Shit Just Got Real
Last Thursday, as the Americans say, shit got real. That is, to be slightly more “European” about it, reality got real in a subtly different way. History, politics, everything.
Like Scottish Independence in the months before September 18th 2014, before last Thursday, Brexit was a threat or a promise, depending on your preference. On Thursday December 12th 2019, unlike voters in Scotland in 2014, voters in England made it real. In retrospect, it turns out to have always been clear that in order to become a real process in the UK as it already was in Brussels, it needed BOTH the mandate of the 2016 referendum and a parliamentary majority to lift leaving the EU from the category of abstraction to that of “Oh Crap, this thing is really going to happen.” For the first time in the whole process what Brexit actually means in terms of the practical management of trade, of the economy and of the politics of the Union, is actually on the table. Till now, it was a game. On Thursday, as the Americans say, shit got real.
The other shit that just got real, of course, now that the issue is done and dusted in England by the electoral will of the people…twice…once as an idea and again as a willed practical process, is that we in Scotland need to decide properly whether we’re going along for the ride. It was always the case that it was only when one piece of shit got real that we would find ourselves having to get real about the other one.
Now it’s here. What was a bad joke in 2014, that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, armed with a ten year majority, would drag Scotland out of the EU and make devolved government a functional impossibility in the process…is no longer a half-baked threat of a worst case scenario for a No vote …it’s actually going to happen. It’s actually already happening. Shit, undoubtedly, got real.
Everything with which one might make a progressive case for the union, the prospect of a UK labour Government before 2030 and of meaningful federalist constitutional reform in the context of the necessary centralisation without which it is inconceivable that Brexit can happen coherently seems to be for the birds. Though it seems entirely possible this weekend that the Tories will bring forward some palliative constitutional tinkering next year in order to head off the threat of independence, I for one simply cannot see how even the limited “principle of consent” within the devolution settlements of Scotland, Northern Ireland , Wales and even London can be honoured within the context of having to make comprehensive trade deals (with the EU and the USA just for starters) that will absolutely demand renegotiations of the health and welfare markets, let alone farming, fishing and retail. In short, I can see it being possible for Scotland to take a full part in Brexit, or to have an effective devolved government. I cannot see it having both.
The “half way house” of devolution and full participation in a Full English Brexit simply cannot live together. We are either fully and whole heartedly on board the good ship Brexitania or we are in the lifeboat of independence. This has been the case in the abstract since 2016, of course. But shit, as I may have said before, just got real.
One of the consequences of this altered sense of reality is that you suddenly see your own history differently.
For example, it was May 2011 when the election of a majority SNP government suddenly made the prospect of a independence referendum a really possible future event, and not just something for individual daydreams and wistful collective longing in the pub. But in retrospect, the immediate test back then was of devolution itself, not yet of independence. Would the result of a Scottish election be taken sufficiently seriously in Holyrood and Westminster for a referendum to actually happen? That was the question then. Up until the last few weeks of the campaign in September 2014, Scottish Independence itself seemed, like Brexit until last week, an abstraction, a threat or a promise, depending on your point of view.
In practical political terms, the real priority for the Yes campaign was to ensure that the seemingly inevitable victory of No Thanks or Better Together or What You Will was not so overwhelming as to remove the threat of independence altogether for the foreseeable future. After all, for both Labour and SNP administrations, the name of the game from the seventies onwards was to extract concessions from Westminster with the use of a prospective threat to the status quo of the British order of things, and if Indy had been defeated 70/30 as seemed entirely possible in the early days of the campaign, then Scotland as a political entity within the union might well have been fatally compromised. If anyone had offered me 55/45 at any point before August 2014, I’d have bitten both their arms off.
That result, though it was a decision not to make the Indy Shit real just for the moment, kept the leverage real…and the electoral success of the SNP since, with a wobble or two, has maintained that reality of Scotland as a political entity, a factor in the calculations of any UK government, with a majority or not.
What really makes the difference is the vote; what England has just done. All those Labour voters who either stayed at home last Thursday or actually, unbelievably, voted for the Conservatives…have just done something very analogous to what the Scottish electorate did in 2011. They have killed the Labour Party stone dead as a serious electoral force for the foreseeable future (though as in Scotland then, the Labour party in England, left and right, will spend probably the next ten years in denial) and they have crucially decided that their democracy, their referendum, expressed though Brexit, is more important to them than anything. Than Party loyalty or the Union or any other comparative abstraction. In closing one story, in “getting Brexit done”, they have knowingly opened up another door, another pathway which only seems to lead one way.
Like I’ve always said, Breaking up the Union has always been a job for the English.
And now that Belfast has got three out of four nationalist MPs, now that Scottish voters have once again, and with a renewed sense of purpose, entrusted the SNP to navigate our way through the stormy weather to come, (can I take it that the subterranean mumbles about the SNP leadership will shoosh for a while?), we are faced in a subtly different way with defining, asserting and protecting our identity in these islands. And, as in May 2011, I would argue that here and now in the real world, the choices to be made are not yet about independence, they are once again about devolution. Is devolution a real thing or not, is Scotland at THIS moment a real entity within the UK or not. If Boris now has a real mandate for a real Brexit, can it possibly be argued that Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t have one too?
I don’t think so. I think, once the mince pies are digested, and at least SOME of the civil service can be dragged away from the all-consuming process of Brexit, that even this Tory government will settle on a consensus that, in the event of an SNP/Green…and maybe even LABOUR super majority for a second, binding Indy Ref after the elections of 2021.
And this time, unlike in 2014, the referendum will be different. This time, right from the outset, with a real possibility of winning, the real possibility of real independence will be on the ballot paper. Shit will be real next time. So everybody on all sides had best be ready.
And despite online assertions to the contrary, I don’t think anyone on either side is nearly ready yet. Getting ready, getting all the real arguments in place for a real world future as either an independent country or a fully subsumed status as a region of Boris’s Brexit Britainnia Inc. is the real job for 2020.