Scottish independence and Brexit: Nationalist myths have caused real damage to Scotland, but there are hopeful signs – Alex Cole-Hamilton

This week, Lord Ashcroft published a poll showing a 12 per cent lead for ‘no’ in independence referendum voting intentions.
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That’s the biggest level of support for Scotland remaining in the UK since 2019. It followed a similar survey the previous week which suggested an eight per cent lead. Coupled with a notable drop in how the public views the competence of the First Minister and her government, this feels like a moment.

Whisper it, but the people of Scotland may finally be moving away from the constitutional divisions that have held back our politics for a decade and more. If so, then I am heartily glad of it. Our hospitals, our schools, our ferry passengers and our long Covid sufferers (to name but a few) have played second fiddle to those divisions for far too long.

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Polls offer a quick headline, but I’ve always found there is nothing quite like knocking on thousands of doors and talking to people. I love to hear from people and really understand what they are thinking.

It’s why I’ve been out night after night with Fiona Bennett, a former NHS nurse now standing for the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the Corstorphine/Murrayfield council by-election. I have been up in Fort William too to launch local businessman Angus MacDonald’s campaign to bring Charles Kennedy’s former seat back into the Liberal Democrat family.

Those conversations in the street and on the doors tell me the SNP’s priorities are not people’s priorities. I hear from people who can’t get a dentist or GP appointment, who are concerned about more school closures in the run-up to exams, and from people worried about how their business can cope with soaring costs.

For so long, our country has been held back by a clash of nationalisms, by which I mean the Scottish nationalism of the SNP and the Brexit nationalism of the Conservatives. We have been caught between politicians who mythologise and pine for ancient nations and borders, when the world has moved on and demands international cooperation. We are a people trapped between flags. This has become the sum total of public debate in this country and our public services are suffering because of it.

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I’ve never understood the lure of separation. For all the problems that we collectively face, like the cost-of-living crisis, the climate emergency, global pandemics and the new Cold War in which we find ourselves, I don’t see how the answer to any of those can be found in a border or a flag. Instead, nationalism is the politics of deflection and blame, promising superficial solutions to complex problems.

A focus on flags and constitutional issues has distracted from pressing everyday political issues (Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)A focus on flags and constitutional issues has distracted from pressing everyday political issues (Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
A focus on flags and constitutional issues has distracted from pressing everyday political issues (Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

You see liberalism is the polar opposite to nationalism. Our passion is to improve people’s everyday lives. Liberals strive to forge unions and common understanding wherever we find it. It’s why we fought so hard against Brexit and why we see it for the warning against separatism that it is. Three years on, there is little to show for it other than economic damage.

Don’t get me wrong – the UK needs reform just as badly as Scotland’s public services need repair. The first steps are to get the Conservatives out of government and to learn the lessons of Brexit, not repeat them with independence.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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