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Politics Scotland
Politics Scotland

Brexit: A Series Of Unfortunate Events

It was in January of 2013 when David Cameron first promised to hold an In/Out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. Labour, under Ed Miliband, denounced the idea as divisive and unnecessary. They accused the now former Prime Minister of running scared of UKIP and the Eurosceptics in in his own party. They would eventually reverse that position somewhat and in the end supported holding a referendum, ironically running scared from potentially losing votes to UKIP, albeit only be held in the event of a future transfer of powers rather than setting an arbitrary date.

In the run up to the 2015 election there was so much time and copy taken up with journalists insisting polls were telling us there would be a hung parliament, little time was spent analysing the actual policies of the parties. “Who will you work with” time and time again with politicians trying to talk about their policies and being cut off with “come on, there’s no way you’re going to win a majority so you would be able to enact your policies. Who will you work with/not work with/what policies will you drop”.  That strategy forced Labour into ruling out working with the SNP and worried England’s voters enough that they returned an outright Conservative majority.

We have been told since the EU referendum that Scotland knew in 2014 there would be an in out vote and if they voted No they were accepting the UK could vote to leave; caveat emptor. But at the time Labour were ahead in the polls and they were ruling one out. We were told that the EU referendum would be discarded in a future coalition with the Liberal Democrats, it won’t really happen. But the Tories won a majority and Cameron’s hands were tied. He thought it would be simple, the case for being in the EU was so strong and the consequences for leaving so grave that even with his own reservations about the organisation he assumed the public would vote to remain. A quick re-run of the project fear from the Scottish Independence campaign and call the other side racists, xenophobes and economically illiterate fools. He was wrong.

As much as Nigel Farage was pilloried for his “independence day” speech, when it comes down to it, that’s what the Brexit vote was in England, a vote for independence. But it was an isolationist, exclusive, and exceptionalist view of independence. We’ll have everything we’ve currently got but without Johnny Foreigner telling us what to do or how bent our bananas should be. We’ll trade with the whole world and they’ll do it on our terms because we’re British. They want to sell us cars and wine more than they value their precious single market.

Everyone remembers the look on Boris Johnson’s face on the morning after the vote. It wasn’t the face of a man who was happy with winning a major campaign, it was the haunted visage of someone who knew their actions would have enormous, and disastrous, consequences. After Cameron bailed with a hum and click of his heels to spend more time with him money all eyes fell on Boris, but he was knifed by Gove and exited the race. Then we ended up with either Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom, but Andrea made a comment about Theresa not being a Mum and dropped out leaving us with Mrs May as last woman standing. Strong and stable leadership she promised, we know how that worked out.

Why go over all this again? Because it’s important to remember how we ended up where we are. Brexit was never supposed to happen. There was no plan for what to do if the public voted out just as there hadn’t been a plan for if Scotland voted Yes in 2014. The UK government had no idea what it wanted from Brexit and here we are 18 months after the vote and year away from the start of the transition phase and they still don’t know. Theresa May’s speech at Manchester House was supposed to have been a landmark, setting out the UK’s vision for Brexit. Instead it was the usual muddle through with a few gaffes and a Santa’s wish list of things the UK will stay a part of despite repeated assertions from the EU, as early as that first David Cameron speech in 2013, that there would be no cherry picking when it comes the single market or the institutions of the EU.

In 2014 the treasury asserted that Scotland couldn’t use the UK pound and use the Bank of England as a central bank. It was perhaps one of the central planks of the No campaign and led to Alex Salmond famously failing to properly answer the question on currency. Had he laid out the options and the potential pros and cons people would have at least understood thought had gone into it. As it was he went with “trust me” and in the end not enough people did. David Davis has employed a similar stance towards a trade deal with the EU throughout the Brexit negotiations, his performances in committee hearings and press conferences smacking of arrogance. He even complained that the EU planned for a No Deal Brexit despite it being something he himself had threatened. He and the rest of the Leave campaigners have consistently peddled the line of “they need us more than we need them”, “we’ll get everything we want”. May’s speech at least suggests that the UK government have finally understood that’s not the case, but they still think the EU isn’t serious about treating the UK as a third country like any other.

Through all of this the Tory government’s attitudes towards the devolved governments of the UK, the supposedly precious family of nations has been dismissive and derogatory. That they even thought the clause 11 provisions were acceptable in the first place is indicative of their attitude. The SNP led Scottish Government published the Scotland in Europe paper outlining the options for Scotland having a differentiated position post Brexit, suggesting the UK staying in the Single Market and Customs Union would be the least worst option and offer the best compromise for those who voted to Leave and those who voted to Remain. It was a recognition of the UK wide vote, much to the annoyance of many of their own voters, but it was a pragmatic response which was rejected out of hand as unworkable.

The option of a second independence referendum was already voted through the Scottish parliament as a fall-back option, but with almost equal numbers moving from No to Yes as Yes to No post Brexit, and the SNP’s strong position on EU membership leading to the loss of seats at the snap election, the UK government believed they could block that without consequence. That remains to be seen, but so far it seems an accurate assumption. If the SNP think Tories being nasty to Scotland or ignoring their demands will be enough to push support for independence beyond 50% they may be mistaken.

As things stand though, the public at large seemly thoroughly disengaged with Brexit. The zealots who wanted it want it now, now, now, why isn’t it done yet, just get out. Those who wanted to remain have either accepted the vote and want to make the best of it or are seeing the disaster they predicted unfolding in front them with a mixture of “told you so” and disbelief that the Tory government is so stunningly inept. But ask the average person in the street and they are not interested. They have things to deal with and don’t trust politicians so they just put their heads down and hope it goes away, whichever way they voted. There’s still so much uncertainty and lack of clarity, so much constant chopping and changing of positions and policies that nobody can be bothered with it anymore.

For those who support Scottish independence and or take an interest in politics it’s like a keen eyed fireperson spotting smoke coming from a building and yelling “fire” while everyone around mumbles “it’s probably nothing” and walks on by. All the evidence points to a fire but a mixture of denial and blind optimism means most people are just getting on with their day jobs. The weight and volume of evidence that Brexit will be a disaster for Britain’s economy and standing in the world are growing, the UK government’s own leaked assessments being more pessimistic than even the Scottish Government’s “scare mongering” figures. It is almost certain that in board rooms up and down the country the Prime Minister’s most recent speech will have triggered contingency plans to move yet more jobs onto the continent, or over to Ireland.

These are predominantly high paying, and high tax yielding jobs, whether we approve of their high remuneration or not, the loss of up to 80,000 jobs at £70-100k means a significant fall in tax revenue. Not just from their income tax, but from the other money they put into the economy. Some may even be pleased about this, “good riddance to cheating bankers”, but the jobs that are going aren’t all in the banking sector. Some key EU institutions are already moving or planning to move out of the UK. When there is even less to spend on public services it is the poorest who are hardest hit. Yet this is always the case when anything bad happens, those with the least ability to adapt to change suffer the most difficulty. Brexit is social and economic Darwinism brought to you by the Conservative and Labour parties.

Scottish Conservatives and unionists of all persuasions will tell us that the EU withdrawal is best handled at a UK level, despite the clear ineptitude of the current government. Scottish Tories in particular have flip-flopped on their positions in direct relation to UK government policy. Let’s not forget that initially Ruth Davidson was all for staying in the Single Market, even though that meant accepting free movement of people, but soon set the record straight when she was told to by UK Tory HQ.

That’s not some nationalist’s bitter accusation, the many and varied positions of Ruth Davidson are available online for anyone to view. But they won’t. What her current position is who can say, but what is certain is that nearly one third of “her” MPs signed the letter calling for the hardest of Brexits. She covers this with claiming her MPs are not drones “unlike the SNP”, but it somewhat flies in the face of their claims to stand up for Scotland’s best interests when not only did Scotland vote against Brexit, but their own government’s figures show that Scotland would be disproportionately badly hit by such an arrangement.

The Scottish Government’s decision to introduce their own EU withdrawal bill designed to circumvent the UK’s attempt to claim sovereignty over areas of legislation previously devolved is bold and imaginative, and clearly worked out as a joint approach with the Welsh government. Though, apparently, nobody told Scotland in Union supporting Presiding Officer Ken MacIntosh who, unlike his Welsh counterpart, ruled the legislation incompetent, also in contrast with Scotland’s Lord Advocate’s ruling.

If it passes, the legislation will mean the Scottish Government could potentially have the power to stay in lock-step with EU legislation, perhaps they could exercise a managed divergence from UK law. There is, however, another difficulty ahead for the SNP and that is if the UK do make all the changes requested and give them everything they want. Because then they would have to agree to grant a legislative consent motion to allow the UK government to take Scotland out of the EU, against our will, against our express vote in every region of the country. The option of an independence referendum might be more difficult to argue for if you’ve voted for the legislation to go through. What the Scottish Government need to make absolutely clear is that they will seek a vote on independence as a ratification of the UK withdrawal deal and that there will be no LCM without a agreement to allow a binding vote on independence.

The powers coming back from the EU, if they do indeed end up residing at Holyrood, would indeed increase the competency of the Scottish parliament significantly, and we may need to review how decisions are made there as a result. But they should not be seen as a semi-independence or a Devo-Max, this is no half-way house to running our own affairs. That which currently is decided at Westminster will still be decided at Westminster. Yet, as things stand, a majority of voters in Scotland still seem to think that’s the best option, at least according to polls.

How anyone in Scotland can look at the current crop of Tory ministers and think they are better at deciding our future than we are is beyond the comprehension of independence voters. But to the soft No’s, the non-unionist pragmatists, the non-ideologues, it’s not about the current encumbents, it’s not about the individuals, it’s about the establishments and institutions. It’s also partly about looking at the complexity of Brexit and wondering why on Earth we would compound that by leaving the UK. If extricating the UK from the EU is this difficult after only 40 years, how hard will it be to separate Scotland from the rest of the UK after 300 years of shared history and institution building. But the alternative is to have damage inflicted on us that we didn’t vote for. Scotland is stuck between a rock and a bigger rock.

The next independence referendum cannot be a re-run of the 2014 vote. The circumstances are vastly different and the backdrop of Brexit means people will be more reluctant to enact further change. The Scots attitude of “let’s just wait it out” will be hard to resist. There will be those who say “why make things worse by cutting ourselves off from a market that we sell 4 times as much to”. That argument will hold less water as the Northern Ireland border issue resolves itself but the Yes movement next time must me far more amorphic and less prescriptive than last time. The left leaning offer last time was anathema to more in Scotland than independence supporters would care to admit. Without including all Scots, whatever their political leaning, in the pursuit of self-determination we will be doomed to repeat the same mistake.

Ironically the Yes movement next time can learn something from the Leave campaign. This next vote isn’t about what kind of Scotland we want to be, what kind of economy we’ll have, where we’ll spend resources or how much pensions and benefits will be, it’s not even about our place in the EU. It will be about taking control of our destiny. At the moment we’re looking at a UK government teetering on the edge with Jeremy Corbyn waiting in the wings on the Labour benches, hoping for another snap election despite being behind in the polls, and Jacob Reese-Mogg nipping at the heels of Theresa May. Independence is about taking control ourselves and making our own mistakes. We have to ask ourselves as a country if we’re happier carping from the sidelines about how badly someone else is messing things up, or if we’re willing to step up and take some responsibility.

The Brexit model which the Scottish Government have precipitated with the EU withdrawal bill could form a blueprint for a pragmatic pseudo-independence which may not suit all sides but could work. Transfer all powers to the Scottish parliament and set up or keep cross border frameworks where it makes most sense. Not so much a Devo-Max as a Union-Min. But all of that is secondary to the decision to stop blaming England/Westminster/The Establishment for our misfortunes and start doing it for ourselves. If we were able to sit every voter in Scotland down and show them how their media misreport the news, how the BBC put forward narratives, what the true depth of Brexit will be and the consequences of allowing this to be done to us, we might be able to turn the tide. But with the entire might of Her Majesty’s Press-Corps and the broadcast media it will be a struggle to combat the narratives.

When the Scottish Government do finally pull the trigger on the next and last referendum on Scottish independence those who support it must be prepared. They must be more vocal with friends, family, neighbours and even strangers in shops when they are at the tills. Stop bemoaning people being unaware of what’s going on and make them aware. Don’t complain that people are misinformed, inform them. Don’t hate the media, become the media.



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