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Leader: Brexit, Ireland, Scotland and the Union

Devolution has proved an incomplete solution to the disunities of the UK. Now, we must ask: can the Union survive Brexit?

The ties binding the nations of the United Kingdom have long been fraying. Where once the Irish Question dominated our political discourse, today the Scottish Question threatens to destroy the UK’s fragile unity. The pressure for Scottish independence pre-dated the vote for Brexit, but while England and Wales voted to leave the EU, the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.

Theresa May’s self-declared mission is to deliver Brexit (in accordance with the majority view) and also to maintain the Union. Yet the former task risks undermining the latter. When a majority of Scots voted to remain in the UK in September 2014, David Cameron had already promised to hold a vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. Yet he made this pledge in the belief that he would win the referendum. Indeed, Scots were told that opposing independence was the only sure way to guarantee their nation’s future in the EU. Now that this falsehood has been exposed, they are entitled to revisit their decision in a second referendum.

Before Mrs May’s Lancaster House speech on 17 January, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, said that her ultimate goal of independence could be “put aside” if a “soft Brexit” were pursued. A red line for her would be the UK’s withdrawal from the EU’s single market. The Prime Minister has confirmed that Britain will leave the single market and perhaps also the customs union. The onus is now on Ms Sturgeon to act or stop endlessly threatening to hold a referendum and accept that Scotland remains part of the UK, as the Supreme Court reminded her in its ruling this week.

In her speech, Mrs May vowed to ensure that as the “right powers are returned to Westminster” the “right powers are passed to the devolved administrations”. Like Mr Cameron in 2012, she is attempting to call the nationalists’ bluff. Though the Scottish National Party rushed to reopen the possibility of a second independence referendum, it has been careful not to commit to one. There has been no spike in support for independence. The collapse in the price of oil, the SNP’s failure to answer the currency question, concern about a hard border between England and Scotland and economic uncertainty have all weakened the case for separation.

It does not follow, however, that the backing for the break-up of the UK will remain unchanged. In 2014, the unionist side won by making the economic case against independence. During the 2014 referendum campaign, unionists could also point to the possibility of Labour returning to power at Westminster (potentially even in alliance with the SNP). Yet the Conservatives’ double-digit national poll lead suggests that Labour, which has collapsed in Scotland, could be out of power until 2030 or beyond, by which time the British state may not even exist.

After 62 per cent of Scots voted to remain in the EU, the Nationalists could frame an independence referendum as a vote to rejoin the bloc and preserve European citizenship for all Scots. Though it is doubtful that Scotland could simply inherit the UK’s membership – not least given secessionist pressures in Spain – the EU may well welcome a new member state as Donald Trump and others predict its demise.

Besides reviving the Scottish Question, Brexit has thrown Northern Ireland’s future into doubt. The Republic of Ireland’s continued membership of the EU raises the spectre of a hard border between the north and south on the island. The UK and Irish governments alike have dismissed this prospect, but Mrs May has conceded that, at the very least, customs controls on the island of Ireland are likely to return.

Devolution has proved an incomplete solution to the dis­unities of the UK. While we acknowledge the frustration of all those who voted Remain, in Scotland especially, we have not given up on the UK. Yet the status quo is not good enough. A new constitutional settlement and the creation of a fully federal state are necessary if the UK is to survive.

England’s political and demographic dominance has long stoked nationalist ambitions. It now threatens to remove Scotland and Northern Ireland from the EU against the will of the majority. The Union survived the partition of Ireland, two world wars, the demise of the British empire and the rise of Thatcherism. It may not survive Brexit.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge