Driving north to Perthshire on Thursday for a meeting, I turned on the radio. Theresa May was in Ayr, telling us how brilliant that Brexit we didn’t vote for and that she herself saw as a disaster was going to be, and how far from being a power grab the precious union would be strengthened and Scotland would be further empowered.
When May talks about strengthening the union, she means weakening devolution. How could it possibly be otherwise? A power grab it most certainly is, but it may be equally valid to see it as an inevitable consequence of a hard Brexit that was never going to co-exist with devolution. The UK internal market – whatever that is – must be sacrosanct and key powers over the environment, animal welfare, food standards and protected brands (“whiskey” from Nebraska, anyone? And how do you like your Australian hormone treated beef cooked?) will be centralised. Similarly, they say there need be no hard border in Ireland, even when the whole point of Brexit – taking back control – means that there must be one. I’m a Stranraer man, so I could conceivably be living the rest of my life in a border town. These are different days and unthinkable is the new normal.
Following Mrs May’s address, I tuned into the Radio Scotland ‘phone in and it confirmed what I’ve thought from the start. Brexit is a fix and everyone is in on it. Here’s just a few things that people have forgotten because the media don’t tell you because those things don’t fit with the establishment narrative. The EU Referendum was only meant to be advisory in nature only. There was no prospectus, and there was no mention about leaving the single market. According to three different studies it may well be illegal. By excluding EU nationals and sixteen and seventeen year olds from the vote, the franchise was limited to the extent that the narrow leave vote was as narrow an interpretation of the will of the people as it’s possible to imagine.
The programme made no mention of Christopher Wylie’s appearance in front of the Commons culture committee in which he alleged significant overspend by the Leave campaign. It made no attempt to challenge the Prime Minister’s airy predictions of more money for public services when everybody knows by now that the economy will shrink by between two and eight percent. Remarkably, just about every contributor allowed on the programme thought Brexit was a great idea, or at least urged us to suck it up. Which is strange, given that the programme was being broadcasted from a country that voted to remain by a margin of nearly two to one. And no mention of monies being channeled through the DUP so that it didn’t need to be declared. No mention of the Holyrood continuity bill or the fact that there isn’t a single new trade deal in place. No mention of any of that. It’s a UK vote. Respect democracy and eat your cereal. Such is the lurch to the right of the Overton window that any debate outside of its parameters is seen as seditious. We are Brexit saboteurs, the enemies of the people. Because Brexit means Brexit and the establishment shibboleths are sacrosanct.
Nothing encapsulates the enduring democratic imbalance of the union like Brexit. I understand the reservations of a sizeable minority of Yes and SNP voters. I’m not blind. I’m watching the situation in Catalonia and the EU mantra of respecting the rule of law, even when what the law is and what the law should be are two different things, and we should recognise the nuances. But for me, for Scotland, this isn’t necessarily a question about EU membership but an issue of democracy. In Brexit, as in everything, we get drawn in by Westminster’s gravitational pull regardless of our wholly divergence outlook. We’re expected to leave the EU and then do what we always do – mitigate the worst effects of it – but will need to do so with an enfeebled, post-power grab parliament. Caroline Nokes last week compared the Scottish Parliament to North Lincolnshire County Council. Which is exactly what they’d like us to become.
Nearly four years on from the first Independence Referendum, we can now categorically state that our decision to become the first country in history to vote against itself was utterly disastrous. We got EVEL, Brexit, the end of Sewel, the beginning of the end of Barnett, the DUP, the undermining of the devolution settlement and a threat to the fragile Irish peace process. And it’s our fault. Because voting No was never going to be seen as a gesture of trust but as a betrayal of a weakness to be exploited so that Scotland could never be so bold as to try to leave ever again. Voting No led us to a Brexit omnibouroch with an EU with whom we had no quarrel and which should have been nothing to do with us. And yet we are told we must pull together for the national interest. It was ever thus. Scotland is always expected to sacrifice itself to help England save itself from itself.
The extraordinary thing is that there’s very little evidence that attitudes have changed since June 2016. The slightest of shifts to remain, for sure, but nothing that would alter the result. Certainly, Scotland remains a resolute remainer. Indeed, the seemingly inevitable loss of European citizenship is deeply resented in Scotland, a feeling exacerbated by the naked power grab and undermining of Scottish democracy.
But maybe the lack of opinion shift isn’t so difficult to explain. Every possible Brexit – soft, hard and everything in between, will come at an economic cost. The Scottish Government impact reports say so. The leaked Whitehall documents say so. Even the UK Government now admits that it will be painful. There is not a single new trade deal in place and they will take years of excruciating negotiation to finalise. Even the CETA deal took seven years, and it’s still not quite there. The whole horrible process has effectively put normal UK government business on hold and whatever we end up and any deal we end up with will definitely, absolutely be worse than the one we currently have.
But here’s a question. What if believing that presenting irrefutable evidence of imminent fiscal carnage will swing people to remain or a soft-Brexit is a dangerous empathetic fallacy? What if, in fact, something else is in play here? Perhaps it’s worth trying to put ourselves in the position of someone in an area that voted overwhelmingly to leave, an area that will be disproportionately affected by Brexit? Chances are you’d be unemployed or scratching by on the minimum wage in a zero-hours job, or your benefits had been cut. When society has let you down so badly, why wouldn’t you vote for something different? If things are already bad, a potentially worse outcome holds no fear. Bring back control? Bring it on.
Perhaps, to invert the great Bill Clintonism, it’s not the economy, stupid. History shows that we make the mistake of believing that there is a rational explanation for everything. There isn’t. Mexicans, women and Muslims voted for Hillary, but not in anything like the numbers you’d logically expect given Trump’s dog-whistle (and sometimes naked) racism, misogyny and Islamophobia. Farmers voted largely against independence and on Europe were ambivalent, at best. The evidence shows that we act with our hearts, not our heads, even when it’s evidently not in our best interests. It’s how Cambridge Analytica came to be so successful in manipulating Brexit, Trump, Russia, elections all over the world – and maybe even the first independence referendum. We are not a rational species. Maybe, ultimately, Brexiteers don’t give a stuff about economic forecasts. Maybe Michael Gove was right and we really have had enough of experts, and that there’s no amount of financial hardship that can’t be compensated by the pride in having a blue passport with a union fleg on it, even it is made in France. The message from the shires seems clear enough: none of that money stuff matters because what we want is a great revival. Make Blighty Great Again.
And, despite wanting nothing to do with it, The unequal nature of Theresa May’s “precious union” means that we are once again caught in the gravitational pull of a government we didn’t vote for. While it is fascinating to watch England in the midst of an identity crisis that will see it become a modern, inclusive outward-looking democracy or – and I fear this is more likely – a regressive, isolationist, exclusionary one, this isn’t a debate Scotland wishes to be involved in. It has, in a sense, nothing to do with us. Let’s trumpet the now unbeatable arguments for independence and then decide for ourselves what our relationship with Europe should look like. Even if we are out for a wee while (and I’m not convinced we would be), our strong remain vote hasn’t gone unnoticed in Brussels. For all its faults, real and perceived, the EU stood firm when David Davis et al tried to bully Ireland over the border issue. Sort it, said the EU. Then, and only then, will we talk trade. It’s nice to have pals, and it’s also a lot easier to get your independence when those friends have your back.
When it comes to independence, it’s often said that timing is key. It is not. There is no sweet spot. You either have the arguments or you don’t. Brexit is, in a sense, a red herring, and the truth is that if we leave a second referendum until we have left the EU in the hardest way possible and suffer disproportionately the economic effects of it, then we will be less sure of our chances. That is one paradox. We are being told that devolution will be enhanced even as the founding principles of the devolution settlement itself – that powers are devolved unless specifically reserved – are being undermined. That is the other one.
Scotland wishes nothing to do with the controlled suicide that is Brexit. With a year to go, its high time we determined our own destiny. Take back control, if you will. We want nothing to do with England’s crippling identity crisis, and the way to help is not to join them in the suicide pact but to lead by example as a modern, self-determining, vibrant, inclusive democracy.
We have a mandate. We have the arguments. We have the people. With a year to go, today would be as good a time as any to fire the starting pistol. Let’s get this done.
Related article: Brexit Update: News of Two Unions