SINCE June 23 last year, it is safe to say we’ve had quite a ride. As the anniversary of the votes to remain within the EU, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and leave the EU, in England and Wales, looms, I think we are closer than ever to seeing that the circle cannot be squared and the penny has to drop.
First published in The National, 14th June 2017.
There are a few obvious lessons from Thursday’s results. Putting Scotland to one side for a minute, the result was Shakespearean in the magnitude of the tragedy and farce for May. An election called for the sake of one woman’s personal ambition to secure her own position within her own party, the electorate looked at it and delivered a resounding shrug. The UK remains deeply divided, but May isn’t in a position to deliver a pint of milk much less any comprehensive negotiating strategy. What she says doesn’t greatly matter, and it strikes me as when, not if, the Tories will unite against her.
Her choice, because it was a choice, to turn to the Democratic Unionist Party for support confirms to me she is an opportunistic vandal. The Good Friday Agreement, already under pressure from the outcome of any sort of Brexit, might not last it. The UK Government is supposed to be impartial in any Northern Ireland discussions. Relying upon DUP votes for its own authority will throw any such pretence out the water. The influence of the DUP on wider UK Government policy should worry us all. Their attitudes to LGBTI and women’s issues have had much coverage, but I struggle to find any policy of theirs I would want to see replicated in my country and we’ll all need to be on our toes to try to check their influence.
The chaos at the Department for Exiting the EU is just as bad, with one minister being sacked and the other resigning, while the hapless David Davis presides over a churning mess. Our continental friends are watching on agog as the UK Tories lurch from one nihilistic farce to the next. As Michel Barnier put it “I can’t negotiate with myself”.
But turning to Scotland, there’s lessons for us too. The SNP won the election, but there’s no denying it was bittersweet given the scale of our losses. My own sense as I travelled around the country campaigning was that a substantial element of the electorate wanted to cut us down to size a bit and all else flowed from that. They succeeded and there are some real lessons we need to learn. I’d suggest we might want to dust off the issues we tried to ventilate in the last Depute election, we still need to bring our training, policy discussion and organisation up to date. But more of that later.
On Brexit, our position remains pragmatic and principled. The people of Scotland voted to remain in the EU, that is our starting point. We acknowledge arithmetic reality, and the Government published an options paper setting out possible compromises. They are still on the table. The Scottish Government is also committed to a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal once they are negotiated, in order to give the people of Scotland an informed choice. I respect individual votes, and a lot of decent thoughtful people voted to leave for decent and thoughtful reasons, but the Leave campaign itself was gratuitously dishonest, and even taking the UK result — 52-48 per cent – at face value, I do not believe there is a mandate for the sort of Brexit consequences we will soon see loom out of the mist.
So if a vote on the terms of Brexit is good enough for the people of Scotland, it is good enough for the people of the UK too. Where in Scotland we could only set it against independence given we cannot legitimately stop Brexit for the UK, in a UK-wide EURef2 the alternative would be the status quo, with the instruction to rescind the Article 50 notification if that was the decision.
Knowing there will be a popular vote at the end of the process will sharpen the negotiations, and indeed encourage the sort of debate we needed during the actual campaign about what sort of relationship we will have with our wider continent. I’m confident that not many people voted to make themselves poorer. The Tories have been able to pretend that Brexit is going swimmingly, indeed May shamefully tried to whip up a spectre of an EU bogeyman she needed a personal mandate to go and fight. She didn’t get it. I’m uncomfortable with the idea referendums can be ignored or rerun, but this wouldn’t be that, it would be, as we have committed to in Scotland, an informed choice, where the original vote assuredly was not. In a democracy, it is respectable to change your mind once the facts emerge. The Brexit facts are only about to start emerging.