Narrowly focused debate at Holyrood needs some fresh perspective from beyond our shores, says Paris Gourtsoyannis
Game of Thrones may have the dragons, but US presidential nominating conventions have been as good as any box-set binge over the past fortnight. One democratic insurgency has overthrown the Republican establishment, while another erupted in angry protest after failing to stop Hillary Clinton becoming the woman with a chance of taking the White House.
Among the crowds, a delegation from Scotland, including MSPs from the three largest parties, had an enviable front-row seat to political history being made.
In an insightful letter from America on the populist political mood, Kezia Dugdale picked out revealing vignettes of a government that can sometimes frustrate rather than support the aspirations of its own citizens.
When inundated communities in Minnesota are told they can’t get help to protect their homes from future floods, while the cost of a bridge in San Diego is inflated to qualify for federal funding, it’s little wonder that Donald Trump has traction by railing against the Washington DC establishment.
The visit was of course an excellent opportunity to inject fresh ideas into Scottish politics, especially when debate at Holyrood can sometimes feel narrow. But it does raise the question – when was the last time there was a similar delegation to a conference of the Christian Democratic Union in Germany, or the French Socialist Party?
France and Germany both go to the polls within the next year. The electoral fortunes of François Hollande and Angela Merkel matter much more to the UK than those of Clinton or Trump.
Whoever the next US President is, their priorities will be tackling the alienation of an angry white working class, carrying on the fight against Islamic State and keeping Vladimir Putin in check in Syria and Ukraine. Talks with the UK over a trade deal that is at least two years over the horizon will be, to coin a phrase, at the back of the queue.
Yet there is a greater level of familiarity with the domestic politics of the United States than with any of our erstwhile political partners on our doorstep in the EU. Failure to understand or appreciate the UK’s ties with Europe helped contribute to the Brexit vote, and a similar failure to understand the motivations of countries we now have to cut a deal with could have equally serious consequences.
The Brexit deal will need to be approved unanimously by 27 different governments and voted on by the European Parliament. Unlike before, when there was the option of building alliances within the EU, that diverse range of interests is set against the UK. Theresa May knows this, and in the first two weeks of her premiership has embarked on a whistle-stop European tour to shake hands in capitals from Dublin to Bratislava. But the honeymoon period she is now in will only last the summer, and when it ends the empty ‘Brexit means Brexit’ rhetoric will have to go, too.
European leaders are impatient for the UK to decide its negotiating position and begin the real work of trying to achieve it. That means agreement within the Tories and honesty with the public on the future of free movement, participation in the single market, and contributions to the EU budget.
When those truths begin to be told, differences will quickly emerge between what rival factions within the Tories want, and between what the Brexit-voting public expect compared to the reality of a hard-fought settlement with Brussels.
Experts point to worrying signs that politicians, let alone the media and the public, are unprepared for how complex the job ahead will be. The Centre for European Reform, a pro-European think-tank, has warned of a need for six overlapping deals to cover the various transitional arrangements necessary between now and when the UK finally exits the EU in roughly two years’ time. Those will involve talks not only with the EU, but with the 53 countries it currently has trade deals with – and the UK cannot begin speaking to those countries until it leaves the bloc.
The UK’s naivety is already being exposed. Liam Fox’s first overseas mission as International Trade Secretary saw him rebuffed by the governments of Canada and the United States, who both said that no substantive talks on bilateral trade deals will take place before Brexit.
There was outrage in parts of the media at the appointment of Michel Barnier, a French conservative politician and former EU commissioner in charge of financial services, who cracked down on the excesses of the banking sector following the 2008 collapse. A “declaration of war”, said the right-wing press. He even insists on carrying out negotiations in French – his mother tongue.
Those reactions betray the expectation that the UK would simply get what it wants because of its importance as a market for European exporters. But in Brussels, you get something if you give something, as David Cameron found out, and the EU is perfectly prepared to stand its ground.
Questions, too, need to be asked about whether the media is prepared to play its role, particularly in Scotland, where the SNP government insists it can cut a separate deal with sympathetic EU officials. While BBC Scotland and Scottish editions of UK papers can draw on the expertise of foreign correspondents, the footprint needed in Brussels to properly scrutinise those discussions is lacking.
This week a committee of MPs will give its verdict on the BBC’s plans to strengthen its Scottish news output. One widely derided plan, which still could be the corporation’s chosen solution, involves presenters in Scotland pivoting to London to cover international affairs. It doesn’t bode well for public understanding of what lies ahead.
So while the battle royale for the White House will make compelling viewing, it’s entertainment compared to the job at hand. It might not have the glamour of a US election, but the fight worth focusing on is at our door.