Why in Scotland do we need bother with elections? Does it matter what voters want? And who needs to show respect for their views?
Certainly not the sixty-plus great and good Scots who signed an open letter calling for Brexit to be halted. The “disastrous consequences”, they say, are “becoming ever clearer”.
“We need,” the letter declares, “to think again about Brexit, to have a UK-wide debate about calling a halt to the process…”
The signatories include former First Minister Henry McLeish, former Nato general secretary Baron Robertson, former diplomat and author of the Article 50 clause John Kerr, and historian Tom Devine.
Then there’s the former Lib Dem leader Lord Campbell, former European Court of Justice judge Sir David Edward, former Scottish Lib Dem leader Lord (Jim) Wallace, former Scottish Secretary Baron Helen Liddell, former Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson and our very own feisty commentator Lesley Riddoch.
Let’s avoid ungracious jibes about the “former this” and ex-that” as a shroud-waving Zombie parade of Scotland’s Great Undead. These are serious people. They are deeply experienced in public life and have given years of service to this country. They are what, in a more deferential age, we would call our elders and betters. They have every right to have their views heard and they are not alone in holding them.
There’s just one thing. They’re wrong.
Give thanks that one sentiment is not in the letter - the ritual incantation that “we respect the result of the EU referendum” – a now obligatory prelude to trashing the very same.
Most Scots voted ‘Remain’. But some 40 per cent did not. And across the UK, 17 million people voted ‘Leave’, with a clear majority of more than a million in favour. Most of the signatories supported Scotland remaining in the UK and presumably have some regard for a UK-wide vote on a UK matter.
There was the Commons vote to activate Article 50 to launch the Brexit process - supported by 498 MPs, with 114 against.
Then came the UK general election. The two main parties supporting Brexit – Labour and Conservative - together secured 26.5 million votes. The parties opposed to Brexit – the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens – received 3.86 million.
But to the Scots worthies who signed this letter, none of this seems to matter: the wishes of voters barely register.
And why should they, if the voters were all wrong? The remedy is simple, and in the time-honoured tradition of Brussels democracy: hold another election until the ’right’ vote prevails. To assert now that we need “a UK-wide debate” overlooks the fact that we have been debating little else for more than two years. The worthies must have been out of the country for all of this long period not to notice.
The letter refers to “disastrous consequences” of Brexit, citing rising inflation, a slowing economy and falling living standards. Now it’s certainly true that business investment has been hit by uncertainty over Brexit. And the fall in the pound has contributed to a rise in prices for imported raw materials and consumer goods.
But there is no unanimity about the course of inflation – in fact, contrary to forecasts that it would hit three per cent, it fell back last month to 2.6 per cent. Fortunately, there is unanimity about the benefits of employment. It is now at an all-time high, while unemployment has fallen.
The problem with “blaming Brexit” for our economic ills cannot account for why wage growth has been sluggish long before the Brexit vote; or why the UK growth rate did not fall in tandem with Scotland’s last year; or why Scotland’s economy jumped 0.8 per cent in the first quarter – just when despair should have been setting in.
As the Fraser of Allander Institute has pointed out, there are deeper structural problems at the heart of Scotland’s economic malaise.
It is wrong to describe our condition as “disastrous”. The latest Scottish Chambers of Commerce survey findings this week for the second quarter revealed “a broadly positive story in terms of business performance across most sectors” though with warnings on potential challenges ahead.
Says Neil Amner, chair of the SCC’s economic advisory group, “Performance in the construction sector has improved since the beginning of the year, but concerns remain about the persistent negative trend in contracts from the public sector. Manufacturing businesses have again reported strong results, with evidence of a sharp increase in export revenues, possibly as a result of the exchange rate.
“The tourism sector is also looking well set for the summer, whilst key indicators in the financial and business services sector, such as profitability and employment have returned to their best levels for over two years.”
For the record, the IMF has raised its forecast for UK growth this year to two per cent. Uncertainty, yes, with difficult and complex negotiations – but “disastrous”?
Then there’s the fear – of which Scotland’s Europe minister Michael Russell makes much – that Scotland would lose powers in the event of a UK-Brussels Brexit deal.
But a report this week authored by the House of Lords EU committee concluded leaving the EU will result in a “significant increase in the powers and responsibilities of the devolved institutions”.
The Scottish Parliament has had responsibility for farming, fishing and environmental protection measures since its foundation in 1999: it jointly administers these areas inside the common European framework set by the EU.
The committee believes only a change of law setting out what powers are reserved back to Westminster before the UK officially ceases to be in the EU could stop the transfer of responsibilities to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
The committee added: “We doubt that either the UK Government or parliament has the capacity to undertake such a task [halting the transfer of responsibilities] at the same time as achieving a successful Brexit.”
And what would happen were the SNP to win a second independence referendum and applied to rejoin the EU? Would it meekly agree to hand back these powers back to Brussels? Just askin’.
Ah, a successful Brexit: whoever heard of such a thing? ‘Remainers’ never tire of declaiming that Brexit is a fatal mistake and that national humiliation awaits us. We now face a united EU calling all the shots.
But there is no unity within the EU27 as to what “the EU wants”. It is a complex construct of 28 nation states with widely different economic structures and levels of development, history and tradition, temperament and geopolitical situation. And Brussels’ answer to Brexit to foist “more Europe” on member states may well prove counterproductive.
What a more considered and thoughtful letter it would have been had the Great and the Good recommended a Norway-style arrangement for the UK inside the European Economic Area: close ties with the EU without being an EU member, and able to strike external trade deals while participating in the single market. Would this not be better suited to Scotland, while respecting voter desire for change? A more constructive alternative surely, then the utterly negative whinge of this arrogant letter.