I WAS in Hong Kong earlier this week. I’ve landed a new role in the Parliament of drafting a report on the 20th anniversary of the handover of sovereignty back to China, and how the “one country, two systems” commitments are working out. I mention that because being eight timezones away from Brexit gives a sense of perspective as we enter what could be the most crucial moments of the saga, between now and Christmas.
First published in The National, 10 November 2017.
From a distance, it seems that the chaos of UK politics has intensified into a collective psychosis, and I do not use the term lightly. There is a palpable sense of fin de siècle decay, literal and metaphorical, around the Palace by the Thames and around those who seek to represent and speak for the UK. It is more and more obvious with each passing revelation, whether it is various members of the UK establishment abusing their positions financially as the Paradise Papers indicate, ministers briefing against each other, or even one going on a bizarre trip to Israel to discuss the UK’s foreign aid policy, that the outlandish has become unremarkable.
And it matters, because all of it strikes me as a symptom of the red white and blue elephant in the room – that it is now obvious to anyone serious in politics that Brexit cannot be anything but bad news, but none of them dare admit it so have descended into nihilism instead. This is the parallel universe I’ve been struggling with over the last year or so: seen from Scotland, Brussels, Paris, Berlin or Dublin, the glaring flaws in Brexit are obvious. Here in Scotland, the startling thing is the lack of debate. Look at last week’s Holyrood vote – every single party (bar the Tories, true to their now blatant role as human shields for the London government) utterly united.
But look at England, as I have been carefully, and the “have our cake and eat it” school of thought is still alive and well. It is the rest of the world that is out of step, not us, and the rest of the world will simply be unreasonable if it does not give into whatever we ask for. It is testament to just how craven England’s politicians have been that this sort of logic is, still, prevalent.
This week the Grimsby Telegraph (Grimsby that voted 70 per cent Leave) had an eye popping article on how the local fishing industry is now being vocal in seeking special treatment, demanding “free trade status”, whatever that is, for Grimsby and Immingham ports, in respect of seafood imports whereby they would not apply customs checks or import tariffs. Now, I don’t wish Grimsby, or indeed Immingham, any harm, but how that could possibly work in the real world is entirely beyond me. Worse, the local Tory MP called the suggestion “a sign of the post-Brexit optimism” rather than calling it out for the tooth numbingly ill-informed delusional unworkable nonsense that it truly is. I’m all for thinking outside the box, for being creative, for seizing opportunities, but if we don’t work in the world as it is then we do those we serve a disservice and no amount of Tory or Ukip bluster will suffice when the rest of the world says a polite no and Boulogne-sur-Mer and Bremerhaven plunder Grimsby’s business. Because they’re going to, and who can blame them?
Political courage is telling people when you think they’re wrong and saying it as you see it, not just singing along with the band. In Scotland, the debate is better, and marked by a bit more pragmatism. Some elements of the catching sector have set out what they see as opportunities from Brexit, and fair play to them for that. But only parts of the catching sector, and the catching sector is only part of Scotland’s fishing industry – the processing and aquaculture sectors employ far more people and access to the EU single market is vital for them. A two-day customs delay is a bother for a vacuum cleaner component, but for a crate of premium salmon or prawns it is a dealbreaker. So it was that all of Scotland voted to Remain, with Shetland, the most fisheries-dependent part of the UK, voting 56.5 per cent to Remain. I’ll hear no lectures from anyone on looking after fishing.
Brexit could be done, of course it could. We’re Scots, we’ve got Norway and Iceland just by us and from indyref a clear understanding that there are other ways of interacting with the EU. But that needs to be worked out on the basis of a bit of mutual agreement, which can only happen if there is mutual understanding and mutual respect, neither of which we’ve seen from the Tories. The hapless Mrs May is now backsliding on the commitments she made in her Florence speech, and the folks in Brussels are looking on agog. Simply, it is not their job to save us from the crash. Scotland could do better. We deserve better. Hell, Grimsby deserves better too. Never has the national interest, however you define it, been so comprehensively ignored.