Here, from the perspective of a certain type of Scot — let’s call him the despairing Unionist — is how the United Kingdom currently looks.
We are about to have yet another Old Etonian prime minister, chosen for us by an ageing, Jag-driving, 19th-hole-bothering Conservative gerontocracy with an imperial twitch and a growing passion for a no-deal Brexit.
The Old Etonian in question is the most cartoonish example of the caste: an entitled, amoral chancer who has repeatedly and flagrantly proved himself unfit for office. His sole qualifications appear to be impermeable self-confidence, a schoolboyish sense of destiny, and a character act that even Richard Curtis would have rejected as a half-worked cartoonist’s doodle.
This, somehow, is the culmination of decades of political debate and policy development around class, social mobility, meritocracy, and opportunity — in 21st century Britain it is still the natural order of things that the plebs be ruled over by a feckless, spoiled princeling.
Despite his huge lead among Conservative members and, now, among MPs, the only way to guarantee Boris Johnson wins, due to his habit of saying and doing things that are shudderingly offensive, due to his disregard for fact and for the wellbeing of other people, is to keep him away from the media and public debate until he is safely over the line. Everything will be ok afterwards, apparently.
Westminster itself is more Anglicised than at any time in living memory. The only Scots MPs on the frontbench of either main party hold the relatively junior posts of Scottish secretary and his shadow. Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Barry Gardiner don’t count.
Even the teams of advisers around the leadership lack that familiar, salty, Tuckerish tang. This contrasts with the tartan spine of the Blair government and the historic Labour Party, and even the Thatcher and Major years, with their Youngers, Langs, Rifkinds and Forsyths. The Brexit debate is England talking to itself. Screw the French and the Germans. Screw Belgium and Luxembourg. Screw Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic. Wales will do what it’s told. Hello there, Mr Trump.
Tiny Scotland voted 62-38 to remain in the EU, an overwhelming majority in modern British democratic terms. Every one of its 32 local authority areas had a majority for Remain. In contrast, big England voted by the narrowest of margins to leave, and that’s what counts.
Subsequent Scottish suggestions about single market membership and a customs union, about immigration needs, about global reputation and alliances, have been given short shrift. The English half-decision is being interpreted in the most extreme fashion possible. The preposterous Nigel Farage stands as the archetype: a boastful, boozy travelling salesman with a painted-on smile who dreads the arrival of darkness because he weeps in the night in his provincial hotel. A home counties take on a John Cheever character.
The Tories would anyway rather leave the EU and lose Scotland than the opposite. They would sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland. Nothing, not even the integrity of the country itself, can stand in the way of English exceptionalism. England is Mel Gibson with a St George’s Cross rather than a saltire painted on his face, screaming “FREEDOM!” in the face of some puzzled Eurocrat. If the economic forces unleashed mean we will soon have to turn ourselves into a chilly, damp Singapore, if we must go full bovver-boy, full chair-tossing barmy army, let’s do it. Never mind the poor, feel the freedom.
In the end, the arguments that beat the pro-independence campaigners in the Scottish referendum of 2014 were the same ones that won it for the Brexiteers in 2016. The warnings from the government, world leaders, business titans, economists, were dismissed; the data and the plummeting graph projections ignored; the proven realities of the modern world — the planet run by large tectonic forces, sovereignty a complex and tradeable asset, the little guys getting told what to do — forgotten. Take back control. Do it now. Ourselves alone. It’ll be fine. Brilliant, even.This, then, is the offer to Scots in 2019. That, and a warning that it’ll cost us a fortune if we decide to bail out. It is rough wooing of a new and hateful kind, a just-you-sit-there-nice-and-quiet-me-old-china approach to constitutional management. What, then, do you think we’re going to do? What would you do?
The victorious Better Together argument of 2014 was, in the main, an economic scare story. The phrase “Project Fear” stuck because it had more than a ring of truth to it. There was no real narrative of Britain and Britishness, no tale of the nation, no watering of the roots. It was about getting over the line. Those of us who warned about the consequences of a cheap win, expensively bought, were told we understood nothing.
That missing narrative of Britain and Britishness is now being written by England and by Westminster, which is increasingly England’s parliament. It is a tale of the nation in which Scotland has, at best, a walk-on role, and is an irritating, incidental character. The Better Together argument of 2014 remains the Better Together argument of 2019, even as the independence campaign has evolved and adapted, has proven itself suppler than many suspected it could. Will clanging alarms about deficits and currency and trade really be the clincher in, say, 2023? If not, what?
This is not intended as a clarion call for Scottish independence. It is, I suppose, a statement of accounts from a frustrated and baffled and somewhat distressed section of north Britain. It is based on many months of conversations with Scots in politics and business and elsewhere. The bonds are coming loose, and in the unlikeliest of places. Are you listening, England? Do you care? What, in any event, can you do about it? After 300 years or so, is the United Kingdom to die of neglect?