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Can Boris Johnson find a pro-Union, pro-Brexit message?

30 July 2019

2:01 PM

30 July 2019

2:01 PM

In yesterday’s Evening Blend newsletter – to which you should sign up – Katy Balls concluded that ‘If the Conservative party is going to continue to prosper in Scotland’ Boris Johnson and Ruth Davidson must, between them, ‘find a way to pitch a pro-Union, pro-Brexit message – and fast.’

Well, indeed. The problem, though, is that outside a relatively small number of fishing communities, there is no obvious pro-Union, pro-Brexit message to be deployed and certainly none that seems likely to prove persuasive. The results of the Brexit referendum rather confirm this. Scotland, as you may have heard, rejected Brexit.

True, this was a pan-UK referendum in which the overall result was all that mattered. In that sense there was little distinction to be drawn between a Remain vote in Edinburgh and one in Bristol. Each found themselves on the losing side. We voted as one country and we shall leave the European Union as one country and if any of the nations of the UK dislike that then so be it. Too bad. Them’s the apples.

And so they are but, even so and even if you accept the result – which, as it so happens, I do – there remains the unalterable fact that Scotland, unlike other parts of the realm, has choices. It doesn’t have to go through with this. The 2014 referendum established that although Scotland opted for the Union, it did so equivocally: even if it was untaken, the option of a different road remained.

A pro-Brexit, pro-Union message could only succeed if it acknowledged the ambivalence of the Brexit referendum result. That, however, was a path also left unchosen. Instead we have, through blunder and obstinacy and sometimes rank stupidity, reached a place at which only total victory suffices. One day some Remainers, especially those in the Labour party, may have cause to reflect on the part they played in getting us to the brink of a no-deal Brexit which they deplore. For all the shortcomings of the Withdrawal Agreement reached with the EU it would at least have allowed everyone to move on to the rather more important matter of the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

Here we alight upon the two rival interpretations of Brexit. The first, favoured by many Remain voters as well as by the Treasury and much of the apparatus of government is for Brexit to change as little as possible. Respect the result and act upon it, by all means, but not to the extent that doing so undermines both the United Kingdom’s future prosperity and, more significantly still, its territorial integrity. The second, preferred by an increasingly significant proportion of Leave voters, including much of the new Cabinet, is for everything to change. Nothing else can honour the result of the people’s original vote. If that means embracing economic uncertainty and even the future of the UK itself then so be it.

It is the difference between a conservative, or Tory, Brexit and a radical, or Kippery, Brexit. Some of Theresa May’s difficulties may be ascribed to her preference for talking in Kippery terms while pursuing, as a matter of policy, a Tory Brexit. ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ normalised the kind of abrupt, cliff-edge Brexit we are now headed towards; it encouraged members of her own party to think that any deal reached with the EU must be a bad one. Even when the things most objectionable in it – such as the newly-dubbed ‘anti-democratic’ pan-UK backstop were actually Britain’s idea in the first place.

And so it is the difference between a Brexit suspicious of risk and one careless of it. Rupture is the point, not a problem and if that means pain – and many broken things in at least the short to medium term – then so be it. Hence the carelessness with which the Union is treated.

None of which is to suggest, far less argue, for some kind of Tartan Veto on the process; merely to note that imperilling the Union is an unavoidable part of a tough, clean, fast Brexit. It is, in its way, proof of concept.

It might also be held in mind that support for Scottish independence – the strongest argument for which is the same as the best argument for Brexit itself, namely that of sovereignty – currently runs at a rate of 45 people in every hundred. This is despite neither the SNP nor the wider Yes campaign having answers to many of the stickiest, technical, problems inherent in the independence project. But it takes little imagination to perceive how a Brexit Britain might, in effect, push the UK’s constituent components apart, not together. If that were to happen, it would be a reflection of, and reaction to, a long process of steadily advancing estrangement. A consequence, too, of defining Brexit narrowly and as a matter for the 52 per cent of the population who voted for it and of forgetting both the importance and the value of loser’s consent.

From which it also ceases to matter if Boris Johnson is by nature a One Nation Tory on the liberal wing of the party. For he is not, at least not at present, leading that kind of government. He is, quite evidently, locked into a Kippery Brexit, not a Tory one and that makes all the difference – for it is that which will define his ministry. All the rest is window-dressing and make-up cuddles that cannot disguise the fundamental reality of what is likely to happen.

A pro-Brexit, pro-Union message? A nice idea, for sure, but it would require a different kind of Brexit and, perhaps, a different kind of Union.

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