A RAILWAY tunnel loomed out of the cliff at the end of a beautiful beach and, on a sunny holiday morning many decades ago, my pal and I, as young teenagers, decided to walk through it.

We’d planned it well, worked out when the next train would come through, how long the tunnel was, and what lay at the end of it – a lovely inlet unreachable by land. We knew this because the local newspapers reported that the Queen in her royal carriage had halted their journey there to have lunch in this private spot.

Our foray went to plan. The tunnel was dark at first but light was at the end, and the view was amazing. If we could have found a path from the clifftop to this spot, it would have been a prized destination. But we had to turn back. The return went to plan and we emerged, blinking, not to what we’d left; instead to an angry group of people who’d been told where we were, and were furious at us for embarking on a venture they thought too risky. We were “gated”, our freedom restricted.

I’ve carried this youthful memory for a long time and at this moment it seems a very apt metaphor for what is happening to people in Scotland. You can take it in several ways, but knowing what is the right way to go depends so much on what’s in our own heads and hearts.

The National:

Scotland is considering its position. What kind of country do we wish it to be? The goal for many of us is called independence. A difficult name for it. Makes Scotland look like the teenagers in the tunnel, wanting freedom, but not knowing how to use it. The picture painted for the rest of the UK is that Scotland has neither the money, nor the know-how, nor indeed enough people to run their own country – it became the infamous “too wee, too poor, too stupid” idea of Project Fear in the build-up to the 2014 referendum.

In fact, Scotland is talking about self-determination: do we make our own decisions here, on how we live and form communities and relationships, at both personal and national level? Or do we go on allowing those decisions to be made by the country next door?

My own working life has shown me a huge amount of talent in the people who live and work throughout Scotland; it is among those born in Scotland and also in those who have settled here from another part of the UK, from Europe, or elsewhere. Some of those folk may be planning to return to the land of their birth, but many have taken on the mantle of being a Scot – such as my friends who were born Irish, American, Dutch or English. For some intending to go back home, it may be that independence is something they can’t endorse – after all, how is Scotland different from Yorkshire or Derbyshire? It’s not simple. It can seem like quite an emotional personal decision but actually it’s about the society and country we all live in.

So let’s look at how it is now. No longer about heavy, dirty industries, but looking into a greener future, Scotland has made huge strides in renewable energy with wind, wave, solar, hydroelectric sources, and already provides the equivalent of 96% of its industry’s needs. The chemical science industry is responsible for 12% of Scotland’s total exports.

We possess one of the largest life sciences clusters in all of Europe. Growing biotech industries are attracting high levels of research funding. Digital industries are fast growing, with Edinburgh being named as the fastest-growing tech hub in the UK in 2017. We have a hugely successful gaming business and cutting-edge work on artificial intelligence. The statistics come from Scotland The Brief and the Scottish Government.

The finance sector in Scotland employs more than 152,000 people, and as Brexit has brought a decline in the numbers working in finance in London (as it may do to Scotland within the UK), so an independent Scotland, aligned with the EU, would be a very attractive prospect. Then there’s the UK’s first space station in Sutherland. We are not “too stupid”.

Food and drink production has been a growing success, now threatened by Brexit. An interesting statistic is that Scotch whisky is the number one spirit traded around the world. Gin is another success: the UK produces almost 70% of the world’s gin, and of that between 70% and 80% is produced in Scotland. Then there’s the production of high-quality beef and lamb, of salmon and – here’s another interesting statistic – we produce two-thirds of the world’s langoustines.

Certainly not poor. By 2018, Scotland’s exports (calculated per head of population) were twice the value of the rest of the UK. And that pesky border idea – we mustn’t fall for the story that England would stop trading with us. England is still trading with Ireland and still needs to trade with Europe.

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Importantly, Scotland has incredible natural resources. Other statistics show that we have 40% of the UK’s wind and tidal power, 90% of the UK’s fresh water, 60% of the UK’s timber production and 70% of its landed fish. And much more.

If it sometimes seems that the Westminster Government has scant respect for the people of Scotland, this might explain it. The natural resources are what matters to them, not the welfare of the population. We are definitely not “too poor”.

Yet I often hear friends and neighbours express concern about independence. They’re often questions like: will we be able to trade? Would we lose the trade with England? Will we raise enough in taxes to cover our needs? Will taxes rise? Will we have enough jobs for everyone? How would we manage ourselves? Will house prices drop?

Underneath these questions lies the fear that things could go wrong. And yet there is no status quo to cling on to, not what we had in 2014, nor the promises that were made to the Smith Commission afterwards.

IT’S gone. All of it. Brexit took Scotland, unwillingly, out of the European Union, even though we were warned in 2014 that the only way to remain in the EU was to vote No to independence.

Brexit and this Westminster Government threaten to undermine the enormous progress Scotland has made in 20 years since devolution in aiming for a fairer society, in trying to redress harsh laws and in building up industry and skills for the future.

It isn’t about waiting to recover from the Covid downturn; it isn’t about rebuilding after the pandemic. The whole world is facing that. Scotland has to build on its own success before our assets are stripped away.

It is now much harder – sometimes impossibly so – to trade with the 27 European Union countries and to share lives and responsibilities with them. Fishing was an issue: our waters, our fish. But the Brexiteers forgot that when you catch fish for a living you have to sell them, and the markets of continental Europe became impossible and the fish has rotted.

The National: Scotch Beef

Farming was another: now, in the scramble to sign any possible trade treaty, the UK will bring cheap meat imports from Australia or the USA (with a huge carbon footprint) which will decimate supermarket business for our farmers. They forgot about selling the produce again. Fishing and farming would be protected, they said. Now that rings hollow.

Our EU workforce is heading home, encouraged to do so by a draconian regime that has left the UK short of delivery drivers, essential farm workers, NHS staff, social care workers and a whole raft of hospitality industry staff. In return our young people will find it harder, if not impossible, to travel, work, study, live or love in all those European countries. Nor will it be easy to retire to the sun.

Less obvious but more worrying is the removal of EU regulations which protect the citizens: food safety, animal welfare and plant standards (that’s what the so-called “sausage wars” in Northern Ireland are about); employment rights, cross-border police co-operation that means the loss of criminal information from 27 other countries, and the Human Rights Act.

THE Scottish Parliament recently voted to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scottish law, agreed by all parties. Now the UK Parliament is taking Holyrood to court to oppose this step. By that very action, we know our Parliament is under threat.

What would independence resolve? An independent Scotland would apply to rejoin the EU in a suitable capacity to bring back European trade and travel. We already have the regulatory framework in place, and indicators are good that Scotland would be welcome. Our trade with the EU could resume, and other international markets would be open on the EU’s already negotiated terms.

The country is not “too wee”: there are nine countries in the EU with a smaller population than Scotland and 12 with a smaller land mass.

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All of this earns money and pays taxes. It’s a fallacy that England’s taxpayers keep us going. Our tax revenues go to the Treasury in Westminster. VAT and corporation tax on our purchases from global companies with headquarters in London go to the Treasury.

It sucks it all up, just as it did the North Sea oil revenues decades ago, which Norway invested wisely for its future. We get back our share via an agreed formula, and any additional money according to Westminster’s calculations that skim off a percentage for UK-wide needs. Scotland is rarely consulted.

On administration, Scotland has tax offices; runs its own NHS that is functioning better than the NHS in England and isn’t being privatised by stealth. Constant assertions that it is failing don’t stand up to scrutiny.

The education system is our own and again is often criticised unjustly. Scotland has an integrated social care and health policy which is yet to be introduced in England, and it has brought in many policies to address injustice in welfare. But we aren’t allowed to control our own welfare system. The UK pension system is among the lowest in Western Europe – Scotland would want to do better.

Our hopes are for a fairer country. This may mean the richest would give up a little so the poorest may be self-sufficient. So far, a modest increase in taxation for the better off has not resulted in either exodus or tax rebellion.

Sustaining poverty and inequality is not a good long-term situation for any society. We need to be allowed to develop ideas that fit with our view of ourselves; to work on the transport plans we need; to have the housing policies most suitable to our people, not the constant quest for homes to be capital assets or business collateral; to welcome workers to help develop our society and our industry from other corners of the world, and enrich our culture from them. There are many ways to develop that are closed to us under Westminster’s control, in our finances, our welfare and our economic future.

We need to hope for a happier society. Recent years have been uncomfortable and the political differences harsh. That won’t disappear overnight. But it would be a wonderful ideal for everyone to pull together to make this a better place to live.

So while we might have lots in common with Yorkshire, and Derbyshire, we’ve also lots in common with Norway and Denmark and Ireland. Those three countries are independent nations.

They weren’t always, but they are now. And what it means is simple. They run their own country, and answer to their own population, not to a government in another country. And they remain friends with each other, as Scotland would wish to do too.

That railway tunnel is in Northern Ireland, where I grew up. Later on, Scotland welcomed my family and me and allowed us to flourish here, and I am grateful I’d just like us all to be allowed to find a better path than the one we are on now.