Brexit Day; and across the UK, a nation divided has no idea how to mark the occasion. Passionate Brexiteers say – although with little appearance of real joy – that they want to wave Union flags, bong bongs, drink scrumpy and celebrate Britain’s “independence day”; yet it must be an odd feeling to score a technical victory for national sovereignty, while more than half the nation in question looks on either with indifference, or with a mixture of grief, anger and loathing.
According to a YouGov poll published this week, a clear 54 per cent of those with a view, across the UK – and a crushing 73 per cent in Scotland – now think that Britain was “wrong” to vote to leave the remarkable confederation of once-warring nations that is the EU. Under these circumstances, celebration seems inappropriate; and the whole episode should also come as a reminder to some of the more radical spirits in the SNP that to have a fair chance of success, nation-building or rebuilding projects typically need the support of something more than a wafer-thin majority, won on a single referendum day.
If there’s one thing on which we should be able to agree, though, it’s that Brexit matters, and represents the greatest shift in Britain’s economic strategy and global status since the end of the Second World War. At best, it will involve a radical disruption of the terms of trade between the UK and the European bloc that accounts for about half of all our trading activity. Even those who see Brexit as an opportunity rather than a threat recognise the scale of the economic and strategic challenge it presents; along with the equally profound change it makes in the civic status of British citizens, who now cease to enjoy all the rights, privileges and protections of EU citizenship.
All of which raises the question of why – in this context of profound and generally acknowledged change – Conservative politicians continue to insist that despite all the seismic political events of the last six years, there is still no case for reopening the question of Scottish independence, following the referendum of 2014. In many ways, this spring of 2020 should represents a moment of opportunity for the Conservative opposition in Scotland. After 13 years in Government, the SNP certainly often looks tired, and short of innovative policy ideas. Attacking them on at least some aspects of their domestic policy is an easy task, with education emerging as the administration’s serious Achilles heel. It seems likely, as the Tories suggest, that many Scottish voters, whatever their attitude to independence, feel they have had enough referendums for now; and the Conservatives also have the ear of a newly elected Tory government at Westminster, which should have no difficulty in throwing some high-profile investment at Scottish projects in an effort to buy off opposition. The Scottish Conservatives will also – in the run-up to the 2021 Holyrood election – have the increasingly focused support of what is currently one of the most effective propaganda machines on the planet, in the shape of the ruthlessly mendacious Downing Street operation led by Dominic Cummings.
Yet despite all these advantages, the Conservative Party in Scotland is struggling, following a general election in which it put unwavering support for the Union on the ballot paper, and managed to attract only 25 per cent of the votes cast, finishing 20 percentage points behind the SNP. It was a surprisingly poor performance; and it’s difficult not to conclude that the reason lies in their position on the constitution, which frankly insults the intelligence of every Scottish voter who is aware of Brexit at all. To say that Scottish Tories oppose independence, and the calling of a second referendum in the near future, is reasonable enough, from their point of view.
To say, though, as the Secretary of State did last month, that the result of the 2014 referendum must stand for the whole of “Nicola Sturgeon’s lifetime” is to treat Scottish voters like fools, by denying the obvious truth that thanks to Brexit, the UK has changed radically since 2014, to the extent that the country in which we chose to remain, back then, is simply no longer on offer.
It’s possible that this feeble refrain reflects problems within Scottish Tory Party itself, which contains so many senior people who were once Remainers that they may simply be unable to acknowledge, even to themselves, the extent to which Brexit has changed everything, from the character of their own party, to Scotland’s position in the Union.
Whatever the cause, though, they have decided to tie themselves to the wheels of Boris Johnson’s Brexit bandwagon; and the apparent price of that decision is that they must support his every blustering, high-handed refusal to allow Scotland to reconsider its position, while continuing to talk self-contradictory nonsense about the momentous events of the last four years, in denying Scotland that democratic right. And despite the strong hand the Scottish Tories might otherwise now have to play, this embrace of Tory “Brexitism” – shared by both candidates in the party’s current leadership election – tends to drive middle-of-the-road Scottish voters away from them, for reasons both practical and democratic.
The situation of the Scottish Conservatives, in other words – like the different and more grievous plight of the Scottish Labour Party – epitomises the damage Brexit has already done to the fabric of the UK, and to the coherence of its political parties, whose ability to campaign as one, across three of the UK’s four nations, was for a century one of the most striking features of Britain’s stable democracy. So as we celebrate or mourn the moment of Brexit tonight, none of us, on either side, should be under any illusion that Brexit is done, or that this political drama of resurgent English nationalism is over.
The truth is that it has barely begun to work its way through the fabric of our national life; and when the curtain rises on Brexit Act II, we may find that the Scottish “branch offices” of the UK’s once-great political parties form the backdrop to some strange new plot-twists, in the tragi-comedy of Britain’s long goodbye to the European Union.