Why hardcore Brexiteers are like Ally’s Army in 1978 – Bill Jamieson

Near-religious optimism of Brexiteer ultras reminds Bill Jamieson of the crazed euphoria of Ally’s Army in 1978, while he sees the Grim Reaper in the form of SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford. It’s time for the battle between optimism and negativity to be settled in a general election.

Ally MacLeod walks through a corridor of Lion Rampants ahead of Scotland's trip to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup

So what happens now that Boris Johnson has entered Number 10? It is impossible to avoid the sense that UK politics – at Holyrood as much as at Westminster – is now a gigantic boil fit to be burst.

On all sides, there are urgent, furious, highly divisive and utterly irreconcilable voices that will grow in vituperation and volume as the Hallowe’en deal or no-deal deadline approaches.

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A honeymoon period for the new Prime Minister? It’s already over. Senior government figures, including the Chancellor Philip Hammond, Justice Secretary David Gauke and Rory Stewart have quit. Education minister Anne Milton has walked out. Sir Alan Duncan has resigned as a Foreign Office minister.

Warnings of the consequences of a ‘no deal’ now range from the “devastating”, through “catastrophic” to the outright apocalyptic. Just for good measure, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research is warning that the economy could already be in a recession caused by Brexit deadlock paralysing businesses. It believes there is a one-in-four chance the economy is already in a technical recession, with “a significant risk that a severe economic downturn will begin within the next six months”.

Now Boris Johnson is far from alone in entering Downing Street in a daunting set of circumstances. Winston Churchill in 1940, Clement Attlee in 1945, Harold Wilson in 1966, Margret Thatcher in 1979, David Cameron in 2010: all faced horrendous challenges, ranging through Nazi invasion, post-war austerity, industrial unrest, trade union militancy and the debt-ridden aftermath of a financial crisis. All faced the most daunting odds, surrounded by nay-sayers and doubters. But each achieved great things.

But what makes today’s predicament so distinctive, so acute and so impossible is the not only the absence of popular endorsement but also a wafer-thin Commons majority, and that points to an early general election.

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Even with the continuing support of the Democratic Unionist Party, Boris Johnson’s tenure in office rests on a majority of just three. And with a looming by-election defeat, this could be further cut.

How can an administration succeed with a domestic legislative programme, let alone surmount the immediate towering hurdle of a Brexit departure acceptable to parliament?

It is one thing to have vigorous political discourse, the clash of opinions, a raucous hustings. But it is quite another when Tory Remainers have already refused to accept the majority outcome of the EU referendum and appear ready to stop at nothing to thwart a ‘no deal’ departure – even to the point of bringing down their own government.

Against this, Boris Johnson believes he has an ace. It is the desperation of voters, after three-and-a-half utterly miserable years of Theresa May, for a far more positive and inspiring leadership.

“We are going to get Brexit done on 31 October,” he declared on Tuesday. “We are going to take advantage of all the opportunities that it will bring in a new spirit of can-do. And we are once again going to believe in ourselves and what we can achieve.”

But beyond the ranks of the Boris Johnson believers, can the UK be roused to a positive, can-do, optimistic spirit he is seeking to champion? Seldom will an election campaign have pitted desperate optimists against furious sceptics – and with the unity of the UK now at stake.

And the style of bubbly, buoyant, positive optimism seldom plays well in Scotland. We have an in-bred caution and scepticism that can seem, at times, genetic.

Glorious exceptions prove this rule. The near-religious optimism of the Brexiteer ultras – the belief that ‘no deal’ will happen ‘whatever’ on 31 October in the face of the European Commission’s repeated statements it will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement and the determined opposition of Tory rebels – reminds me of the crazed euphoria that enveloped Scotland as the Tartan Army flew to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup. We were fired by dreams of victory. Today, an agreed ‘no deal’ looks about as likely today as a Scotland World Cup triumph back then.

For the moment, the SNP is on the front line of Boris’s opponents and stern deniers of his ‘can-do’ approach. Yet I dare say that exactly the same appeal to the spirit of can-do optimism and positivity will pour forth in any campaign for a second independence referendum.

The party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford will switch from his incantations of apocalypse – the Grim Reaper of Boris’ sunny uplands – to the evangelical prophet of glorious positivity that would lie ahead for an independent Scotland.

All politics is bi-polar: it just depends on when you throw the switch. The coming election will be the switch-thrower: a great clash between positive and negative currents: a sparkly affair for certain. But it is one that now looks unavoidable – and unavoidably early.