If you thought Brexit was fraught…
Published by The i paper (10th May, 2021)
One of many curiosities about last week’s elections was the unusual success of incumbents. Historically, such events have been a chance to bash ruling parties, allowing electorates to take out frustrations for anything from foreign policy blunders through to failures of bin collections on local politicians. Yet the Tories under Boris Johnson triumphed across England, the Scottish Nationalists won a fourth term north of the border under Nicola Sturgeon and the battered Labour Party saw its support rise in Wales under First Minister Mark Drakeford.
Perhaps this is down to the pandemic, reflecting how the trio have dominated the agenda and been on news broadcasts almost every day. Did voters decide to cut them slack amid this unprecedented crisis? Certainly it is hard not to wonder how each might have fared had the elections been held on schedule last year when fear stalked the land and vaccine salvation seemed a long way off. Regardless, these results underscore how the nations that make up our historic union are diverging, a shift inflamed by Brexit as emphasised also by recent turbulent events in Ulster.
Even as final votes were being tallied, talk flared up of looming constitutional crisis over Scotland. Despite failing to win an outright majority, Sturgeon insists she will hold a fresh independence referendum once the pandemic has passed, claiming this is “the will of the country”. Boris Johnson – who won his prime ministership on the back of similar statements about democratic mandates and taking back control – responded by saying this would be “irresponsible and reckless”. He called a pandemic summit for the three leaders, a typically shallow stunt to show the strength of what the Tories now bill in toe-curling style as “Team UK”.
These problems are predictable. It is only seven years since the last independence vote, but one key argument put forward to stay in the United Kingdom was that the nation would thus stay in the European Union. The strength of this argument was seen in 2016 when almost two-thirds of Scots voted Remain – yet they were ejected against their wishes by voters south of the border. The biggest losers include the crucial Scottish fishing and shellfish industry, hurt by termination of frictionless markets for their products. Yet suggestions that Brexit risked the break-up of Britain were dismissed by Johnson and his fellow travellers as “Project Fear”.
Events in Scotland and Ireland are moving faster than even the most pessimistic Remainer might have feared. Johnson may appeal to unexpected parts of England such as the north east, but his buffoonish facade repels many Scots. And his stand against independence rings hollow when he made similar claims against Brussels, even saying in one landmark speech that “loss of democratic control is spiritually damaging” – sentiments to stir the soul of many a Scot seeking independence. Bear in mind also that David Cameron imposed the Brexit referendum on basis of his election mandate from just 37 per cent of votes won in the 2015 general election, which is almost 11 points fewer than the SNP collected last week.
It is absurd to assume every vote for the SNP or Greens was cast in favour of independence, even if this was in their manifestos alongside many other pledges. But Sturgeon will keep pushing for a referendum since that is the point of her party, while it also covers up her glaring failures on public services despite lavish extra funds from Westminster to spray around on free care, prescriptions and university places. This tussle may end up in legal fights over whether Edinburgh has the right to call such a referendum. Yet any judicial ban, which would seem likely given the devolved parliament’s limited powers, strengthens the nationalist cause when Tory Sassenachs can be accused of denying Scottish self-determination despite Brexit.
Brexit demonstrated the difficulties of breaking up a close alliance between nations, yet this would be far more challenging for our kingdom after 300 years together with much closer constitutional, fiscal and social ties. My own family living in London underlines this interwoven history: my father’s family was from Glasgow – although born in India where my grandfather served in the empire likes so many Scots – while I went to Aberdeen University, my wife hails from the Highlands and my daughter is named after a Scottish island as a constant reminder of our shared heritage.
Sturgeon is, hopefully, too canny to follow the Catalonian path by holding a wildcat vote, which sparked such anger along with violent clashes, as I saw reporting four years ago from Barcelona. This separatist effort led to prison for key politicians and sparked the launch of Vox, a hard-right populist party, which demonstrates how these issues can stir up unexpected forces. Nationalism is a very different creature to patriotism, as George Orwell explained in his post-war essay on its inherent culture of aggression and exceptionalism. And history shows with stark clarity how this divisive creed can explode with frightening ease into fury and fighting.
Having inflamed these toxic issues, Johnson is now trying to duck the confrontation by insisting this is not the time to discuss a referendum. No doubt then he will say we must focus on economic recovery. It is hard for his government to simply say no as it should, given how recently the last referendum was held. Michael Gove, leading the effort to save the union, pleads for the Scottish government to “concentrate on the things that unite us” over “constitutional wrangling”. Yet his words reek of hypocrisy after his role in Brexit. Meanwhile the SNP plays its long game with great skill.
Look again at that electoral map. Nationalists rule England and Scotland, Labour clings on in Wales and unionists are in turmoil in Northern Ireland. It is hard not to conclude we witnessing the erosion of the United Kingdom after three centuries. I hope I am wrong, that we can pull back from this brink. But I fear I am right.