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Is Brexit the beginning of the End of Britain?

27 June 2016

8:53 PM

27 June 2016

8:53 PM

So where are we now? Pretty much in the same position as the traveller who asks for directions to Limerick and is told, ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’ But we are where we are, for better or, more probably, for worse.

Not before time it is slowly dawning on people in England that while this was very much their referendum it has consequences for the whole of the United Kingdom. They were warned this would be the case and, if it was not something that was ever uppermost in their thoughts, they cannot claim they were not told. Because they were.

I don’t dispute English voters’ right to privilege their disgruntlement with the EU over their weakened preference for the United Kingdom to remain, well, just that. That’s a choice but choices have consequences. It has, in any case, been evident for some time that England’s commitment to the Union is just as provisional and ambivalent as Scotland’s.

All of which leaves Scotland’s Unionists, especially Scotland’s Conservative Unionists, in a dismal place right now. They are soaked in melancholy and a good number of them feel abandoned right now. They did not fight a long and exhausting referendum in 2014 for a Britain that has to choose between the politics of Boris Johnson and the politics of Nigel Farage. But that is what they now face.

In 2014, Better Together warned that voting for independence posed the greatest risk to Scotland’s EU membership. That was true then. It is evidently not true now. Voting, at some point, for independence is now the only way Scotland can become a full member of the EU. The suggestion any alternative is available is a suggestion for the birds.

Like David Cameron, Nicola Sturgeon knows this. She is talking about protecting ‘Scotland’s relationship with the European Union and our place in the single market’. That will be the famed Norwegian model, then. Membership of the EEA is the best-available, least-worst option for Sturgeon and, indeed, for the UK. That it is not what millions of people thought they were voting for is not Sturgeon’s problem.

But mark this: I strongly suspect that anything less than the Norway model will lead to the break-up of Britain. And even that may not be enough to save it.

This was, it is true, always something that might happen anyway. An Ipsos-MORI poll conducted last autumn reported that 55 percent of Scottish voters think independence will happen at some point in the next 20 years. I’d wager more do so now; the timetable has been accelerated.

Just six weeks ago the SNP campaigned on a manifesto reserving the right to hold another referendum if there was a ‘material change’ in the circumstances in which Scotland voted No two years ago. Sturgeon argues that EU withdrawal constitutes such a change in circumstance and, frankly, she is right.


Technically, of course, she needs Westminster to authorise another plebiscite but, subject to terms, conditions, and circumstances, that is one thing; the politics of the matter are another. I am not convinced another referendum could easily be denied.

Not that Sturgeon will be in any rush. Unlike her predecessor, she is not a gambler. Unlike her predecessor, she cannot afford to lose a referendum. Two defeats puts the question away for a long, long time.

Which is why Sturgeon will wait. There is too much uncertainty abroad right now for her to do anything else. Moreover, any future independence prospectus will have to look and sound and feel very different to that offered the Scottish people in 2014. That was a case of whisky and oil, based on economic projections so heroically optimistic they were delusional. Next time will be different.

Next time the offer will have to be realistic. That means acknowledging, owning, some hard truths. Fantastical twenty year forecasts of permanent economic growth, annual increases in productivity, and high levels of immigration will not do. Independence, if it happens, will be hard. Very hard. But so is reality, as we have discovered in recent days.

True, the post-indy relationship between Scotland and England will be harder to establish and the prospect of a real border along the Tweed is not something anyone can look forward to with any great relish. The problem of an unsustainable deficit remains and cannot be wished away any longer. Leaving the UK, even a UK outwith the EU, will be a shock too and not a small one.

That, doubtless, is why so many people continue to insist it will never happen. Perhaps they are right but I wouldn’t want to bet too much on that shoogly proposition. The mood has changed and, as we have again had cause to notice in recent days, mood matters. Scotland feels more estranged from the rest of the UK than ever before. It feels a little bit like a country waiting for its independence.

I have lost count of the number of diehard Unionists — copper-bottomed, unsinkable, SNP-loathing Unionists — who have, since Thursday, allowed that they are more open to the idea of independence than ever before. This has surprised some of these people and saddened almost all of them. I don’t pretend that they would all endorse independence were the matter actually put to a vote but they are — and this is undeniable — open to the idea of thinking about it. They don’t want to think about it but they can imagine the circumstances in which they would.

So I am not surprised by the flurry of immediate post-referendum polls putting support for independence well above 50 percent. That’s not enough to trigger anything rash but it is evidence of a shift in feeling.

There are other straws in the wind, too. The Scottish Labour party’s commitment to the Union is palpably weakening. It is not difficult to foresee circumstances in which the party would opt for neutrality in a second referendum. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, might very likely argue for Yes if that meant rejoining the EU. And next time, the press will be more evenly divided too. The Daily Record and the Glasgow Herald might very easily come out for Yes. So, if it still exists then, might the Scotsman. The institutions of so-called ‘civic Scotland’, broadly Unionist in 2014 will be much less Unionist next time too.

Perhaps a quarter of the electorate has what you might call an existential commitment to the Union. There are a million Unionist voters whose support for the Union is conditional, contractual, and provisional. The first referendum made independence thinkable and, in doing so, paved the way for a second plebiscite at which those thoughts might very well be confirmed. Britain has to offer something better than the alternative; the status quo is not always enough.

And besides, that status quo is evidently less attractive than it was. Prime Minister Johnson might be the only politician capable of selling a Norwegian-style agreement with the EU to Leave voters but he will damage the Union in other ways. If he becomes Prime Minister and if that is also coupled with a sharp rise in Ukip support in England, the notion Scotland and England are not distinct political entities who’d be better off apart will become ever harder to resist. There are Scottish Tories, including I think some Tory members of the Scottish parliament, who will privately concede this.

This is the difficulty, you see: Scottish Unionism, even right-of-centre Scottish Unionism, needs a credible left-of-centre party in England to help support Unionism. Twenty years of Tory rule – from 2010 to 2030 – is inimical to Unionism’s best interests. Especially if it’s a Tory party tilting towards the right. There’s a reason, you know, why most Scottish Tories voted Remain last week. They can see what’s coming, what’s been unleashed by Leave. And they do not welcome it, they do not welcome it at all.

Until now, the SNP reckoned that Jeremy Corbyn burying Labour in a plague pit in 2020 was the best imaginable springboard for a second independence referendum. Circumstances change but, for all the risks, that option is back on the table sooner than anyone thought likely.

It still won’t happen immediately, not least since everything is far too uncertain and fluid right now and, besides, there’s little appetite for another constitutional square-go just yet. But last week’s events make it more likely than would have been the case if Britain had voted to Remain. So thanks for that.

Of course the risks are as heavy as they are plentiful, but the UK is not, right now, a risk-free option either. Economic self-interest might still favour the Union but we have seen that economic self-interest does not always prevail.

Above all, it is hard to gainsay Nicola Sturgeon’s suggestion that Scotland is being forced to do something she does not want to do and that this something is a large and important thing with any number of consequences. No wonder many people are thinking about alternatives. We would, of course, make mistakes and face many hard times as a newly-independent nation but they would be our hard times and our mistakes, made by we ourselves. That, right now, is worth something too. And if the outcome was a Scotland that looked pretty much like the Republic of Ireland then, in the end, there are worse fates than that.

None of this must happen but all of it certainly can happen. England made it much more possible. A reminder, if you like, that Britain can be lost in Basildon and Thanet and Sunderland just as surely as is can be endangered in Dundee, Falkirk and Hamilton. The cost-benefit analysis has changed and if you listen carefully you may just about discern the last, fading, notes of an old song.


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