Brexit is a crisis of English democracy which a growing number of Scots don’t want to be part of, writes Lesley Riddoch.
Over the last ten days, significant, un-provoked and very public conversions show that the SNP walkout has engaged hearts and minds, despite commentators dismissing the Withdrawal Bill and power grab as too technical to galvanise change.
Change started with Murray Foote – former Daily Record Editor, No voter and author of the Vow who wrote: “I cannot tolerate a Tory government prepared to treat devolution with the blatant contempt displayed in Tuesday’s cynical one-man debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill. It was a democratic abomination. I can no longer stand by while a cabal of the privileged deprive our children of the right to live in 27 European countries because they don’t like Johnny Foreigner… So independence it must be.”
The changing mood gathered pace a week later when Chris Deerin, a vociferous critic of independence and the Scottish Government, wrote in the New Statesman: “You don’t have to want Scottish independence to appreciate today’s SNP as a significant emblem of decency, progressiveness and social conscience. This is all the more important when one looks glumly around the world and even, sadly, to Westminster. Scottish nationalism has grown up, and it has grown up well.”
And the changing mood was capped, this weekend, by Herald columnist Fidelma Cook who explained she had broken her long-standing, self-imposed bar on discussing Scottish politics from her home in France, after witnessing the 15-minute “debate” on Brexit and devolution.
“I believe that was the day the fight for independence took a giant leap forward. On display was all the contempt that England has shown over and over again to its neighbours. Some of the statements made about Ireland and its border issue have been breathtaking in [their] ignorance and insensitivity. By the end of this debacle England will stand alone, Ireland will be united and Scotland will be a nation again.”
Hours after this column was published, the Edinburgh International Film Festival premiered a film by anti-Brexit campaigner David Wilkinson in which he expressed precisely the same sentiment, predicting the rapid break-up of Britain. As an English-born presenter/director he could call Brexit for what it really is – a crisis of English democracy, which has inadvertently set Ireland and Scotland on new, better democratic paths. In the question and answer session that followed though, few questions came from folk with Scottish accents. Afterwards I asked why and the answer was a combination of: “England doesn’t listen, so what’s the point; hell mend them – they made this mess so they can fix it” and “we’re off soon anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.”
Now of course, the next independence referendum has neither a date nor a certain outcome. A broken, Brexited rUK doesn’t help a newly independent neighbour one iota. Complacency is dangerous and opinion polls don’t yet show evidence of a significant pro-Indy shift. But the prevailing narrative has unquestionably changed. The Union is on the back foot – mired in the shameful, dismal, greedy chaos of Brexit. Economist Will Hutton joined Saturday’s massive march against Brexit in London. His analysis is forthright, angry and despairing: “Faragists control the Tory party, f*****g business, employment and jobs as if the rules of the economic game were as they were in 1850. Meanwhile, Corbynites control the Labour party, ruining the economy no less effectively by fantasising about bespoke deals. It is barely disguised civil war.”
And like the last Civil War, it’s increasingly an English affair, not a Celtic one. The overwhelming majority of Scots have always wanted to stay in the EU. Likewise a big majority in Northern Ireland, even if it didn’t look that way in the Brexit vote, two years ago. As the former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan told a fascinated Edinburgh Film Festival audience, turnout in Republican areas was an unspectacular 50 per cent, because Sinn Fein failed to foresee the possibility of a Leave win and therefore failed to campaign. A second vote, he thinks, would see a far bigger turnout on the Republican side. Equally, he believes Arlene Foster’s belief that Brexit would be defeated in England allowed her to support Leave – partly to put clear orange water between the DUP and their traditional rivals, the EU-supporting Ulster Unionists, but mostly to maintain the policy outlooks of the old Paisley family regime. Foster’s weak attachment to Brexit was evident when she gave DUP MPs a free vote on the issue. But as public opinion in Northern Ireland changes, the position of its former First Minister could also change. The recent BBC survey – which revealed Scots independence supporters and Remainers to be the cheeriest people in Britain – shows 45 per cent of folk in Northern Ireland want to remain in the UK. 42 per cent would join the Republic given the chance and a crucial 13 per cent are undecided.
The Scots and Irish are changing in tandem, while England is at war with itself, bereft of effective and courageous party leaders. A widely shared tweet from the weekend march was a variation on the old theme; “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?” Indeed, where is Labour’s lead over the Tories? It beggars belief that Theresa May is still viewed as a better prime minister than Jeremy Corbyn, and the Conservatives are slightly ahead of Labour in the UK polls. Even though a 14th straight YouGov poll shows that a majority of British voters now believe the decision to leave the European Union was “wrong”. If there is a better working definition of “basket case,” I’ve yet to hear it.
That’s why the Scot who organised the funding for Saturday’s Stop Brexit film – originally a No voter – prompted loud cheers when he begged the audience to save Scotland by supporting Scottish independence.
Moments like this are happening the length and breadth of the country.
Not just because of the obvious issues – the economic damage of being stuck outside our largest market, the demographic unfairness of older voters depriving the young access to neighbouring countries or even the democratic impact of being dragged out of Europe and losing our supposedly entrenched devolution settlement along the way. But because pivotal figures within the former No movement feel they must finally acknowledge that Brexit has laid bare the ugly and out-dated power dynamics of Britain. Prepare for more tales of conversion as this long hot summer rolls ever closer to Brexit.