Britain’s Brexit toxicity is pushing the Scots away

If we decide you’re a bunch of dicks then we can grab our ball and go home.

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Earlier this week I found myself, after midnight, in the senior common room of an Oxford college. Drink had been taken and, predictably, discussion among the few remaining stragglers had turned to Brexit.

There were three opposed, including me, and one Leaver, a confident, gangling fellow in a flowing black gown who might have been hand-knitted by CP Snow. At one point we got on to the possible consequences for the Union, and here he was adamant: Scottish independence was done for; Brexit made the idea unthinkable, economically, strategically, electorally. I said I wasn’t sure about that, that the perils of insisting the logical path – as you saw it – would be the one taken had rather been exposed by the election of President Donald Trump, the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and the Brexit vote itself.

I suggested there might be deeper currents running. But no, he wasn’t having it.

As I sunk deep into an old armchair, surrounded by wood panelling, fine art, and centuries worth of scholarly bric-a-brac, a fish out of water keeping himself wet with one last whisky, I became achingly aware of how far away Scotland – home – felt. Not just the 350-mile geographical distance, but the cultural and psychological one, too. Now, it can fairly be said that the gap between an Oxford senior common room and literally anywhere else in the UK is equally vast, but still… it felt like a different galaxy, and a different species.

Since devolution, the political conversation north of the border has almost wholly unhitched itself from the one in the south. Of course, this was sort of true during the Thatcher era too, but back then both sides were at least arguing about the same things being done by the same people, if often from different ideological starting points.

Today, Brexit apart, the Scottish media and Holyrood’s politicians usually pay little notice to what happens at Westminster, other than to sneer or whinge. The nation has its own priorities, its own tribunes, its own targets and its own routes of achieving (or not achieving) them. This, although it can sometimes push us into myopic parochialness (particularly because almost all of the matters within Holyrood’s purview are domestic), is also, in a way, healthy: stop whining, stop blaming everyone else, and get on with it. Of course that doesn’t stop the SNP grumbling darkly about the evils of Westminster, but this become less and less convincing and more and more pathetic with each passing year.

But here’s the thing that my Oxford interlocutor and his like often forget: when it comes down to it, Scots have somewhere else to go. You can throw all the arguments at us about economic crisis and national solidarity and diminished global influence (I’ve made many of them myself over the years), but Brexit is rather queering your pitch. And if we decide you’re a bunch of dicks then we can grab our ball and go home.

And here’s the thing: you increasingly look like a bunch of dicks. Brexit has cracked open the smooth David Cameron-esque skin of the Conservative Party to reveal a scaly John Redwood-esque lizard. I thought I understood the Tories reasonably well – I ran the Telegraph’s comment pages for the best part of a decade, for god’s sake – but I was wrong. The sheer volume of hard Brexiteers on the backbenches – Jack Aubreys in their mind’s eye, Captain Pugwashes and Seamen Staines to the rest of us – staggers me.

On the opposite side of the house sit the sinister John McDonnell and co, with the Gumpish Corbyn held out in front to absorb enemy fire, and behind them a cowed parliamentary party that lacks the moral courage either to seize control or break free. On Brexit, these goons make the Tories seem collected and coherent. That’s some choice you’re offering us. Cheers.

These are the deeper currents I refer to. Most Scots have had enough of the independence debate for now. They want Nicola Sturgeon to get on with putting her efforts into bettering our schools, the NHS and our economy, and to be fair, and although it’s early days, she seems to be trying to do just that. We want the opposition parties to hold her to account – again, Ruth Davidson appears happy to play her part, though we’ll see whether the new Labour leader, whoever it turns out to be, imports the hard-left virus to Scotland.

A successful Holyrood may only further undermine the Union. And in the meantime, we shudder at what Westminster is doing in our name as it hacks away at the UK’s international credibility, soft power, economic prospects and more. The risk is that the essential binding emotions of amity and comity are being extinguished. It shouldn’t take a tragedy like the London and Manchester terror attacks to draw out a sense of national empathy, but it increasingly does.

Here’s the thing: at the end of the Brexit process, do you really think Scots – the majority of whom view being forced out of the EU against their will as a grave national insult – will swallow their pride, tuck back in and play their part in making Britain (England) great again? Does the most likely shape of that new state, which by economic necessity seems destined to be the kind of place that will bring a satisfied smile to the Redwood face, seem like the kind of society Scots have traditionally been comfortable with? Given that support for independence remains roughly where it was in 2014, is it really that hard to imagine that in a decade or so a majority of Scots will decide they’ve had enough? Remember the old music hall song:

“One evening last October, when I was far from sober
And dragging home a load with manly pride
My feet began to stutter and I fell down in the gutter
And a pig came up and lay down by my side

“Then I lay there in the gutter and my heart was all a-flutter,

Till a lady, passing by, did chance to say:

“can tell a man that boozes by the company he chooses,"

And the pig got up and slowly walked away."

And, of course, it is not just the Scots who find their unionist mojo flickering. There are plenty of people south of the border who have had enough of the Jocks banging on about independence. I’ve lost count of the number of Brexiteers who have said to me that, given a straight choice, they’d rather lose Scotland than give up Brexit. Lord knows what the Northern Irish reaction is going to be once the full impact on its relationship with the Republic is felt.

None of this gives me any pleasure, but it would be a lie to say I can’t feel my internal chemistry beginning to change. I won’t be the only one. The Britain I argued for in 2014 is ceasing to exist, has made a monkey of me, is regenerating into an unattractively spivvy character – and it doesn’t seem to care, really.

In this light, I’ll be interested to see whether These Islands, a new unionist think tank launched this week, can gain any purchase. There are good people behind it, including the historian Dan Snow and Tom Holland, and its board comprises individuals of stature from across the UK. Its birth, Holland tells me, “was prompted by a conviction – reinforced by recent events – that scaring people is not necessarily the best way to persuade them of the value of political unions. The positive case for the Union remains, in my opinion, as strong as it has ever been – but those who support it, precisely because they have always tended to take it for granted, have struggled at times to articulate what is valuable about it.’

Holland insists These Islands is not a Panglossian exercise, nor an argument for preserving the status quo in aspic", but points out that unpicking political and economic unions are never easily done. The challenge of extracting the UK from a 40-year-old union merely hints at the effort that would be required to unpick a 300-year-old union," he says.

But the howling Brexit vortex is, I fear, a game changer on all sorts of fronts. The global revolt against authority and traditional elites has a long way to go yet – look at the result of the recent Austrian election. The Czechs are moving into similar territory. The Catalan rebellion heads towards an unknowable outcome.

What I like about These Islands is that it’s about something more than just shouting YOU’LL HAVE A £15 BILLION DEFICIT! at Scots and will attempt to draw out the deeper value and indeed values of the Union. Most of our institutions – including the EU – would have benefited from a similar duty of care. But I wonder whether it isn’t too little, too late, to ultimately keep these islands together.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article appears in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over