The day Britain died: Brexit, Trump and Scottish independence

The Article 50 vote meant the end of Britain as we know it. Everyone needs to come to terms with what that means.

Gerry Hassan
17 February 2017
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Last week a Rubicon was crossed as the House of Commons voted 494 to 122 – a government majority of 372 – to give a third reading to triggering Article 50.

Just as seriously on the same day – Wednesday February 8th 2017 – the UK government reneged on its promise to take 3,000 child refugees (what was called the Dubs amendment) and slashed the number to 350. If that wasn’t enough the Commons at the same time voted to refuse to offer any guarantees to EU citizens living in the UK: content to use them as pawns in a high power poker game.

It is going to be difficult for many in Scotland, and for many ‘openDemocracy’ readers, but Britain is over. There is no way back. Last week the very idea of Britain as outgoing, welcoming, doing the right thing, looking after the most vulnerable and being driven by a sense of humanity, was not only trashed but finally and fatally died.

All of this requires that we get real about the debate here and recognise that we need to be tolerant, serious and embrace detail and facts, not faith and assertion. Unless the UK does an about turn on Brexit and Scotland, indyref2 is inevitable. The only issue will be timing and context.

Any hopes of federalising Britain – as Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale keeps floating and did again this week – is completely and utterly a non-starter. Not only is there no English public interest or political demand, rather tellingly, Dugdale cannot even convince the British Labour leadership of such plans. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have no interest in such ideas, but nor have any current senior Labour politicians. Only Gordon Brown is with Dugdale on this one.

Brexit Britain carries a warning. Look what happens with a narrow 52:48 referendum victory on a false prospectus. The result is bitterness, acrimony, accusation and counter-accusation, and an inability to move on. We are stuck in a perpetual Groundhog Day about the single market, trade, soft and hard Brexit: arguing about the issues which should have been decided in the referendum.

Imagine Scotland after a second referendum and a 52:48 vote for independence. For some this would be their promised land, freedom and moment in the sun. But for others, it would be the opposite: they would feel cheated, disrespected, and as if a part of their very identities had been removed.

There would also be similar emotions to Brexit Britain today. There would be anger, fury, incandescence, along with an awful lot of mutual incomprehension and intolerance. In fact, it could be even worse than Brexit blues because of the fundamental either/or of independence – something much deeper and more elemental than staying or leaving the EU.

We cannot let that happen. That is our choice and it is within our power to change in the here and now. We hold that within our own hands. It will require us to shift how we act, see things and relate to others. All of us – whatever our persuasions. Neil Mackay, editor of the ‘Sunday Herald’ wrote last week: ‘Fellow Yessers: beware the brittle angry voices who claim to be on our side. They'll win no-one over. Polite reasoned debate is the only way.’ Angela Haggerty, editor of CommonSpace said in reply: ‘My 2017 strategy: ignore every single one of them. Arguing with them only elevates their status.’

These are points I have repeatedly made since September 2014. Anger, impatience and over-zealousness are understandable human emotions. But they are a poor guide to political strategy. And they are also bad politics. Conveying the 45% as some kind of morally superior tribe just isn’t the most sensitive or successful way to appeal to those you want to win over. The siren voices of independence and the union need to be challenged and marginalised.

Those of us who are pro-independence have to accept and confront some of the hard choices it would embody. Fiscal constraints, pressures on public spending, how the structural deficit we are not meant to talk about would be funded. The currency and the terms on which we aspire to EU membership.

The previous independence offer of 2014 was not independence in many of the most important respects. We wouldn’t have had our own currency, Treasury, Central Bank, or ability to set our own interest rates. In many ways we would have still been governed by London (minus the Scottish MPs) in what amounted to a kind of devo max independence. We cannot have such a half-baked set of proposals next time.

The union has some explaining to do. There is really no way back. The Britain that made many of us at times in our life proud is no more. The Britain that abolished slavery, stood as a sanctuary for those fleeing persecution and death from Hitler’s evil, and which stood up against Nazism and fascism, has gone. The good stories of Britain have become diminished and tarnished by present day realities. Best to remember them and honour them, but realise they are in the past.

Independence has to be about more than the SNP and nationalism, but will a party ten years into office understand that truism? We all recognise the limits of ‘independence from the top’, but equally, as Robin McAlpine stated, there are profound flaws in a ‘save us from the ground up' approach. How we get out of that conundrum is a critical question beyond one article, but it is one of the big questions on the future of our nation we need to face.

It is a time for Scottish radicals, realists, social democrats, socialists, liberals, greens, iconoclasts, nationalists and non-nationalists and importantly those who resist labels to come together and realise the game is up for Britain. That means independence supporters not uncritically believing their own hype.

Alex Salmond at the weekend trotted out the reassuring and familiar line that the last campaign saw Yes increase support from 30% to 45% and that it wouldn’t be difficult from where Yes are now to win. It isn’t really true.

For a start, Nicola Sturgeon is unlikely to call indyref2 until she moves into a winning position. As critical, the shift from where independence is now to a convincing winning position entails more heavy lifting than previously. Getting independence to a 60% consistent poll rating requires winning over parts of the country previously immune. And there is even the unhelpful myth of assuming independence starts at 45%, is safely banked and that the only way is up. Politics just isn’t like that: made up of tidy blocks considering the age of impermanence we live in, and what is there to stop the 55% thinking the same?

Secondly, there is the dilemma between detail and broadbrush. Brexit and Trump have shown the latter can win and this led Iain Macwhirter to write in the ‘Sunday Herald’ that independence should do the same. He suggested that ‘not very much’ more work should be done on independence, and instead ‘the Scottish Government should produce a short statement, more like the American Declaration of Independence’. That is an understandable statement in the age of populism and rage against elites, but it is poor advice.

Brexit and Trump won on lies, deceit and disinformation. They offered near blank canvasses and a few pithy slogans - ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’. Phrases which caught the prevailing wind and channelled anger and frustration. From their fraudulent offers has flowed divisiveness and rage. That’s not a prospectus for a new nation.

Not everyone will agree with this analysis. Some will still want to cling to the wreckage of Brexit Britain with its brutal lack of compassion and humanity. Many of us have tried and hoped at times in the past it could be different. But we really have no choice.

Do you want to accept this barbarism or can we dare to do something not just better, but more honest and noble? Yes, if we do, many times we will come short against our highest ambitions, but we can set our own bars and reflect how far we have come and matured from the Scotland and Britain of 2017. Let us honour and remember our shared pasts, but not be bound by them. And let’s together navigate our way out of the carnage and mess that is emerging. It will still be a difficult and fraught road for many and that’s understandable. The times and the stakes have changed in the last few weeks. Let’s recognise that together.

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