Come a Thursday evening in term time, you will inevitably find a packed debating chamber on St Michael’s Street. This week found OxStu’s intrepid reporters at ‘This House Would Support an Independent Scotland’, which promised a debate that has remained hot since its most recent conception in 2014. The Union debated this motion at the time of the Scottish independence referendum, but with Brexit changing the political landscape, and key figures of each side departing, the time seemed right for a fresh debate.
After the emergency debate, which tossed around the motion of ‘This House Would Split the Bill’, Charlie Mackintosh, President of the Oxford Union and looking resplendent in a suitably exuberant kilt and sporran, welcomed members, joking that after Nicola Sturgeon’s departure as First Minister we have seen “the Oxford Union resulting in yet another head of state resigning”. These sentiments were echoed by speakers down each bench, with Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh saying that “the foresight of this Oxford Union never ceases to amaze me” and Alexander Cole-Hamilton commenting, “I know the Oxford Union is powerful but to engineer the abdication of Nicola Sturgeon is quite something.”
The witticisms continued with the opening speeches from Oliver Crawford (Balliol, proposition) and Finlay Armstrong (Regent’s Park, opposition).
Crawford presented some of the core arguments for independence. He noted the disparity in the vote for Brexit between Scotland and England, with 62% of Scottish voters voting to remain in the EU, and the limited influence the Scottish Government had in Brexit negotiations. He argued that “Scotland’s destiny must be in the hands of Scotland.” Crawford also walked the audience through the oil and gas argument, popular since 2014, that Scotland would be able to be independent on the basis of its natural resources in the North Sea. He concluded by speaking of the Scottish youth of today, and the booming popularity of independence among them. “What can the government really offer Scotland?” He asked. It was up to the opposition to respond.
At this point, a member of the Union in the audience stood up to speak again, accusing Mackintosh of “unilaterally suppressing a motion”. The member had tried to start the debate on a private member’s motion about banning slates at the start of the debate, but Mackintosh had moved it to after the independence debate concluded. The member said he was going to post a no-confidence motion on Mackintosh if he did not start the private member’s business. However, Mackintosh deemed the speaker to have broken house rules twice, and so asked him to leave the chamber. While the speaker did not leave, he did not mention the private member’s business for the rest of the debate. In any case, the private member’s motion ultimately failed to pass, with an anonymous source telling OxStu that as long as the President is opposed to the motion passing, it never will.
Armstrong spoke next, using the analogy of a marriage to describe the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the Union. He touched on many key Unionist arguments, describing the poor governance of Scotland under the SNP, pointing to the public health crisis, falling educational standards, and drug deaths, and discussed depleting natural reserves in the North Sea. In regards to the debate over whether Scotland would be able to rejoin the EU if independent, he said that even if Scotland could, its people would have to suffer through “years of austerity” in order to do so. He implored the chamber: “let us not respond to this introversion [of the independence movement] with equally small minded nationalism.”
Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, Scotland’s first female Muslim MP, spoke next for the proposition. She was an exciting speaker, and told the chamber that “to vote with your heart and head you need to feel like you’re a Scot, entrusted with your nation’s future.” Her speech mainly focused on ‘The Vow’, promises made to Scotland by David Cameron, Ed Miliband, and Nick Clegg in the weeks preceding the referendum in 2014. Ahmed-Sheikh said that powers promised in this vow have not been delivered, and that the negative consequences that were meant to happen with independence have instead happened with Scotland in the Union. Pointing to the example of nurses having to use food banks she asked, “what’s so ‘Better Together’ about that?”
Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Alexander Cole-Hamilton, was up next to defend the Union. He spoke of his belief that we are living in a “new cold war” and that it was vital to national security and defence that Scotland maintain unity with the rest of the UK. He accused the SNP, and the independence movement, of “dressing [sic] up their nationalism in the progressive clothes of the left” while being like nationalist demagogues such as Trump, Orban, and Putin. Cole-Hamilton too touched on the question of EU membership, arguing that SNP anguish over the Brexit vote was mere “crocodile tears” and that they had spent more on the Shetland by-election (which they lost) than on the Remain campaign. In response to a point of information about the positive value of nationalism in lifting people out of imperial rule, Cole-Hamilton responded swiftly that Scots “are not under colonial rule” but are instead trapped between the nationalisms of independence and Brexit.
Finally, the speaker everyone had been waiting for: Alex Salmond. To OxStu’s surprise, we found that one appointed Union member seemed to have little idea who Alex Salmond was, or that he had been in court for sexual assault in 2020 (although cleared of all charges). However, many other members had a firm grasp on who Salmond was, with Alex Fish (ex-CCC, Hertford) offering a point of information that asked why else Salmond had been in court, after he mentioned his wind farm-related court cases with Donald Trump. Salmond argued that two political events have shown him that devolution is not sufficient for Scotland: the Iraq war, and Brexit. He spoke of the representatives from countries who have achieved “independence from London” and how none of them would come back under “Westminster rule”. He also said that “people are entitled in each election to make new choices” in response to his oft-repeated statement that the 2014 referendum was a once-in-a-generation opportunity. In response to claims that he worked for Putin when he had a show on RT, he responded that the programme had been editorially independent.
To conclude the debate, Carwyn Jones, former first minister of Wales, came in with a “uniquely Welsh angle”. He argued for reform of the British state, with the House of Lords ideally being replaced by a body that represents the geography and demography of the UK to a greater extent, and greater voice being given to the North of England, and that the body that allows for communication between different UK heads of government should be able to negotiate more actively. Jones spoke of a constitutional arrangement where each constituent part of the UK had its own sovereignty and chose to pool that sovereignty in particular areas like defence and fiscal policy. He concluded by saying the UK needed “marriage counselling but not divorce.”
To look at the debate as a whole, at times it seemed as if some Union members struggled to grasp the gravity of this issue, and the fundamental impact it would have on millions of Scots. One Scottish audience member told OxStu that the section of the debate where audience members could contribute had made him the most pro-independence he had ever been, due to the flippant way non-Scottish speakers treated the motion and the “offensive” attempts at Scottish accents. One speaker said that he believed in Scottish independence because Scotland was a “drag on England’s economy” – only to concede once another member offered a point of information that focused only on whisky.
The final result of the debate was 177 votes against the motion, to 77 for.