“We are trapped in a box. Parliament feels frozen by the referendum but people voted for a fantasy we can’t deliver. They can only have Brexit if they’re prepared to suffer the pain”. (UK Cabinet Minister, quoted last week)
“I am their leader. I must follow them” (Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, French politician)
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson made a speech to Congress in which he made a compelling case for America’s entry into the Great War. This was significant in itself, but doubly so given that he’d been re-elected to the Oval Office by a wide margin only twenty months earlier on a specifically anti-war, isolationist ticket. There is much about Woodrow Wilson that is to be shunned – he was an ardent segregationist, for example – but it is admirable that he noted that circumstances had changed and so must he. By the time he made his speech, the Lusitania had been sunk and Germany had made it clear that no merchant ship servicing the UK or continental Europe would be safe from U-boat attack. Wilson understood what we seem to have forgotten: that politics is a process, not an event, and that leaders have a moral duty to adapt their policies for the greater good when there’s a material change in circumstances, and to recognise that they have a responsibility to adapt accordingly.
Wilson knew that he was making the case for war to a country that had recently expressed its democratic wish to plough a lone furrow in isolation from the bitter conflicts of the Old World their recent ancestors had left behind. He also knew that by calling for America’s intervention he was effectively signing the death warrant of thousands of his fellow citizens. And he knew that he had to put the interests of the country first and ignore the possible damage to his own political reputation. But he also knew that he was right – and both houses agreed with him. In the end, the vote wasn’t even close.
One hundred years on from that famous speech to Congress, our current situation calls for the same level of moral courage, selfless leadership and clarity of thought. We need, in short, the Brexit process to be reversed. Starting now.
There is absolutely no reason why this cannot happen.
Firstly, the Brexit process was democratically illegitimate. Sixteen and seventeen year olds were denied the vote, as were British nationals living abroad for over ten years. EU nationals living in the UK, were similarly disenfranchised, despite fully contributing economically, socially and culturally to their adopted home. The reason given by Liam Fox for this was that it would have been an unacceptable dilution of the will of the British electorate. It seems we are all in this together but some are more British than others. One can only imagine the outcry if Scotland had adopted the same rules in 2014. Brexit was a deliberate, conscious democratic outrage carried out on a xenophobic whim. It feels suspiciously like a coup led by people who will be wholly sheltered from the devastating fallout suffered by the rest of us.
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.
Even leaving aside the watertight legal arguments over legitimacy, there are more immediate concerns that strengthen the argument for reversing the Article 50 process.
There are, for example, reports in circulation that the UK Government are refusing to let us see because it’s “not in our national interest”. Allow me to translate that for you. “There’s no chance we’re letting you see how catastrophic the outcome of what you didn’t vote for but will end up getting anyway is going to be”. Head of the anti-Scotland branch office David Mundell appears to have even stopped pretending, and states that we cannot be allowed to see a report that coldly states we’d be £30bn worse off after a hard Brexit because it would lead to a second independence referendum, which in the parallel incorporationist party world inhabited by Mundell would be far worse that economic meltdown.
It also leads to this thought. Three years ago we were told that independence would cost Scotland £15bn (it wouldn’t), yet today we know that staying in the union will cost us £30bn. So my question is this: why are we still here? Brexit or no Brexit, our continuing association with this lunacy can only be to our economic detriment and the Brexit power grab is a threat to Scottish democracy itself. Our best hope is to make the 2021 Holyrood the second independence referendum. We secure a pro-independence majority on a manifesto promise to begin divorce proceedings on that premise.
Even within the narrow confines of Scottish farming it is impossible to find a single positive outcome. Four years after they arrived in London, the £160m of convergence uplift monies have not arrived, and DEFRA Minister Michael Gove has as good as told us we can whistle for them – something that even some Scottish Tories have all too belatedly opposed.
It also beggars belief that the UK Government failed to register A single Scottish Protected Geographical Indicator (PGI) as part of the recently signed CETA deal, despite intensive lobbying by groups like Quality Meat Scotland. It seems like they see us building a world famous brand and worry that we might be acting like a modern, surging, ambitious, vibrant and independently minded nation. And that would never do.
Brexit is an existential threat to our industry. Scotland fruit and vegetable sectors need 15,000 workers per year just to keep the wheels turning. It can Ill-afford any restrictions on free movement of labour, particularly when exchange rates, lower UK wages and an understandable feeling that they’re not welcome mean that the sector is facing a 20% shortfall, even before we’ve left.
The sector sums up the muddled thinking of the Brexiteers. The harvest used to be four weeks, but technological advances mean this isn’t seasonal work any more – it’s actual work. Fruit and veg gets picked for up to nine months of the year, by highly skilled people in areas where unemployment is generally low – so it’s not as if there’s an army of workers ready to step in. And even if there were, they’d need to be trained first. Without some deal that allows migrant workers in the short to medium term, the sector cannot function. The same, incidentally, goes for the dairy industry, where the contribution of Eastern European workers has been a spectacular success for both workers and employees – and the wider economy, particularly when immigrant workers tend to be young, skilled and relatively well paid. In other words, exactly the kind of people Scotland needs to fund the pensions and essential services for its ageing demographic. And, remember, Scotland did not vote for Brexit.
In a broader sense, it won’t do to say that Theresa May was handed a poisoned chalice. She could have pursued consensus but instead grabbed the opportunity to outflank the Farages of this world by pursuing a hardline approach, putting party ahead of people – just as the Scottish Tories did by backing her bung with the DUP when opposing it could have brought Scotland £2.9bn of Barnett consequentials. They, like she, put self before side. They were always going to.
But the truth is that the closer Brexit approaches the worst an idea it becomes. The public hate the people behind it. The fragile peace of Northern Ireland has been destabilised. 75,000 financial sector jobs could relocate to Paris, Dublin and Frankfurt (just imagine the capital of an independent Scotland getting a slice of that – three years one, the decision to vote against ourselves seems not just wrong but an unforgivable act of self-harm and folly).
And it is of course the poorest that suffer most disproportionately. Most of us don’t have the luxury of treating this as an intellectual exercise. You can only do that if you’re rich enough to own a second home in the country, so you can escape the toxic city fumes. You can afford to talk about taking back control if you’re status affords you private health care while the rest of us muddle through with a failing NHS that you’ve just sold to a US healthcare fund as part of a deal with Trump America. Failing schools don’t matter because your children are at Eton. The game is rigged.
If talks end without a deal, it’s really bad. If we get the “best deal possible” then it’s still dreadful. The only sensible option is to call it off.
There is no good reason not to. The Daily Mail would be angry, but that is its default position and if what you’re doing makes the Daily Mail angry, you’re probably doing the right thing. Despite everything, the EU would rather we stayed. Public opinion has shifted. Any sort of Brexit means ten years of dealing with constitutional and legal and minutiae to the exclusion of just about everything else, including competent government. And for what, exactly? Because of a slogan on the side of a bus? A campaign that was based on falsehoods, half-truths and flat-out deception? Politics is a process, not an event. We cannot be hidebound by the result of a democratically illegitimate vote, especially when the truth is now finally emerging.
The only reason Theresa May wouldn’t do this isn’t a reason at all – the likely collapse of her party. But I’d argue that she’d have more to lose from the economic fallout than she would from reversing Article 50. She’ll be out of a job within a year in either case, but by halting the Brexit juggernaut she’ll have lost the keys to Number 10 but secured her legacy by doing what she always believed in – keeping her country in the European Union and preventing the biggest calamity since the Second World War.
As I suggested a couple of weeks back, this is what she should say.
“Listen, I voted remain because I believed that was the best option for the future of our people, and despite the many concerns I believed that we should address these within the framework of EU membership.
Today’s continuing Brexit impasse seems as good time as any to repeat that the first priority of any country’s leader should be the continuing wellbeing of that country.
Notwithstanding that I have grave reservations about the legitimacy of the vote – the exclusion of the sixteen and seventeen year olds whose future it is, the fact that all MPs were briefed that this was a vote advisory in nature only, despite the disenfranchisement of EU nationals and UK citizens abroad, and despite the lies about the extra monies for the NHS, I have a graver concern.
I am the Prime Minister, and as PM of this country my first and only priority is the continuing wellbeing of this country. That for me trumps an entirely undemocratic and mendacious referendum and, having studied all the evidence, I conclude that Brexit can only be achieved with enormous cost to our economy. I therefore propose that we, as we are perfectly entitled to do, reverse article 50. And if anyone in this room disagrees? Fine. Make your argument. It might take another election to put this to bed, but I’m more than up for that. Put up or shut up. Bring. It. On”.
And here’s the thing. I think it would work. But I fear she lacks the courage to say it.
Which leaves Scotland with a decision to make.
You know what to do.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News
Reminder of the result of the referendum to leave the EU
Yellow is Remain, Blue is Leave