One recent evening, 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 and 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 Donald Trump, the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and the Brexit vote. I suggested that there might be deeper currents running. But no, he wasn’t having it.
As I sunk deep into an old armchair, 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. 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 introspection, 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 becomes 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 – but I was wrong. The sheer volume of hard Brexiteers on the back benches – Jack Aubreys in their mind’s eye, Captain Pugwashes to the rest of us – staggers me.
These are the deeper currents I refer to. At the end of the Brexit process, do you really think Scots – the majority of whom view being forced out of the European Union 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?
And 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 would 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.
Chris Deerin is the New Statesman’s contributing editor (Scotland)