Brian Wilson: The one thing that could make me a Brexiteer

Brexit may prove to have positive benefits for Scotland's fishing fleet. Picture: Getty
Brexit may prove to have positive benefits for Scotland's fishing fleet. Picture: Getty
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Sometimes it helps to see events through the prism of local experience rather than relying on pronouncements from those who present themselves as all-knowing. This may apply to the strange case of Brexit, the dog that isn’t barking.

Judging by the daily outpourings of doom, gloom and apocalypse, you might expect the nation to be up in arms and flocking to the Sturgeon standard, demanding not one second referendum but two and living in fear of penury inflicted by callous Brexiteers.

Ms Sturgeon has invested heavily in the hope that this scenario will at some point unfold. Maybe she will get lucky. For the time being, support for independence is down and most Scots seem willing to wait and see what Brexit yields.

Through my local prism, I can help explain why. I was talking to Duncan MacInnes, secretary of the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association, who seemed amused by the anti-Brexit rhetoric: “Since the referendum, the prices our fishermen are getting for shellfish have gone through the roof – they’re double what they were this time last year.”

Instead of relying on EU markets, the industry looked for new ones, particularly in the Far East. Prices there are forcing EU buyers to match them. There’s a strong suspicion that, for years, the Europeans took advantage of market dominance to hold down prices. Now they must compete.

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Across from Stornoway harbour lies Arnish fabrication yard, created at the height of the oil platform boom and struggling ever since. Again this week, redundancy notices have been issued as work runs out on the sole renewables contract, farmed out from troubled BiFab in Fife. I suppose the Scottish Government’s defence of its lamentable failure to turn the thousands of turbines which adorn Scottish hillsides into a manufacturing industry would be along the lines of: “It wisnae us. The EU said these things could be made in Spain, Denmark and Germany, and there’s hee-haw we could do about it.”

In the 1970s, a strong government used its leverage to ensure a great Scottish supply chain was formed to support the North Sea. Nothing remotely similar happened with renewables. Is it not possible that, outside the EU, manufacturing jobs could have been linked to approval of projects, which demonstrably has not happened?

In other words, no matter how one voted, the hyperbole of recent days does not square with experience here, and perhaps elsewhere. For years we heard the EU blamed for unwanted diktats, from ferries to environmental designations. Is all this to be forgotten as Sturgeon promotes the new article of faith that Brussels is the font of goodness while life without it would be intolerable? That case has to be argued rather than asserted from Edinburgh in a glossy brochure filled with worst-case scenarios which probably won’t happen. An almost comical touch was added with a map which showed, via a big blob, that we send 43 per cent of our “international” exports to the EU. Sadly, the map did not show the 63 per cent of our overall exports (worth four times as much) that we send to the rest of the UK, the single market which Ms Sturgeon is hell-bent on breaking up. That contradiction does not go unnoticed.

READ MORE: No-deal Brexit will cost Scotland £12.7bn a year, finds report

I do not pretend that the price of shellfish or travails of a fabrication yard constitute a metaphor on the Scottish economy. There are real risks in Brexit which is why, on balance, I voted to remain. But sensible people can also see opportunities to do things better which are actually quite exciting if that is how events develop. There is a more nuanced view of the EU than Ms Sturgeon invites us to believe.

She could have put herself in a more credible position by simply saying: “We are ruling out a second independence referendum until after the 2021 Holyrood elections when many matters will be clearer. Meanwhile, our efforts will be concentrated on the best possible deal for Scotland and planning for the creative use of new options outside the EU.”

Instead, she did the opposite by dangling the prospect of Indyref2 to the faithful, with an announcement later this year in the light of Brexit developments. Refusing to separate the timescales for these two processes guarantees an approach that will inevitably be tactical in pursuit of the Nationalists’ raison d’etre, rather than transparent in advancing Scotland’s urgent interests.

That may be as big a tactical mistake as the attempt to link the Brexit vote to demands for a second referendum. People, businesses, communities do not like being used as pawns and if it transpires that Brexit is heading towards an accommodation most Scots can live with, then the Scottish Government’s unremitting search for squabbles is unlikely to be seen as an adequate contribution. The shape of Brexit will evolve in the months ahead. The same interests that need defended in Scotland – such as access to immigrant labour – apply throughout the UK. Reasonable solutions will probably be arrived at because failure to do so is obviously self-defeating. Labour’s position of trying to shape Brexit through scrutiny and responding to outcomes which emerge is easy to ridicule but actually quite sensible.

If one thing could turn me into a Brexiteer it would be the elitist complaint that voters were too ill-informed to answer the question. That is an argument against holding referendums rather than for re-running them till they give the right answer. Let events take their course and seek to influence them – but the starting point of negating a democratic decision is wrong and dangerous.

I had departed politics before Lord Adonis, who has emerged as leader of that tendency, was fast-tracked to the status of “Labour grandee”. As far as I can see, he is an FT journalist who joined the gilded set and was duly shrouded in ermine. It is unfair to say nobody ever elected him since he was once an SDP councillor but heaven knows what mandate he thinks he has to frustrate what 17 million people voted for, without regard for how they might react if he succeeded.

Lessons in humility are required, north and south of the border.