Only three words, just a slip of the tongue, but as a signifier of the real and growing gulf between Scotland and the UK it was revealing.
Jeremy Corbyn was in Glasgow on 31 August for a Labour Party rally, straight after Ruth Davidson’s shock resignation as leader of the Scottish Tories. This was an opportunity, surely, for Corbyn to show that Labour, dumped into third place by the probably irreplaceable Davidson, would seize the chance to resume its traditional role as the British party that best understands and represents Scots. An open goal.
For some reason, Corbyn began to speak about “the damage to historic buildings in Scotland”, to the heritage, he declared, of “Willie Rennie Mackintosh”. He had confused Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the renowned architect, with Willie Rennie, the somewhat less-renowned leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. It is a gaffe that could be seen to capture perfectly the diminished role Scotland plays in the UK as Brexit approaches: an afterthought if not an outright pest, worthy only of token attention and flying visits. The real action, and the people that matter, are elsewhere.
Scotland’s relationship with the EU and Europe has always been more constructive than the hysterical pearl-clutching that has characterised the English approach to continental dealings. This is due in part to the greater similarities in legal systems, to distinctive historical alliances, and to a largely positive political narrative. As the smaller partner in the UK, Scotland has also found the compromises that come with EU membership easier to wear.
As a result, in the 2016 referendum, 62 per cent of Scots voted to remain, and almost no politician of any standing campaigned to leave. The narrow UK vote for Brexit, dictated by a much larger English population, was a stunning display of southern might. It also highlighted a growing divergence in values and aspirations.
In the 1980s there would have been just as much frustration, but today’s Scotland is different. It has a muscular devolved parliament that has replaced Westminster as the most prominent forum for public debate and the main focus of media coverage. It has a first minister, a cabinet and an elected opposition. It is used to taking its own decisions at its own pace. It has an enhanced sense of what it is, what it wants, and what it doesn’t.
Since the Brexit referendum, polls have shown the number of Scots opposed to leaving the EU has only grown. Public opinion is stridently against no deal. Boris Johnson is not popular, and from the north both his government and Corbyn’s opposition look – with good reason – to be peculiarly English constructions. Brexit is not our fight, and yet it is being done in our name, by people for whom we did not vote.
There is, clearly, extreme danger in all this for the Union. It is hard to find anyone from the Better Together campaign who predicts confidently that the UK will survive in its current form for very much longer.
The oldest argument in politics is “who governs?” It is the key question Brexit asks of Scotland. More than matters of economic subsidy, currency and legacy debt, it forms the basis of national identity and self-respect. It is the very reason the Scottish Parliament was set up 20 years ago – to address the sense of democratic deficit that lingered after the Thatcher years.
The issue before Scots now is: is devolution enough? Does it do the job? Consequently, the argument for independence is becoming detached from party loyalty and fellow-feeling because, given current behaviours, these are proving harder to access. It no longer has much to do with the SNP, or whether you like Nicola Sturgeon, or what Alex Salmond did or didn’t do. Brexit pushes us beyond concern about the economics, and into broader considerations of self-respect, legitimacy and a simple desire to engage with the rest of the world on our own terms. If this view gains enough momentum, it is potentially undefeatable.
The most recent four polls have shown support for Yes at between 48 per cent and 52 per cent – the last of these, by Lord Ashcroft, also found Remain voters supporting independence by 54 per cent to 37 per cent. In another poll 63 per cent thought Brexit made independence more likely and 56 per cent said no deal would make them more likely to vote for independence. The bulwark that was Ruth Davidson has gone. In the end, if Scotland goes, it will have been given a hefty shove out the door.
“The battle for parliament”: read the rest of our symposium on Britain’s political crisis here.