Can Europe save Britain from a bitter, xenophobic Brexit conclusion?

6
4986

Commentary by Derek Bateman

Consensus is breaking out all over. According to some, we all agree we need a federal solution for Scotland. According to others, a second indyref is inevitable. And according to me, there are straws in the wind that outright resistance to independence is slowly melting. OK, it may not be a consensus yet, but at least I agree with me. And I’ve got as strong grounds as any of the others for my claim.

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

I’m going to make a nuanced distinction here. I know – not my strong point. It’s that the opinion polls are finding maybe a one in 10 switch to Yes because of Brexit, not a lot, although mathematically it might be enough to swing the result. Now it looks as if this is a canny calculation by doubters who want to see the colour of the Brexit money first. Classically: What’s in it for me?

But I think this may be hiding a deeper question which is eating into the psyche of resistant Scots who have been happy to regard their dual nationality as a comfortable fit – Scottish and British (although in reality, if a No voter, then Britain first).

For them it is becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss criticism of the British government as rabble-rousing, grievance-stirring or point-scoring. The language and decision-making which would previously have been excused on the grounds that everyone makes an occasional mistake, is no longer acceptable to them. In other words, the sensible, compliant, middle-of-the-road Scots who have been the backbone of No, are eyeing London suspiciously. They are asking: What the hell are they doing now?

NIGHTMARE

Because sensible, compliant, middle-of-the-road Scots know which side their bread is buttered. Their professional lives have been spent inside the EU. Their jobs regularly abut EU conventions and protocols. They and their colleagues travel to Europe or they meet European colleagues here. If they’re in the Edinburgh financial sector which voted convincingly No, they see unfolding a corporate nightmare threatening not just some vague slice of GDP, but their own job and prospects. Arriving in London, they feel a new sensation of estrangement. Every other face and voice is non-indigenous. What are they all thinking and what will happen to them? They wonder: Which idiot is responsible for this?

The university staff who bought the line that an indy Scotland wouldn’t get research funding now know of people and projects losing exactly that. There is a growing sense that coming out of Europe is a more cataclysmic leap than independence. They hadn’t realised just how tied we were to Europe and how comfortable they had become with that extra layer of identity that made them Europeans.

Brexit means Brexit
Brexit means Brexit

They listen with increasing horror to the bluster and bravado of Brexit ministers exposed as both hypocrites in the case of Johnson and flat-earth adventurers in that of Fox. All three of the Leave Musketeers are wreathed in smiles to disguise their confusion – a trio of political narcissists as the national interest is jeopardised.

Sensible people do not see sure-footedness, let alone competence. There is nothing reassuring about the months of delay in working out a negotiating position as the better-informed Press reveals the back-biting and deep disagreements at the heart of May’s government.

IMMIGRATION

And there is something else. They are acutely aware of how their own country – the UK – is now viewed across the continent. The focus on immigrants as the defining issue is understood at one level because people know uncontrolled immigration cannot be sustained but what are they supposed to feel about Francois in Personnel and Stanislaw in Accounts? The government they have supported has refused to guarantee them the lives they have made here – the homes, the social scene, the partners and – my God – the children. How can they doubt that the vicious rhetoric unleashed during the campaign gave a green light to the thugs and bigots? There is the repellent rage on Question Time which boos a Polish woman resident for 23 years. There is the football hooligan tone of working class Brits demanding: Let’s just get out now, to cheers. Weren’t they the people of Hartlepool, as damned an outpost of dysfunctional Britain as any, who will be the same community to suffer most when GDP falls and budget cuts have to be made? Is the government making a special case for low earners in Hartlepool to remain in the single market or is that for the bankers?

Many voters have taken for granted that Britain was what the Whitehall elite claimed, a power broker embedded at the heart of western culture. So why was the Prime Minister quietly sidelined in Brussels, leading UK diplomats to complain of her treatment when given five minutes at 1 am to speak and then listened to in silence?

The sense is that Britain really has done it this time. We’ve gone too far. That airy contempt for Brussels and the casual superiority that is the stamp of leadership Brits has led us over the cliff edge. The No voter scoffed at the door-stop indyref white paper but where is even the A4 of the Leavers to show us their plan? For probably the first time in their lives, those who viewed the British government and parliament as automatically superior in content and competence have it revealed to them as nothing of the kind. And it may well be themselves who pay the price.

WORKERS

You don’t have to switch to Yes to smell the stench of xenophobia emanating from sections of society in the south…from lists of foreign workers (gastarbeiters) to replacing doctors with ‘our own’ – and from checking incomers’ teeth (after demanding to see their papers) to obstructing the entry of a mere 70 orphans from a squalid campsite. New arrivals are humiliated by a baying crowd of tabloid hacks waiting to photograph their faces and guess at their age. Sensible Scotland may not appreciate all immigration and may think Sturgeon is virtue signalling on inclusion, but it sure doesn’t like to be branded racist. Thank goodness, it says, that some politicians in Europe understand that we are different.

Making foreigners pay for health care, preventing students working and rejecting employee rights and citizen benefits to make way for a Fortress Britain is taking the British Tories from the outer edges of UKIP to the fringe of National Front when it is combined with naked xenophobia and the coincidental anti-gay filibuster to stop the pardons of historical homosexual ‘crimes’.

This is not the Conservatism I grew up observing. Tories were respectable, for sure, but they were considerate of the less fortunate, they upheld British traditions without denigrating others (that’s why Powell was sacked) and, as the name implies, they were cautious of change that threatened the things they held dear. They also believed in thrift when Scots had the best savings ratio in the UK. None of that applies to today’s febrile neo cons whose hallmark is demonisation of the poor and the foreign, the accumulation of mountainous debt, both sovereign and personal, with an irresponsible lack of concern for the national interest.

It is, I agree, a leap from all this to independence and one does not lead easily to the other although I find it informative that the Tories in Scotland now have a single theme – apart from promoting Ruth’s light entertainment career. It is to stop another referendum. You can smell the fear. But surely my sensible Scot will also be asking what then is the Tory response to Brexit? Does anyone in Scotland think Ruth has any influence over the process? Or does Mundell (we’ll call you when we need you, David)? Are we to cling to London when the parachute fails to open and hope for the best?

MOTIVATOR

They write off Labour as useless and find nowhere to turn. So they conclude a decision can wait. And those canny Scots may be right. The (for me) irrational terror of independence is a powerful motivator leading to a frantic search for an alternative. It won’t be federalism because a) it makes too much sense and this government is light on the stuff, and b) they could have offered this at any time in the last 20 years and settled the constitutional question for a generation. The only time federalism will be offered to the Scots is after they have voted for independence.

No, I think the best hope lies in Europe’s reaction to Brexit. So far it looks as though the UK’s rejection has strengthened the institutions by reminding them of what they are for and bringing them together in a united front against our departure. The talks will throw up hard choices and among the strong advocates for continued formal association will be the City, big business, academia, Scotland and Northern Ireland, not forgetting the Republic. These lobbies will be closer to the EU negotiating stance than the UK’s allowing the Brussels team to play them off. It will become clear just how narrow a view the official UK position is and May’s team will be inclined in any case to back single market involvement of some of these sectors.

A loud and vociferous campaign in Scotland running alongside the talks will focus minds in European capitals on how they got into this mess in the first place – by ignoring the people. A side effect will be a return to what used to be a guiding principle – subsidiarity – and nothing could symbolise that better than separate recognition of Scotland (and Ulster). The argument against that kind of domestic ‘interference’ is that the EU has to respect the national government but I fear there will be little enough of that for a country causing so much division and upset mainly for internal party political purposes.

And I’m glad Sturgeon has taken time to mention the critical reason for our EU membership, at least for me. It is solidarity with Europe. We aren’t in just because it’s a market, that’s a Tory re-writing of history. We’re in because we share a continent and a worldview. We’re in because we care about each other. Setting standards benefits us all, let’s us share more equally. We redistribute wealth to the poorer. It floats all boats. It blurs the lines of independence but retains individual national traditions. It lets different people share the advantages. It builds in peace to a continent once scarred by conflict. The EU is one of mankind’s great achievements.

I expect this to become clearer to the British as the talks proceed because our political class has failed to make the case and always resented the shift in power (MEPs have no right of access to Westminster) while the media has failed in its duty to inform, instead making a pantomime villain out of a Brussels that never existed.

COMPETENCE

If enough is offered to Remainers like Scotland it will be both tricky and undemocratic of May’s side to resist – single market access for goods coming out of Scotland (the re-opening of ferry ports) and access for financial services in Edinburgh. There would be surrenders like farming and fishing but staying in would allow Scotland to operate more closely like a de facto EU country. Would it mean a hard border? In theory it would, but if there isn’t one with the Republic, it shows what can be done. It becomes possible to imagine a fully engaged statelet with direct channels to Brussels in which Scotland does its own thing in conjunction with the EU on all areas of competence. Over time, the idea of a separate entity seems natural, however complex the threads linking back to London. After all there are likely to be different arrangements, as there are now, for Gibraltar and Crown dependencies like Isle of Man and Jersey. And, who knows, it may accelerate the acceptance of Scotland as a well-run, viable country worthy of support. It is competence in government rather than nationalism which has driven the SNP to heights of popularity and proving we can do it for ourselves in the EU could be the way finally to convince the doubters (perhaps in contrast to the UK).

I think the sensible Scots are waiting to see and this time they are open to a fundamental shift simply because the UK has generated its own black hole of uncertainty. One way or another, the country is about to undergo existential change. Let’s get on the right side of the argument.