Friday, 17 March 2017

Scotland and the absurdities of Brexit

After the long phoney war following the referendum, events are now moving much faster and it is hard to maintain a running commentary. With parliament now shamefully having, as predicted, passed without amendment the legislation to do so Article 50 will soon be triggered. At that point I will write a summary of where things stand.

For now, in this post I will focus on Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second Scottish independence referendum (‘indyref2’ as it is being called). That the SNP would seek indyref2 was highly likely from the moment the EU referendum result was announced. What made indyref2 both inevitable, and potentially winnable, was the government’s decision to pursue hard Brexit. On the one hand this made a mockery of any notion that the government would take Scotland’s views into account; on the other hand, it ensured that the price that Scotland, like the rest of the UK, would pay for Brexit would be incalculably high. In this and in many other ways, Theresa May is emerging not as the pragmatic, safe pair of hands that was her USP in the Tory leadership election but as extraordinarily inept.

Ian Dunt, the journalist who in my view has emerged as the most astute and interesting writer on Brexit, summarised the situation powerfully:

“This is on Brexiters. This is their responsibility. It's not just the result, although it was clear during the campaign this was a likely possibility if people backed Leave. It's about what has happened since the vote. This is where Brexiters' arrogance, their refusal to listen to counter-arguments, their extreme agenda, their bluffing about economic self-harm, their strategic incompetence and their grotesquely irresponsible behaviour has got us”.

It is important to remember that the possibility that Brexit would lead to indyref2 was explicitly denied by all the leading leavers, both during the campaign and afterwards. Thus on 8 June 2016 The Sun dismissed warnings that this would be the outcome as (of course) ‘Project Fear’ whilst as recently as this February Michael Gove was saying that there was no prospect of a second independence referendum.

But although it is important to keep holding Brexiters to account for their mendacious and misleading claims it is equally important to point to the absurdities of the Brexit government, and nowhere are these clearer than in the response to the prospect of indyref2. For Theresa May’s arguments against this are, without exception, arguments which apply equally to Brexit. Thus if Scottish independence would entail huge uncertainty, severance from its main market and a substantial exit bill, how much more so is this true of Brexit? Most extraordinary of all, May has said that Scotland can’t have a meaningful vote on leaving the UK without knowing what the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU will be. Yet she and her government treat as inviolable the UK’s vote to leave the EU when it was taken without knowing the terms of exit. The lack of logic and of honesty would be laughable if it was not so sickening.

No less absurd is the idea that indyref2 would distract from the Brexit negotiations, since with this issue unresolved the EU will not know whether they are negotiating with the UK as it is, or without Scotland, or – now a very real possibility – without Northern Ireland either. On that last point, I am not sure that many people in Britain realise how rapidly things are shifting in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. In the Republic – the EU country most affected by Brexit and likely to be highly influential in the exit talks – opinion is hardening against the UK and re-unification with the North is being widely discussed. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein are calling for a referendum on a united Ireland, and, although Wales voted for Brexit, there are emerging noises for a vote there as well.

These are not mere details, they are central, practical issues about what Brexit means. But the Brexit government is simply not interested in practical issues, as witnessed by the revealing appearance by David Davis at the Brexit Select Committee this week, where on issue after issue – from European Health Insurance Cards to personal data transfer he admitted that he just did not know what Brexit would mean. Most bizarrely of all, he confessed that the government have not costed the effects of leaving the EU with no deal in place, even though they believe that ‘no deal’ would be better than a bad deal.

But logic, evidence and argument have become completely irrelevant to Brexiters. In another great piece of commentary this week, this time from Nick Cohen in The Spectator, the cult-like nature of the Brexit government is dissected:

“Unconstrained by a political opposition and egged on by a Tory press that makes Breitbart seem like a reputable news service, modern Tories resemble no one so much as the right-wing parody of left wingers: utopian, contemptuous of detail and convinced the world owes them a living”.

Yet the left is by no means absolved of responsibility in the unfolding Brexit debacle. In fact, in a week littered with absurdities perhaps the most absurd event was Jeremy Corbyn calling for an ‘emergency demonstration’ in support of Labour’s amendments to the Article 50 Bill. Meanwhile, rather than refuse to vote for the Bill if the amendments were not in place, he whipped his MPs to support it. It’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that Brexit is also the subtext of most of the other main news stories this week, even when they don’t seem to be directly related. So the row over Philip Hammond’s changes to national insurance contributions was partly about Brexiters wanting to ‘bring down’ the most senior cabinet minister who is opposed to hard Brexit. George Osborne’s surprising appointment as Editor of London’s Evening Standard can be seen as an anti-Brexit politician seeking to get a media platform in anti-Brexit London. And the GCHQ statement about the allegations that it had wiretapped Trump goes to the heart of the UK-US relationship which has been touted by Brexiteers as central to Britain’s post-Brexit future. Pretty much all roads in the current UK polity lead to Brexit, and will do for years to come. Although it looks increasingly unlikely that the UK polity will survive Brexit.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this Chris. The scenarios you set out one year ago are sadly playing out.

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