Escaping Boris’s Blowhole
“It all has the feel of the world’s most boring thriller. Though there are only just under seven weeks left until Britain’s official date of departure from the European Union, public life seems drowsy with a lethal brew of fatalism, insouciance and burrowing cowardice…If Brexit was ever a principled uprising, it now more closely resembles a form of boredom longing to be curtailed: it has more in common with a delayed Deliveroo order than a popular revolution.” (a decent proposal?)
A referendum POST Brexit, to confirm leaving the way that 1975 confirmed joining, seems sensible. It would also give Scotland the chance to make its own choice. This morning, I wouldn’t give it a snowball’s chance in a circle of hell of happening. It might, however, be the standard against which to judge which of the Nightmare Before Christmas Assortment of outcomes we’re faced with at the moment, insofar as it would offer the electorates in the UK and specifically in Scotland a chance to think again.
First, obviously, do the “British People” really want to entrust their fate to Boris Johnson Globalism, when, to judge by this morning on @BBCr4today , he, like most other Leavers is actually relying on pretty much remaining when it comes right down to it. (Just as a brief aside, it strikes me, and it must strike EU negotiators, that having kept buggering on about wanting this Brexit malarkey for year after year, British politicians seem to be constitutionally unable to treat it like it anything that is actually happening…)
A post Brexit referendum at the end of transition confirming whether the UK REALLY wants to leave, would give voters in Scotland a specific challenge: Do we REALLY want to go along with whatever England does, or do we REALLY want a Scotland specific relationship with the EU?
Reflecting on the Scotland-Specific meaning a putative “Confirmatory” EU referendum in the UK would have rather forces on me the following assertion that I want to test: the next election, no matter WHAT it is, is effectively a referendum on the constitution. Without necessarily meaning to, let alone planning it, it seems to me that we have arrived at a place historically where it is inescapably the case for what we used to call “the Yes movement”, including the SNP, that the next vote we get is a decisive one for that constitution. Any election we take part in has to be about the decision we make on the question of our relationships with Europe and with the UK. An existential crisis is going to happen next time we vote, like it or not.
I have never been a fan of a simple repeat exercise on the 2014 referendum and “getting it right this time.” I don’t think the SNP Leadership is either. This is not a source of frustration to me. A second referendum loss is far more likely than a win. But more importantly, it is a principle of history that you can NEVER stand in the same stream twice. The 2014 Indyref came out of a very special set of circimstances among the most important of which was David Cameron’s rock solid certainty, (advised by Labour) that he was going to win it. As far as Cameron was concerned, Project Fear in Scotland was a rehearsal for the really IMPORTANT referendum, which was the UK one on EU membership. Many books have already been written about both calculations and both outcomes. But we MUST remember that when it came right down to it, the 2014 referendum was a Tory scheme to DESTROY the Nats…and the fact that it didn’t work and that we’re even TALKING about a Scotland specific response to Brexit isn’t actually bad going.
More important than the simple observation that time has moved on since the first half of this decade is the equally simple observation that it has moved on a LOT, very, VERY fast…and that any prescription for what we do next predicated on a past model is likely to come unstuck.
So I return to the new premise I want to test: that the next electoral test, no matter what it is, needs to be approached by the SNP (and others of the Artists Formerly Known as the Yes Movement) as seeking a mandate for a specific Scottish relationshop with the EU. Now…this sounds terribly dry and boring and unimportant…but then, until 2016 so did the EU itself…(hence the ease of the Leave vote winning and the unreality in which Leave leaders have dwelled ever since)..and now we know it’s really important to who we – Brits and Scots- ARE in the world.
For example, the Brexit process has revealed that shared EU membership was absolutely CRUCIAL to the success of devolution in Northern Ireland…and, it will soon clearly emerge, in Scotland and Wales too. At its simplest, the “return” of trade and standards regulation from Brussels to the UK…to WESTMINSTER…is an absolute bureucratic consequence of any form of Brexit, hard or soft. Brexit will centralise power in London in a way that is unthinkable in the context of devolution. All those who created and supported the devolved settlement under which Scotland has been governed for the last twenty years will very soon find that without the roader context of EU membership (for the last forty five years) devolution simply won’t work.
It should be a maxim from now on: You can have Brexit or you can have Devolution: you CANNOT have both. No Tory or Labour administration of Brexit Britain will be able to tolerate the notion that somewhere in these islands, someone can do things differently. But this, of course, is where the whole project falls apart…on what was always the Achilles heel of Empire: Ireland. That failing Ireland leaving the EU on the day the UK does, just as it joined the EEC on the same day in 1973, the entire Brexit project is incoherent. Ireland will do no such thing. And, it is my contention, that the next line of defense of ANY kind of “democratic control”, whatever we call it constitutionally, is for Scotland to insist on an independent relationship with the European Union.
We need to make decent trade deals that protect the identity of Scottish Branding. (Glass of British Glenlivet anyone?) We need to control the big stuff too, like immigration policy…and agriculture, tourism…Every defender of devolution knows that devolution itself is a defense against the excesses of a UK government which cannot arithmetically reflect our views on matters of health care, education policy and on and on and on…What is really historically significant about Brexit in the context of devoluition, is that Brexit will wipe that line of defence out. We will be helpless in whatever breezes Boris Johnson blows – and whichever orifice he blows them from. And THAT is what the next election, for Westminster or Holyrood or the EU is about.
The next election, whatever it is, is a question about who governs Scotland. And if, to draw a final seventies reference, the answer to the SNP is “Not you, mate”…then so be it. But make no mistake, if the SNP win the next election in Scotland, then everything must change.