Brexit: Where's the public outrage over the awful reality of leaving the EU? – Alastair Stewart

It's hard to believe it is fast approaching the seventh anniversary of the Brexit vote.

It's three years since we formally left the EU on January 31, 2020, but just two since the end of the "transition period", when the UK continued to be in the single market and observe Brussels laws, on December 31, 2020. A Panelbase survey for the Times last August found that if the Brexit referendum were held again tomorrow, 72 per cent of voters in Scotland would support Remain, up from 62 per cent in 2016.

Two-thirds of Britons now support a future referendum on re-joining the EU, and 65 per cent say there should be another vote now, up from 55 per cent at the same point last year. A Savanta survey for The Independent also found that the number of people who oppose another vote has fallen.

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Whatever the polls say, the EU is still losing its place as a Holy Grail of safety nets. Listen to people, and no one seriously believes that we will be back in time for summer; indeed, few and far between consider membership as a solution to the country's social and economic travails.

There is a disconnect between the polls, the Scottish Government, and the public mood. In the latest independence paper, Nicola Sturgeon commits Scotland to re-join the EU to access the single market. A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "An independent Scotland would benefit from rejoining the European Union, and the EU will equally gain from Scotland's membership."

Still, there's an airy indifference among the Scottish electorate to Brexit. A shrug of the shoulders, a heavy sigh, but not much by way of unrest or dissent. Scotland has, in every sense, become a silent battlefield.

Where is the utter outrage in the streets at the country being stripped of EU membership? After all, there were majorities to remain in Europe in all 32 of Scotland's local council areas, with 62 per cent to 38 per cent voting to stay a member. With that result back in 2014, the independence debate might have been dead for a generation.

Given how divided the Scottish electorate was over the 2014 independence referendum result, it's remarkable – and profoundly telling – that we've become mute over the 2016 Brexit one. There have been a handful of pro-EU rallies across the nation but no principled resignations in the Scottish Parliament or continued outrage for seven years. Even demands and calls for a second referendum on re-entry have dissipated.

The UK flag flies outside the European Parliament in Brussels on January 31, 2020, the day Britain formally left the EU (Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire)The UK flag flies outside the European Parliament in Brussels on January 31, 2020, the day Britain formally left the EU (Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire)
The UK flag flies outside the European Parliament in Brussels on January 31, 2020, the day Britain formally left the EU (Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire)

So much time has been spent discussing the right time to demand another independence referendum that we've forgotten about Scots in Europe. There was no battle to the political death for the rights of Europeans in Scotland and the hundreds of thousands of Scots living on the continent. Their lives have been made innumerably more complicated as ex-pats, almost as much as Europeans living in the UK and anyone trying to do business with Europe.

It is easy now to deflect and say that the subsequent Covid crisis, the economic shock of the pandemic, and the energy crisis make all this irrelevant. Given the grievous wound of Brexit is held up as a central pillar of why Scotland should break out of a failing social and political union at home, one wonders why the appetite to fight for the EU has petered away.

Time heals all wounds; in this case, new crises require near-constant attention. Constitutional shifts need such concentrated momentum that the reason EU interest has waned is also why Scottish independence has never been pushed over the line by the SNP.

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"Where Next? The future of the UK-EU relationship", published by the think tank UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE), notes that as of December, 56 per cent of respondents would now vote to rejoin the European Union, compared with 45 per cent of the preceding February. And it observes support for Brexit is now at its lowest since 2016, with only 32 per cent of voters agreeing in the latest poll that leaving the EU was the right thing to do.

Polling, in this respect, is inherently unreliable. What one does at the ballot box is different from armchair proselytising when someone asks for an opinion on the phone. Instead, the EU plays wonderfully for some short-term headlines before the next problem comes along, and one which only a few people have the time and the interest to pursue aggressively. Brexit already feels like three or four national emergencies ago.

If Brexit proved anything, it is that anything controversial will be covered in an avalanche of subsequent topics and obsessions if you give an issue long enough. People just get worn out, and worn out some more, until they accept the awful reality that was made for them.

Imagine the Scottish Parliament was paying as much attention to the injustice of Brexit as it did with its impressive late-night, early-morning scrutiny and debates over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. One day that, too, will be yesterday's controversy.

Mahatma Gandhi is often credited with saying, “be the change you wish to see in the world”. If that's the case, no one has ever succeeded in translating Brexit into a material reality. It is snarling barbed wire stuck around our ankles.

The great irony of the information and social media age is that when something is discussed, everyone discusses it. But the need for more, the constant movement of the world, can shift that focus all at once. There is little space for looking in both directions. The result is a great uproar and then – silence.



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