Commentary by Derek Bateman
We’re all having to rethink our position these days to respond to fast-changing events. We try to hold on to our principal aims as long-term objectives while readjusting to the here and now. To me that means I yearn for independence but accept it remains on the horizon while I deal with immediate Brexit concerns.
One way I changed my own mindset was in admiring the bold pro-EU stance taken by Tim Farron, who has been the only UK leader talking my language about the need to stay inside the European family of nations, not just for trade purposes but for humanitarian ones of mutual support and social solidarity.
It means standing against public opinion as expressed in the referendum because it is a point of principle, one that can’t just be dropped because of a short, dishonest campaign based on xenophobia. That’s not easy when the ‘people have spoken’.
So there I was adjusting all my partisan dials to accommodate the Lib Dems whom I’ve previously written off as dishonest and untrustworthy, when the Scottish branch actually vote against single market membership being protected. Against the single market. It not only destroys my touching faith in Liberals, it confirms their place back at the bottom of the trust rankings. Good night, Tim.
What possesses our representatives when it comes to protecting the national interest? For Liberals who have been in my lifetime the most pro-European lot of all to perform a U-turn at the very moment their country needs them is pretty shocking. Did they really consider their constitutional role to represent and defend the Scots or did they only look at their narrow and short-term self-interest…
Tuesday’s vote I find hard to take. My Liberals were people like Russell Johnson, Charles Kennedy, David Steel with solid European credentials. When they merged, none other than the former European commission president Roy Jenkins joined them.
The group Liberal Scotland in Europe wrote: This period of political history may prove to be the most significant for our constitution in 300 of years. It is for the Scottish Liberal Democrats membership to decide what role the party will play and what route we will choose. But if we are to secure the best future for Scotland and the strongest relationship with both the UK and EU, we will need to leave no possibility unexplored. If we fail to do that our children and grandchildren will not forgive us.
That’s the basis on which the autumn conference debated options including independence – and threw it out, even as a theoretical possibility if it became clear it was in Scotland’s interest. The one-eyed, one-way approach was perpetuated at Holyrood yesterday and taken to the extreme. Voting effectively against Scotland in the single market contradicts everything Liberal Democrats have said for 25 years and renders their pro-European credentials nothing more than weasel words. As soon as Farron stands up to say he’ll vote against Article 50 or will campaign in the next election calling for an end to Brexit, his critics will simply demand to know how that squares with his Scottish branch voting against market membership.
I’m puzzled too by the Tories voting the same way. It was their party under Margaret Thatcher and guided by Lord Cockfield that brought about the single market which remains British Conservatism’s greatest contribution to the EU. To abandon it now – in favour of what, exactly – is revisionism. It sounded at first as if Davidson’s Tories were anti Brexit, explicitly backing Remain and the single market. Even after the vote as she slithered and dithered into an accommodating stance, she was at pains to welcome free movement. Then, come the crunch, she and her party defect…all ideals in tatters. I suppose this is what she calls effective opposition – opposing the government irrespective of logic or principle even if it means contradicting her own party’s history. What a kick in the teeth for Thatcher’s legacy.
I leave the mangy old cur of Scottish Labour to last – the pathetic, cowed runt of a political movement devoid of impetus or idea. Like a doe-eyed bag of bones curled up beside the fire and good for nothing, it somehow pleads to be treated gently, as if this sorry pass is not its own fault. ‘I used to be something, you know’, it seems to say but those days are lost in the mists of time. If the questions were worth asking they would be of the fundamental kind – what are you for? Who do you represent? What is your policy programme? What is your objective? How will you attain it?
Labour can’t hold a policy position for more than 24 hours, its message fleeting, incoherent and irrelevant. Brexit threatens to be the most important strategic change in direction the UK has taken in 50 years with clear warnings of economic destruction for hundreds of thousands, company closures, rising living costs, a currency slump, literally unknown future trading arrangements, with doors slammed in the face of essential immigration with our global relationships and image harmed. When the call came for decisive action and unity in the face of such catastrophe, Labour, the people’s party, collapsed. With no position worth sustaining, they opted out and abstained. Truly Dugdale leads a pitiful mob.
I know the get-out: Access is different from membership and membership implies sovereignty. Well, tell that to any of the 300,000 Scots whose jobs depend on it. Tell that to the hard-pressed families whose household bills tip them over the credit limit and tell that to the overseas students whose fees keep our universities thriving. How does it look to the public? I’d guess it fits perfectly in the wee box marked Hypocrites that cynical voters keep their prejudices in. Smug politicians on £60,000 play games with my job, my mortgage and my future…
Nobody was being asked about independence in this vote. Nobody was being asked to abandon principled positions, not pro-Union nor pro-independence. They were in effect being asked for unity – to put Scotland first, the Scotland that voted clearly to Remain. The opposition instead said: ‘Nah. You’re alright. I’ll pass.’
What they have done of course is undermine Scotland’s long-term chances of getting a hearing in Brussels for any kind of exceptionalism, never mind a deal. That may depend not on Nicola Sturgeon and her skills but on a country united and imploring the 27 to look kindly on us as fellow travellers. A country that can unite across parties and with everything else, including independence, put in second place, presents a case that’s hard to dismiss. When roughly half the voters are represented by voices that are seen to be actively against membership or couldn’t care less, the entire case is weakened.
It is perhaps understandable that Labour, Lib Dems and Tories in Wales have an anti-EU stance despite its crippling implications for the local economy. They can argue the people are with them. Not so in Scotland where, in Labour’s case, the idea of party ‘autonomy’ could have been used to support a position different from that of the London leadership based on the referendum result.
It seems nothing, not even economic meltdown, can persuade Unionist politicians to utter any word – even ‘membership’ – that just might imply a sovereign Scotland some way down the line. The Liberals of course have thrown the idea out irrespective at their conference. It allows the elected members again to trade on the Tory and other anti-independence votes that elected them last time but it raises a question: If it comes to it and the only option is hard Brexit and a poor deal for the UK outside the single market and facing years of tariffs while new trade deals are negotiated, is it still Union or bust?
What if there is an offer from Brussels for Scotland to inherit the UK membership, if it demonstrates a desire for independence? As it stands the Liberals won’t even consider it – the people can go to Hell. Is Labour far behind? Will the outright resistance to self-determination withstand even economic catastrophe, turning a Brexit Union into a suicide mission? Is the self-loathing they project on to Scotland so extreme that it overrides rational thought?
These are complex and fluid times when flexibility and manoeuvrability are called for. Closing off any option is clod-hopping politics at the best of times. To do so today is against national interest. We can celebrate the common sense that delivered the vote to protect our place in the market – along with the Greens – because it really matters. But for the Union, it was a day to be ashamed of our parliament.