Brian Wilson: What the public wanted was not on the EU ballot paper

In times past, I was the recipient of many cheery greetings from London bobbies manning the entrance to New Palace Yard. My memories are of decent, helpful people doing their vital job with a bit of banter and minimum of fuss.

Pro-Brexit demonstrators gather outside the Houses of Parliament in November last year. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

When they weren’t attending to their duties, they were likely to be found posing with delighted ­tourists – images of our country and open democracy that went round the world a million times.

Since I opted out of Parliament in 2005, events have dictated substantial adjustments in the approaches to Westminster. On my occasional returns, it has struck me how ­successful these have been in ­combining security with continuing rights of relatively easy access.

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These London bobbies at the gates epitomised that balance. In the aftermath of this week’s events, the challenge will be to refine and ­preserve both of its elements. ­However that is achieved, there will always be people in the front line and we should look upon them with renewed respect.

Attacks like this fail in their basic, demented purpose because they are much more likely to unite ­people than to divide them. Determination that life will go on as normal and that there will be no irrational responses repeatedly prevail, except on the furthest fringes.

Divisions which are normally magnified for the purposes of ­politics are seen in a truer perspective. However, it is entirely proper that democratic debate resumes as quickly as possible. And if that is true in the House of Commons, it is also true in the country. We move on, we argue – but maybe with an enhanced sense of proportion.

In that spirit, I had intended to write this week about a very interesting study of people’s attitudes towards Brexit, so maybe that is not a bad subject to persist with in order to demonstrate why exaggerating differences can become the enemy of reason.

On the basis of the EU referendum, we are invited to believe that there are two competing armies of Leave and Remain with irreconcilable ­differences of principle and values. In Scotland, there is an added twist. We are told ad nauseam that these are so extreme as to justify a second referendum on independence.

There is then supposed to be a ­subsidiary polarisation between those who favour a ‘hard Brexit’ and a ‘soft Brexit’, options which are ­presented in terms of mutual ­exclusivity as if there are two set meals on the negotiating menu, one of which must be discarded before service begins.

It really isn’t like that, as a report from the NatCen Social Survey, ­presided over by the unimpeachable Professor John Curtice, ­confirms. “For the most part,” he concludes, “Remain and Leave ­voters are not at loggerheads on the kind of Brexit they would like to see”.

On the contrary, clear majorities of both factions want to maintain free trade with the EU while also imposing hard borders on immigration. Perhaps most strikingly, 58 per cent of Remain voters want potential EU migrants to the UK to be treated in the same way as non-EU migrants. So much for “freedom of movement” as a holy grail!

As Curtice says: “Many Remain voters would like to see an end to the less popular parts of Britain’s ­current membership of the EU while many Leave voters would like to retain the more desirable parts such as free trade, cheap mobile phone calls and clean beaches.”

It is very difficult to discern from any of that the stereotyped views of hard and soft Brexit, except in the lexicon of politicians and ­commentators. Those who hold these ­absolutist positions (insofar as we know what they mean) are in the minority. This surely explains why so few Scots – regardless of how they voted – share the apocalyptic view of Brexit per se as a transformational event.

That is the essential background to the negotiations which the UK Government is about to trigger – and it scarcely suggests they will be hell-bent on throwing the European baby out with the Brussels bathwater.

According to Curtice’s findings, 93 per cent of Tory voters want free trade with the EU. Is Mrs May going to ignore them in pursuit of some ‘hard’ ideological objective she doesn’t, as far as we know, even ­subscribe to?

Life is complicated and referendums do little to simplify it. If you look at Curtice’s survey, the obvious conclusion is that majority ­public opinion would have been better served by a radical renegotiation of the UK’s membership of the EU, with withdrawal as the fall-back position rather than a starting point. But that option was not on the ballot paper, which is where exaggerating differences leads us.

Who knows what lies ahead once negotiations begin – but my guess is that they will end up somewhere most people, in Scotland as much as anywhere else, can live with ­fairly easily. Curtice’s survey certainly does not suggest that Scotland’s 62 per cent are wedded to free movement of labour within the EU (far less leaving the UK) any more than the UK’s 52 per cent are the sworn enemies of a single market.

I find it puzzling that the claim of a “mandate” for a second independence referendum is taken seriously. Political parties can put anything they like in their manifestos, but if they don’t have the power to ­legislate for it, then it is an opinion rather than a mandate. The time to argue that point, if anyone wanted to, was when the Smith Commission was realigning powers between Westminster and Holyrood, a deal to which all parties signed up.

The challenge for the Scottish ­Government, once negotiations begin, is to stop grandstanding about a referendum and start working constructively towards the most advantageous outcomes for Scotland. It will soon be transparent if their interest is in getting to the television cameras first, in order to claim betrayal – as opposed to being part of a team that works for ­Scotland and the whole UK.

Just as the objectives of Leave and Remain voters overlap far more extensively than the caricatures suggest, so too do the negotiating interests of Scotland and the other nations and regions of the UK. ­Pretending otherwise will be a ­difficult act to sustain once real jobs and real futures are at stake.