On reflection, perhaps South Africa was not the happiest choice for Theresa May’s first overseas visit after the summer break; and not only because her dance moves, cruelly filmed by the watching media, left something to be desired. Negotiating the tricky diplomatic territory of an ex-colonial power – still cordially detested in many part of Africa – returning cap in hand in search of individual trade deals, after messing up its relationship with its own closest neighbours, was never going to be an easy brief. And when the Prime Minister visited Robben Island, and allowed herself to be photographed in the cell where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of his 26 years in prison, she cast a most bitter spotlight on her own party’s contemptible record of support for apartheid, which led Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister, to dismiss Mandela as a terrorist who should never be released, right into the late 1980s.
This, though, is the strange universe into which we have been plunged by the Brexit process, which is set to tear up at a stroke, so far as the UK is concerned, all the dozens of trade deals the EU has negotiated for all its members over the 45 years since we joined. Of all the lies told by the Leave campaign, the idea that being in the EU was somehow preventing us from trading with non-EU countries was one of the most ridiculous; yet still, more than two years on, we are hearing strident claims, notably from International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and his friends, that Brexit will open up whole worlds of opportunity previously withheld from us. This, of course, is the department from which the idea emanated that Brexit would mark the beginning of Empire 2.0, a revival of the pattern of global trade Britain once won by conquest and exploitation; a concept almost as humiliatingly unrealistic as it is offensive.
And the experience of being represented on the international stage by the current British Government lingered in my mind, even as I watched the media and Twitter storm continue to rage over the current allegations against former SNP leader Alex Salmond. Those allegations represent a huge political story, and must of course be investigated as fully and rigorously as possible; as the playwright David Greig put it on Twitter, earlier this week, there must be “no more throwing women under the bus for independence, for socialism, for art, or any other supposed higher goal”.
Yet the tone of some of the coverage reminded me of the two most common errors made by the UK media in covering the “yes” movement of 2014. The first was the idea that the movement was a “heart over head” phenomenon, driven by a surge of patriotic emotion and fervour; hence the decision of many London papers to illustrate all and any stories about it with pictures of roaring people in blue face-paint. And the second was the idea that it was all about Alex Salmond, and his bullish form of leadership; when in fact, in the wider yes movement, and among the 1.6 million who eventually voted yes, attitudes to the then First Minister varied widely, from respect and amused tolerance to scepticism and outright dislike.
All of which causes me to wonder whether supporters of the Union are not being just a shade over-optimistic, in assuming that the possible shaming of Alex Salmond must inevitably damage the cause of Scottish independence. The Salmond allegations raise questions about one man’s personal conduct in office, and about the systems by which he can properly be held to account for it.
The image presented by Theresa May, though, is of a whole government in disarray, lacking an overall majority in parliament, surviving only with the consent of the dangerously reactionary and divisive Democratic Unionist Party, and split even over the Chequers package on Brexit which Deputy PM David Lidington says is the “only alternative” to no deal. Yet this party is leading the nation towards what could be the greatest economic and trading crisis in its peacetime history, with minimal preparation, fuelled by retro-imperial dreams that seem largely fanciful, and on the back of a referendum won by a wafer-thin majority, which the Electoral Commission has now ruled to have been marred by major breaches of electoral law.
The whole spectacle, in other words, might have been designed to emphasise the truth that has underpinned the growing demand for Scottish self-government, and latterly for independence, over the last 40 years; the fact that Scotland is engaged not in an orgy of nationalist sentiment, nor in a love-affair with any one leader, but in a serious, profound and growing disagreement with the rest of the UK over the country’s direction of travel – a disagreement which has only been sharpened by the Brexit vote, and the UK Government’s subsequent handling of it. There is just one development that could begin to heal that political breach; and that is a revival of the forces of social democracy at UK level, strong enough to turn the UK back from its present reckless course, towards the demonstrably successful Nordic model of a balanced economy with high wages, high skills, and high standards in terms of human, economic and environmental rights, either in or closely linked to the European Union.
Given the state of Jeremy Corbyn’s bitterly divided Labour Party though, that decisive revival of the UK centre-left currently seems unlikely. And under these circumstances, it seems probable that the deep difference of political opinion between Scotland and the rest of the UK will continue to be worked out through our constitutional politics, regardless of the fate of individual leaders or parties. Scotland is generally a cautious nation, given to taking things steadily. The surrender of the UK Government to the extreme Brexit right, though, signals a profound malaise that has been brewing for decades, and that Scottish voters, having glimpsed an alternative future, are no longer obliged to tolerate; and it would be a complacent unionist, in these times, who assumed that the fall of Alex Salmond – if that is what we are witnessing – would stop those wheels of history from turning, to the end.