Firstly, an apology.
Today’s column is a few hours late. A series of unfortunate incidents left me stranded in Aberdeen last night. Although “stranded” might be stretching it – the hotel was very nice. Just about every member of staff I spoke to was from the EU, from the receptionist to the barman. Lovely folk they were, too. I had an idle thought: what if these folk are prevented from coming to Scotland? I wouldn’t be getting my scrambled eggs this morning, served with a smile by – and I can’t help but say this – a drop dead gorgeous Latvian. For that reason alone, I thought, we must stay in the European Union. Especially if Brexit means No Breakfast.
Reading the papers this morning, farming leaders and others are saying that “The PM no longer has a mandate for hard Brexit”. It’s an interesting choice of words. The Leave campaign repeatedly stressed that leaving the EU didn’t mean leaving the Single Market. Just about everybody, Leave or Remain, wants to stay in the world’s largest economic trading bloc.
Saying there is “no longer” a mandate suggests that there once was. And there wasn’t.
Which brings me neatly to today’s subject. Which is this. We aren’t leaving the European Union. At all. Yes, you did read that right.
Those of you who read my column closely (thanks, both of you) will have noticed a wee line I wrote in last week’s opinion piece on the election aftermath. For those who missed it, this is what I said:
“We [the SNP] should have made the point that we’d hold the (new Scottish Independence) referendum when we felt it was right, not at the end of Brexit negotiations that haven’t started or after we leave, which, incidentally, I don’t believe we will”.
It caused a minor stooshie amongst my readers, but it was old news amongst the Orkney Farmers with whom I had the privilege to travel in the Scottish Borders last week.
Here’s my argument.
Firstly, for all the talk about respecting democracy and the will of the majority, the EU referendum was profoundly undemocratic and about as narrow an interpretation of the people as it’s possible to imagine. Sixteen and seventeen year olds were not given the vote. Britons abroad were disenfranchised. And, disgracefully, so were EU nationals living, working, and paying their taxes in the UK were denied the vote. The government has still not guaranteed their status, despite this being a pre-requisite to the start of Brexit negotiations. The contrast with the 2014 Scottish referendum could not be more stark. This was a deliberate, conscious democratic outrage carried out on a xenophobic whim.
Secondly, there are the numbers. A 52% leave vote represents 37% of the electorate and 26% of the population. And yet we have politicians presenting this as a mandate for leaving, despite the fact that MPs were repeatedly told that this vote was only advisory in nature. This would explain why, fatally, they failed to build in safeguards like a two-thirds super majority. To call the result the will of the people or a justification for a hard-Brexit, or any kind of Brexit whatsoever, is patently absurd.
Thirdly, there was no prospectus. Leaving the ESM wasn’t on the ballot paper, and neither was leaving the Customs Union. Indeed, staying in both was a big part of the Leave argument. It was distortions, lies, and broken promises. £350m a week for the NHS? For all the criticism of the 2014 SNP’s White Paper, at least there was one. Maybe that’s where we slipped up. When Indyref2 comes along, we’ll just write it on the side of a bus.
Fourthly, the mood has changed. Polls show that more people than not now want to stay in. Whatever side people voted for, 90% want to stay in the single market.
There’s another important factor at play here – time. People talk about “post-Brexit” as if we’ve already left, when in fact a wholly unnecessary election means we haven’t even talked about leaving yet. Triggering Article 50 doesn’t mean we’re out, either. It’s simply the start of the removal process and it can be reversed at any time over the two year process. We can press the re-set button and decide to stay in. A nation will breathe a collective sigh of belief. It might be politically difficult (although a lot easier than continuing divorce proceedings) but the political price will be small. Despite us continuing to act like that friend on a night out who won’t stand his round, they are bemused at British antipathy to them and would happily see us stay. It’s also legally do-able.
Things change. Stuff happens. The Prime Minister will be forced to resign very soon. There will be a new election. A more centrist, Europe friendly government could be sworn in and may decide to change course, which will be greeted as good news by a public who will be watching how badly Brexit negotiations are going. And they will be bad.
Democracy decrees that we have the right to ask the question again at any time. Just as there is a cast-iron, triple lock mandate for a second Scotland plebiscite, so there is one for a new vote on Europe, and full justification for a new government to keep the UK in Europe. Believe me, politicians are nothing if not populist. If the mood changes (and it is) then so will they.
I’m not a betting man, but if I had £100 in my pocket today, here is what I’d be doing.
I’d be heading straight for the bookies and asking for the odds of both an independent Scotland and whatever is left of the United Kingdom being full members of the EU. And I’d put the whole lot on the nose. And I’d do it today, because the odds will be shortening. You read it here first. We’re not leaving.
Brexit? It means nothing of the sort.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News