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Now is the time we win hearts and minds of betrayed No voters

I’VE noticed lately that more people are getting in touch with me about Brexit, not just raising particular points but expressing their own unhappiness and anxiety generally over the whole thing. The UK Government, in the grip of Brexit Ultras like Jacob Rees-Mogg, has decided to pull the UK, and Scotland with it, over the cliff edge of a hard Brexit.

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First published in The National, 22 February 2018

The only debate they are having is whether to do it in one year’s time or three years’ time, and how best to hoodwink enough people from the reality of their policies until it is too late to stop them. Voices of moderation are being shut down or drowned out, and the protestations from the Governments of Scotland and Wales and the various regional administrations in England are being ignored. The collaborative work between these is key and we need to keep reaching out to our friends across the political divide. Whatever the future holds, this remains true.

Unfortunately, given who is setting the tone of the UK debate, their Brexit vision of the UK is too often tied up with a Little England view of the world. You know the one I mean, a simpler time, chocolate box houses in small towns. An idyllic recreation of the inter-war period typically found in the novels of PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. It’s a beguiling image but they forget it was fiction even then.

The desire to pretend they can recreate this fiction into policy has fuelled much of the Brexit rhetoric but the reality of leaving the EU will show little resemblance to that dream. And for those who voted for it, convinced less by that but by the promises that leaving the EU will make life better, or deliver £350 million for the NHS, they’ll be even more disappointed.

Back in the 2014 indyref, much was made of the notion of a United Kingdom of shared histories in which Scotland played a strong role, with our inventions, writers and soldiers as leading cast members. Scotland was told to lead the UK from within and though many of us on the Yes side gave each other a knowing nod at the time many folk, including those who made these arguments, believed them. They did so in good faith. People called the UK a family of nations, a joint enterprise, a 300-year success story, and they meant it.

So be gentle with folk who voted No – this is a difficult, challenging and emotional time. When asked if they wanted to remain in the UK, they stepped up and said yes we do. Many then followed up by voting Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. Now they find themselves disenfranchised, ignored by the people they thought spoke for them and without political leadership.

After all, parts of the Scottish Tories are aligning themselves with Rees-Mogg and his cohort and I am yet to see any evidence that despite all the spin and bluster Ruth Davidson has managed to soften Brexit in the slightest. She has chosen to be the apologist-in-chief for the UK Government at the very time it could really use a critical friend.

The indyref had more powerful emotional pulls than the EU referendum and has a legacy that we all face on a daily basis. It has left behind a more galvanised and engaged electorate, but it has also left a slew of people who voted No wondering where they are and what happens next. They hate Brexit as much as you and me but are not yet sure what the best solution is. After all, one set of politicians promised something and failed to deliver, why would we be any different?

As it becomes increasingly apparent to everyone that the political circle we face cannot be squared we must all have a national conversation, not debate, about what happens next.

If the UK Government continues to be in thrall to the Ultras and if Labour continues to aid and abet them, we’re dead-set on pursuing a hard Brexit that will leave Scotland and the UK worse off under every possible scenario. Unless we prevent this for the whole of the UK the only question that remains unanswered is: what will Scotland do next?

If we have been denied the opportunity to lead the UK to a compromise soft Brexit we must face reality.

The UK is going to be a diminished state. Poorer in every sense. At best playing economical catch-up with the rest of Europe, at worst suffering a series of economic crises, each one bigger than 2008, with an impact on our society that keeps me awake at night. David Davis may well make jokes about Mad Max; perhaps life looks different when one has an index-linked ministerial pension and is near retirement.

Politically there is not sufficient energy or capacity in the UK Government to tackle the problems we face at home or abroad. This is not a state that deserves the kind of passionate, decent, thoughtful people who support it and increasingly they realise this.

There are some people who will always defend the UK, who have dedicated their time, energy and column inches to reiterating their belief in the notion of a United Kingdom.

Many of them genuinely believe in it, and we’re not going to change their minds.

But we must be there as a friend to those who are looking at the wider European picture, those who start to wonder, is independence not the best way to keep all the rights we have and to protect what’s good?

We have to be reaching out to win hearts and minds before it’s too late. This is not yet a debate or a campaign, too much is in flux. We must listen, and we must join their conversations, not shout in our own echo chamber.

Nobody can say where the UK or Scotland will be in the near future but there is one thing a majority of people believe in right now: we deserve better than a hard Brexit and we must somehow deliver that better future for the people of Scotland.