Brexit, Scotland and calculating the consequences of ‘known unknowns’

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Commentary by Derek Bateman

I don’t know if your antennae are twitching and what messages they’re picking up. I’m best known for my protruding proboscis – honest. It sniffs out what is happening in the dark corners of public life to keep me informed. Then turns out to be completely wrong…

The bouquets floating in the air right now are sweet and sour. The fragrant aroma with the fresh zing is the small but discernible drift from No to Yes wafted on a wave of amazement over Brexit. The familiar fetid pong is the unchanging wall of No – mutually exclusive at first but mingling over time in an intriguing medley suggesting something’s afoot. Call it Essence of Maybe.

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

Brexit hasn’t crashed the economy. Like all percussive events, it blasts through the economic landscape bouncing off the walls, destroying masonry here yet opening up unseen corners there. The pound fell. Foreign currency increased in value as a result and overseas visitors come and spend more.

Shocked we may be but nothing short of a nuclear strike can stop the British consumer from shopping – even with money we don’t actually have. So the high street looks buoyant. In fact quite a few of those sectoral indicators are facing in the right direction despite the Brexit threat, a bit like London shops open as usual after the Blitz.

So far the fear is all forecasting and prediction and we know how clever economists are at that. However it stands to reason that apart from the familiar moan about uncertainty, the damage, if it is to come, will follow first, the Article 50 trigger and second, the deals that can be struck on international trade. What markets will we have access to and what are the tariffs?

It’s clear from the desperate recruitment going on in Whitehall that the UK is unequipped for the scale and depth of the talks to come. It will be months before we are even staffed up to begin a process. Expect stories to emerge of massive deals for private contractors like McKinseys and KPMG called in to plug gaps.

ACCESS

There appears to be no agreement yet on what Britain wants to get out of this. (Now we’ve got our country back). Single market access? A special deal for services? Will we accept full-on immigration? It isn’t clear if Theresa May is plotting silently or simply hiding from difficult decisions.

I understand Sturgeon’s frustration. She’s talking up the future damage but we don’t know if that will come to pass. Until she has firm evidence she can’t plan her way to a referendum. She does though have an assurance from the Prime Minister that Scotland will listen to options on Scotland which suggests there is wriggle room within a UK deal to accommodate some Scottish preferences. But independence is not likely among them. Should there be a Scotland-only EU referendum first? A strong positive result in a second EU vote would pile pressure on both London and Brussels to recognise a separate Scottish status in keeping with the UK’s devolved structure and the EU’s now-forgotten mantra of subsidiarity. That would be jumping up and down and shouting at them: Look at me! Don’t abandon me!

The continuing inaction is delaying any substantial movement in public opinion. Scots seem to be waiting for the outline of a plan before linking Brexit with indy. One does not automatically lead to the other, it appears.

Unless that is, you are a committed European who doesn’t feel at home in a UK which rejects the 27. That instinct is part of your worldview and your innate rejection of any hint of racism, a sense that outside the EU lies isolation or that it’s just nudging us towards the US. Europe, despite its neo liberal policies and expansionist impulses, is built on a concept of solidarity and internationalism which appeals to the left. Leaving it feels counter intuitive, even a little mad and leaves us in the hands of a generation of Tory politicians hungry for TTIP, for their own form of unregulated labour and ready to shred the human rights convention.

SEARCH

Even if the gloomy forecasts of the single currency-led demise of the EU itself are right, many would rather go down with our partners and begin the search for a new European agreement than turn into a northern Singapore.

images-1That sense of impending loss through Brexit is peeling away previous No voters. Simon Pia and Eric Joyce won’t be the only ones. But the mass huddle of No’s isn’t for turning, I fear. It’s impossible to know what, if anything, would eventually convince them. Probably national necessity of some kind like the EU itself offering a one-off take-it-or-leave-it choice of remaining with the departing UK or the definite promise of assuming the UK’s membership (supported by the bulk of sources they respect like business and voices within the Unionist parties).

My suspicion is that much of their continuing obduracy is a straight reaction to a second referendum. And I reckon Sturgeon is miscalculating here. However it came about there is no doubt the No side wanted to believe the idea that indyref was a once-in-a-lifetime event – a ground-shaking challenge that had to be faced down and never repeated. We forget that while we were enervated and enriched by it, to many it was an end-of-time experience. They will do anything to avoid a second…even voting Tory to keep the SNP out as some Labour people did.

I’m worried by FM talk of impending referendum legislation and plans being laid, not because we shouldn’t be ready but because it seems to run counter to public mood. Of course on the Yes side there is impatience and it’s true the ground has changed justifying a new tilt, yet there is a canny Scot ambivalence at work. Another referendum? Two years after the last? Can’t we just accept we lost?

SCEPTICISM

People are unimpressed by arguments about broken promises made to keep the Union. Popular scepticism expects politicians to break promises. Like the markets anticipating a fall, they build that in to their belief system.

So care is needed not to distribute the pitchforks too early. The peasants get restless. If nothing happens they look for someone to blame. It is a classic political error to let loose the hounds before the prey is in sight. It proved costly for Gordon Brown (and Douglas Alexander)

I met a government minister this week and gleaned the idea that we are in Donald Rumsfeld territory with some known knowns and too many unknown knowns. At the risk of depressing enthusiasm, it is conceivable that this will take us beyond a second general election – May could even try a quickie this year – and perhaps beyond the Scottish vote in 2021. The implication there is that Scotland might actually come out of the EU first which means a totally different kind of legal and political challenge.

At the risk of sounding like Rumsfeld, we are where we are. Robin McAlpine is right about groundwork being needed just in case and next week the stirrings of a revived Yes will swell it back into an organisation. But forcing the pace on a confused electorate which can’t see the downside of Brexit yet and is still coming to terms with a new British leader, is a gamble with the potential to backfire.

Sometimes it’s nerves of steel you need and the strength to stay your hand. Meanwhile keep sniffing the air and be ready for the moment the scent gets hot.