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The moment Theresa May sealed our Brexit fate

28 November 2018

2:15 PM

28 November 2018

2:15 PM

Theresa May is in Scotland today which is one way of ascertaining the depth of the hole in which she finds herself. One day, prime ministerial visits to Scotland – or, indeed, to Northern Ireland or Wales – will cease to be considered newsworthy events in their own right. Until such time as they are not rarities, however, they are doomed to be seen as gestures. A whistle-stop tour of the United Kingdom’s northern and western extremities is not enough, no matter how much the Prime Minister might enjoy a day or two away from the Westminster snake-pit.

This visit, like so many others, will be an occasion for saying at least some of the right things but it will not make any meaningful difference to anything that is actually meaningful. We are in a new place now, one in which old certainties seem flimsier than ever. Or, as my colleague Hugo Rifkind, late of this parish, wrote in the Times yesterday: “The core, non-economic argument made against Scottish independence by the likes of me – that Scotland and England were similar nations, full of similar people who wanted similar things – often feels coldly ludicrous now”. As you might imagine, plenty of SNP types loved this. “Should another independence referendum come”, Hugo continued, “and I think it will, I’m not sure what I’ll say. Or what anybody will”.

And, in a sense, he is right. Very few people in Scotland can look at this Westminster show and really think this is as good as it gets. This goes beyond the Prime Minister’s agonies – though those are certainly part of it – and reaches out to include the official opposition too. Jeremy Corbyn is not the answer unless the question is a very, very bad one. There is a disconnect between our political class and the country that, whether you voted Remain or Leave, seems no more bridgeable than the sea between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In truth, this is hardly just a Scottish phenomenon. It is evident across much of England too. The difference, whether you like it or not, is that Scotland plainly has long-term alternatives. The English, like the Welsh, are stuck with being themselves. Scotland could, if it chose – or were prodded to – do something different. And the availability of that alternative, even as just a theoretical matter, makes a difference. We live in provisional times. 

Even so, the picture is more complex than sometimes allowed. Referendums are binary things reinforcing one of democracy’s greatest weaknesses – blunt majoritarianism – and thereby disguising a more equivocal, but accurate, reality. Think of all those maps you have seen these past two years in which Britain is divided between Leave and Remain; portraits of a divided Britain in which places are either one thing or the other.

Except most places are not, except in simplistic terms, one thing or another. Forty per cent of voters in Greater London voted Leave and almost 40 per cent of voters in Scotland did so too. These people, like the 40 per cent of Remain voters in the East of England have been quietly written out of the story. Even at the extremities of opinion, in Remain-heavy Edinburgh and Leave-dominated Boston, one in four voters bucked the prevailing trends in their locality. Just as the divide between the home nations is exaggerated, so too is the division between the shires and the great metropolises.

Which is to say that the differences between the various parts of the United Kingdom should be seen as differences of degree, not kind. We prefer simpler stories, however, even when they lead us to strange conclusions. In Scotland, then, the 45 per cent who voted Yes were ahead of the game, harbingers of a future that will not be denied or delayed forever, but the 38 per cent who voted Leave – including some 300,000 people who voted SNP in 2015, are an inconvenience best forgotten and certainly not to be given any weight or consideration. Likewise, the 38 per cent of voters in Sunderland who backed Remain must be excised from the record. They do not belong in this story either.

Viewed like that, however, you begin to appreciate the arbitrary nature of breaking down the vote along national lines. It matters, of course it does, but it only tells part of the story and reveals just a piece of the picture. As always, it is a matter of perspective and viewed from far enough away, the clarity of the results begins to look increasingly misleading.

Which, in turn, makes the Government’s response to the Brexit vote seem ever more stupid and self-defeating. Again, a contrast may be drawn with Scotland in 2014. There, whatever nationalist voters might like to think, some attention was paid to the split, or provisional, nature of the result. A new Scotland bill was passed, devolving ever greater responsibilities – notably on income tax and welfare – to the Scottish parliament. Not even half a loaf as far as nationalists were concerned but, no matter, still a reflection of the changed reality and the need to make some accommodation with it.

Brexit would be handled differently. Nick Timothy cooked up an idea of Brexit and sold it to a Prime Minister only too happy to buy what he was offering. The red lines drawn in the summer of 2016 have imprisoned her ever since. At a stroke any number of Brexits, including those that would have reflected the narrowness of the result and the equivocal enthusiasm for the project evident in the country as a whole, were ruled out. This was the fatal moment from which there has been no recovery because there could be no recovery. Worse than a crime, a blunder.

And, inevitably, it has opened other doors to other possibilities. As I have noted before, Brexit might complicate the reality of Scottish independence but it undoubtedly has handed Nicola Sturgeon a clear and intuitively appealing argument for its necessity. So much so, in fact, that it is possible to think that Sturgeon’s difficulty is less winning a future referendum than getting to the position from which it may be held in the first place. At the very least, the argument for taking back control has some merit and, moreover, is easily understood.

Even so, other ironies arise. The more Sturgeon talks about independence the more she hardens opposition to it. She is sincere in thinking Brexit a calamity but many Scottish voters are disinclined to grant her a break. They suspect she is on manoeuvres. Brexit might be a disaster but it is also an opportunity and so, when push comes to shove, it’s not so very disastrous at all.

At some point in the new year, once some of the Brexit fog has lifted, the first minister will announce the result of her latest pondering on the question of a second independence referendum. Her belief in independence is unfalsifiable so it is hardly a surprise that she thinks the case for it stronger than ever. (A good question would be to ask her when it was weak.)

Since Sturgeon, like the majority of her colleagues, has no heartfelt attachment to the United Kingdom – indeed, many nationalists consider it a wholly artificial, and certainly anachronistic, construction – it is hardly a surprise she views its future in dry, cost-benefit, terms. Here too, Brexit may prove exemplary; if it is an impoverishment, then the impoverishment promised by independence (though Sturgeon would naturally dispute this) might seem a less frightening prospect. We would, at least, be in control ourselves.

For Unionists, Brexit’s example is bracing in the other direction. Why compound one folly with another? A good question, though also one that risks leaving Unionism seem feeble and helpless and at the mercy of events; a shoulder-shrugging Unionism forever in search of meagre consolations.

Today’s SNP is not, officially at least, much interested in flags even though it is intensely interested in symbols of nationhood and, most particularly, in the respect – or lack thereof – which should be shown to small nations. It is a matter of dignity; insult us and you injure all of Scotland. A wiser Prime Minister, or at least one with greater imagination, would have invited the nationalists into the Brexit tent, if only to give them a stake and bind them closer. The Tories’ decision to own Brexit for themselves looks increasingly dangerous and counter-productive.

One of the many ironies thrown up by the Scottish Question, though, is the fact both sides pretend an argument about identity is merely a question of accountancy. Of course the numbers matter but they are not the only fruit. Unionism rests on the accoutrements of nationhood too, albeit it does so in a Janus-faced fashion. It is an appeal to a sensibility as much as it is a reflection of economic interest and shorn of the former it cannot stand or endure for long. Paradoxically, then, Unionism must be an emotional affair even if, like Scottish nationalism, it pretends to be an arithmetical calculation.

In these times, however, “both and” is a tougher sell than “either or” and so perhaps it is no great surprise that Unionism is, as an intellectual matter, stuck in the doldrums. Waffle about “our precious Union” is just that and so is talk of a “family of nations”. These are only words and not very powerful ones at that. Nor can they disguise the manner in which this present crisis – of mood and sentiment as much as of actual policy – was made in England and imposed upon everyone else. That it has been imposed on half the English too is not, viewed from elsewhere, any great consolation either.

Britain today is a country of multiple estrangements. I am not convinced that even terrible policy is enough to sever ties of kinship and citizenship but this increasingly feels like a minority perspective. Not least because symbols really do matter and Brexit, however much its future costs may one day – we must hope – prove to have been exaggerated – is, if nothing else, one heck of a symbol.


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