Brian Wilson: The challenge is not to stop Brexit but to shape it

David Davis is embroiled in Brexit talks. Picture; Getty
David Davis is embroiled in Brexit talks. Picture; Getty
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There is something touchingly olde-worlde about 60 members of Scotland’s illuminati solemnly signing a letter which demands that “the Brexit process must stop now”! One can only imagine how many phone calls, e-mails and refinements of text were required to achieve the finished work.

Facebook would have been much easier even if it did not carry quite the same gravitas. If President Trump had wished to convey a similarly dramatic imperative, he would have used Twitter. The most obvious advantage of a 20th century round-robin is that it does not invite rude comments in response.

Yet I’m not sure why a letter signed by 60 moderately well-known Scottish people would carry more weight than a rational argument pursued by any one of them. If 61 moderately well-known Scottish people signed a different letter, should that give it greater legitimacy in the court of public opinion?

The other problem is that assembling 60 names inevitably risks embracing a few in the category of “I would not wish to be a member of any club to which he/she belongs”. So it may even be that mass signatures become counter-productive for the cause espoused.

Reading the text of this week’s missive, however lofty its intentions, it struck me that it epitomised the exact malaise which many who voted to leave the EU found a way of striking back at. They do not like to be told what’s good for them by those who assume they know better. Declarations from on-high that Brexit was a big mistake, dumbos, are unlikely to persuade anyone.

Words like “catastrophic” don’t help when the evidence to support them is, as yet, extremely limited. As events unfold, the popular mood may change and the political consensus will be forced to respond. It is perfectly legitimate to encourage that process but pointless to assert “catastrophe” as if it was established fact.

There is a particularly Scottish dimension to why we should be wary of demands for an early Brexit replay – and some of the signatories should have been alert to this. The spectacle of referendum losers manoeuvring each day for grounds on which to overturn the result is already familiar and should not be encouraged. In each case, it may have been a mistake to hold a referendum – but it would be a bigger one to disrespect the outcome.

The current challenge is not to stop Brexit but to shape it and under this heading there are now plenty of opportunities, abetted by the delicate Parliamentary balance which the general election created. The Tories’ failure to achieve an overall majority masked the fact that the two most stridently anti-Brexit parties – the Scottish Nationalists and Liberal Democrats – fared poorly. So where does the mandate lie in that?

If Labour now acted opportunistically by converting to the “Brexit must stop” line, it would risk losing whatever ground it gained at the general election. It is one thing to say: “We are going to force concessions and changes of course from the Government on issues that matter to us.” That is both the right and a duty of Opposition which can earn respect but it would be quite another to say: “We see a chance to overturn the referendum outcome, so let’s go for it.”

Answers will have to be found to all the practical objections now being raised to withdrawal from the EU and the institutions which surround it. Increasingly, I suspect, the solutions which emerge will point in the direction of far less radical change than the slogan “hard Brexit” conveys. That process has hardly begun and will take years to evolve; almost certainly, the longer the better in the interests of moderation.

I seriously doubt whether any Government, including this one, is going to lead the country into “a catastrophe” on rigid ideological grounds. As the negotiations proceed, pragmatism will increasingly raise its head. It will point in the direction of compromise and the emergence of workable solutions, as much in the interests of the EU as the UK. The Parliamentary arithmetic will back these up.

In contrast to the apocalyptics, the House of Lords EU Committee report on Brexit and devolution struck me as a decent stab at common sense though, of course, it has been cherry-picked from both directions. The Nationalists broadcast its conclusion that the possibility of a Scottish variation labour movement should be pursued. Fair enough, though the industries cited as being in need of migrant labour – agriculture and hospitality – will tell the same story from all parts of the UK, so that the answer may lie in wider acceptance of the case.

Equally, the report demolishes the pretence that Scotland might stay in the single market while the rest of the UK departs. It was striking that the summary of evidence revealed not a single witness who gave a shred of credibility to that claim. In other words, acres of newsprint and hundreds of sound-bites have been wasted on what was, all along, an exercise in empty posturing.

Another nonsense being promoted is that Brexit would act as cover for a “power grab” with devolved powers reverting to Westminster. The reality of powers returning from EU to UK is inevitably that more, rather than fewer, will end up in Edinburgh. How often have we heard the Scottish Government justifying some course of action by claiming that it was obliged to do so by Brussels? Brexit would end that, whatever else it does. The route by which enhanced powers reach Edinburgh is less important than their substance and the use that can be made of them. Arguing about the route – direct or via Whitehall – is just another diversionary sideshow to feed the grievance narrative. The Scottish Government needs to move on from that kind of stuff if it is to be taken seriously as a constructive contributor to the negotiations.

The Lords Committee concludes with a rallying cry for “both governments to set aside their differences and work together for the best interests of Scotland in the Brexit negotiations”. At present, that may sound like a pious hope but as real issues which affect people’s future prospects emerge, voters will get better at spotting who is grandstanding and who is serious.