awaits us if we choose to take it.
Staying in offers us a double win. We remain a proud, principled, liberal, democratic, (sometimes idiosyncratic) sovereign trading nation, and retain the ability to benefit from and reform a more flexible EU.
I campaigned for a No vote two years ago because I love our United Kingdom and while being a proud Scot, I am British to my bones and I see no contradiction between the two. The UK’s constitutional set-up may be wonderfully messy, but our nation is messily wonderful. There is no country quite like ours and we are no less sovereign from being part of a wider club of nations like the EU.
Indeed, contrary to being diminished, we are enhanced. Yes, our businesses benefit from access to one of the largest free-trade blocks in the world (and that’s important) but it goes beyond a profit-and-loss sheet.
We are a better country for wanting to engage diplomatically and economically with our neighbours within a formal club; for wanting to put our shoulder to the wheel.
And the EU? Well, forgive my national conceit, but I think the other 27 member states benefit massively from our membership, not least our dynamism, our scepticism, our cussedness and our pragmatism.
So when both sides are better off — and even those seeking to withdraw can’t show us how the alternative would be an improvement — why would we choose to leave instead of lead?