“If winning doesn’t matter, why do we keep score?” (Vince Lombardi, legendary American Football coach)
I’ve always loved that story about Brazil’s national football coach giving a press conference after losing to arch-rivals Argentina. Brazil had played, arguably, the better, the purer, the more aesthetically pleasing football over the ninety minutes, but Argentina had “parked the bus”, disrupted play, wasted time and then hit Brazil on the break. Not pretty and a bit naughty for sure, but a highly effective gameplan to employ against a technically superior side. Jock Stein used to tell his teams that you couldn’t always go to work in a suit – sometimes the hard task in front of you demanded you wear the dungarees. Sometimes you need to win ugly. Like golfers say, the scorecard doesn’t paint any pictures.
Still smarting from the mugging, the Brazil coach said something like: “the scoreboard might say 3-1, but anyone watching knows that ours is a moral victory”. Naturally, it took about three seconds for someone to tell the Argentinian manager and to ask for his response.
“Tell him I offer my sincere congratulations on his moral victory”, he said. “And I’m sure he will wish to reciprocate by congratulating me on my actual victory”. Ouch.
History shows that winning and losing, victory and defeat, are more complicated concepts than they first appear. In 280BC, King Pyrrhus of Epirus defeated the Roman army at Heraclea, before beating them again at Asculum the following year. When Pyrrhus was congratulated on his wins, he famously responded: “Another such victory and we shall be utterly ruined”. In other words, the cost of victory would ultimately be defeat. By winning the battles, he lost the war. From this, we derive the phrase “pyrrhic victory”, which describes an outcome that could technically be described as a success, but which incurs such losses that the “victory” is empty, pointless and self-defeating.
The biggest Pyrrhic victory since Asculum is about to be “won” as the UK crashes out of the European Union without a deal, only a year after its own Prime Minister said that such an outcome would constitute “a failure of statecraft”.
Proper politicians – and there seems to be a scarcity of them at the very time when we need a surfeit of them – recognise that in a complex world it isn’t about winning and losing, but about compromise and moderation, about finding the least / worst outcome that while completely pleasing no-one at least pleases most of the people some of the time. The seemingly unavoidable no-deal Brexit, now being rebranded as a fantastic outcome by the same people who previously said it would be a disaster that would never happen because leaving the EU would facilitate the easiest trade deal in history, is a tragedy. And it is a tragedy that happens when two completely different political cultures collide.
Only one side in the Brexit talks believed in moderation, respect and compromise. And it wasn’t Britain, whose dominant logic is an exceptionalist, brutal majoritarianism that holds that when it comes to winning, no cost is too high. It is hardwired to impose a narrow, partisan agenda that excludes any perspective but their own. Brexit is the inevitable result of this deep systemic failure.
As Pyrrhus knew nearly two millennia ago, A victory with devastating costs is no victory at all. Brexit was based on premises that will now be proven to be false. Premises that life would be better if we closed the borders to immigrants, and that if we voted to remain we’d all wake up to find a Turkish family sleeping on our sofa. Premises that £350m per week would be spent on the NHS. The premise of immediate sunlit uplands has now been replaced by a promise of jam, not tomorrow but fifty years hence. You wonder what kind of “liberation” from Brussels this is, if it actually delivers not a short, sharp shock but decades of long-term job losses, food shortages, the end of the sheep industry and lorry parks at Cairnryan. What is the point of seeking a Brave New World only to find that the earth has been scorched?
But we are where we are. And where we are is on our own. And the question is: why?
Any deal with anyone requires a minor ceding of sovereignty. It is the very nature of the transaction. Now “we” have it back. But at what cost? Why Take Back Control when doing so creates not one single new job but destroys thousands of existing ones? When it leads, not to new investment, but to companies relocating to Paris and Dublin and Frankfurt? When it threatens tariff free access to a market of half a billion people? When our food and welfare standards will be lower and we will pay more for the privilege of eating it, hormones and all? When by leaving the rules system of Brussels that gets us access to the single market we are joining the WTO one in Zurich that doesn’t and which states that if tariffs are offered to one they are offered to all. But your passport will be blue. So it’s all good.
And just as Brexit is a Pyrrhic victory for Westminster, so was their win in 2014. Vote no to keep ships being built in the Clyde. Vote no to save the HMRC jobs. Vote no to protect your pension. Vote no for more powers and the greatest devolved Parliament in the world.
Vote no to stay in the European Union.
So we voted no. And we got job losses, EVEL, the power grab – and Brexit.
But you can only pull that stunt once. The very nature of a Pyrrhic victory is that, ultimately, you lose.
So I have a few “take homes” for you.
Firstly, we aren’t stupid. We know we were lied to. We’ve watched the chaotic handling of Brexit and a government profiteering during a pandemic and have decided we that self-governance is the only option. That’s fifteen polls in a row now. It is the settled will of the people of Scotland.
Secondly, if a Westminster government can act with such impunity over an issue as important as Brexit the chances of them negotiating in good faith with Scotland, far less granting a second plebiscite, are zero. We need to find another way.
And, thirdly, we have friends in Europe. We voted to remain and need to be speaking to the EU about resuming frictionless trade within the single market, either by becoming the new, twenty-eighth member or by joining EFTA – after which we can decide what to do. And that’s the thing. It will, finally, be up to us.
To go back to the story of the football managers, 2014 was Scotland’s moral victory. We need to make 2021 an actual one which, unlike King Pyrrhus’ tainted triumphs, leads only to the normality of a newly independent country where everybody wins, and no-one is left behind.
Stay safe good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.