21 February 2016


Inevitably, much of the political coverage this morning has descended into a game of personalities. Its detail undigested, interest in the achievements and failures of David Cameron's apparently hard-won European Union deal has already dissipated. The papers and politics shows are full of who is backing who, and the high ambitions and low animal cunning which might explain why.

For my own part, I'm contemplating the approaching referendum on Britain's EU membership with a mounting sense of dread.  More, perhaps, than I anticipated. The promised poll has been rumbling towards us like prostate cancer for months - years - now. But as the grisly encounter approaches, I find myself grow increasingly pessimistic.

The smart money says that the establishment choice carries the day. The smart money sees the country briskly carpet bombed by corporate fear and menacing metaphors - and the British people shrugging their way back into the European Union, lovelessly, but without much animating antipathy either. I'd find this more impressive - and more reassuring - if the self same savvy pundits hadn't been wrong about more or less every significant development in British politics in the last five years.

A Tory majority in 2015 was nigh unthinkable. It happened. Corbyn was an outside candidate, a chortle for which hard-pressed hacks were grateful. He won. Scots would never in a million years vote for independence. An intensely negative campaign squandered a massive lead and gave David Cameron's administration its first cardiovascular incident. In the wake of the independence referendum, the SNP would descend into bloody civil war. Instead, Scottish Labour experienced an almost entirely unanticipated collapse.

I realise nobody is a prophet in their own country, this isn't exactly a list of events to instil confidence in our powers of divination. This isn't a motes and beams thing. I'm no good at making predictions either. You can try to be self aware, but invisible prejudices and preoccupations always cloud your vision. You can't always discern what your blind spots are, and where they lie. But I can't be alone in finding bluff confidence that the "remain" vote will carry the day remarkably complacent.

The campaign to frame the EU -- and hold to it fairly and unfairly responsible for Britain's perceived ills -- did not begin yesterday, with the unleashing of Cameron's divided cabinet. It has been playing out for weeks and months and years, in the pages of the press, and amplified by the powers of the broadcast media.

And in trying to anatomise my anxiety, much of it comes, I'm afraid, from intense pessimism about the politics of England. This is probably characteristic of those with the liberal Scottish nationalist outlook, and doubtless represents a crude and unnuanced depiction of the dominant political attitudes of both England and Scotland. It is probably exaggerated. But it abides.

Always ready with a striking phrase, in the 2014 campaign, Jim Sillars memorably remarked that "the referendum is about power. On 18 September, 2014, between the hours of 7 am and 10 pm, absolute sovereign power will lie in the hands of the Scottish people." I suppose one can say the same thing of this summer's referendum, when Europe is put to the question. After a burst of sound and fury, the people of the United Kingdom shall decide.  

But in grisly contrast with Sillars' formulation, I'm currently troubled by an all too familiar, all too overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. England's gonna do what England's gonna do. Them's the rules. That's democracy. This is precisely what the majority of our fellow countrymen and women chose, in the exercise of that dawn till dusk sovereign will. Months have sped by, but all of this was perfectly foreseeable over a year and a half ago.

But now the idea of Brexit is a real, rather than a remote possibility? Now it is an imminent moment of choice, rather than a hypothetical question? I'm surprised by the intensity of my first emotional reaction.  I can understand the intellectual critiques of the European Union. I can see the case against it from a democratic point of view. I can see, from the perspectives of a left-wing politics, how a Europe of competition and corporations and property, represents a sometimes challenging atmosphere in which to thrive. I don't have an awful lot of time for Michael Gove's quixotic, romantic critique -- but I have a lingering soft spot for the earnestness of the Lord Chancellor, despite himself.

But although I am sure Britain can survive and thrive beyond the European Union, I find the idea of a Scotland and Britain outside of the EU intensely depressing. That Scotland remains in the Union is to me personally a matter of regret. This much, you knew. But to remain in a Union outside of Europe, for the reasons advanced by the odious Chris Grayling, and the gormless Priti Patel? To leave, rudderless for the golden island which float in Nigel Farage's imagination, or in George Galloway's? To leave because of victim fantasies, the modest and overwhelmingly constructive free movement of people across this continent? To leave because of this? 

It is all just too ghastly, too retrograde, too shabby.If this is what Great Britain is to become, if this is what the Great British public vote for, I want out. More than ever. With more passionate intensity than ever I felt in 2014. Without regrets.

But supporters of Scottish independence shouldn't kid themselves on, and chortle behind their hands at the prospect of a "trigger" being pulled on a second referendum. Let's be honest: the SNP's European policy during the 2014 campaign was an absolute boorach, a mess. We faced difficulties with some of the economic messaging, but in terms of badly researched positions badly presented, the European stuff was up there. Now, let's not be hypercritical. Mistakes are innocent made. Details are missed. In the heat of the moment, and under pressure, loose lips say silly things. But on Europe, we don't yet see much evidence of a maturing Scottish nationalist analysis.

It was with some anxiety that I watched the Commons debate after the Prime Minister's statement on the draft European deal a few weeks by -- and saw that the Nationalist delegation had nothing to say, nothing to say, about the substance of European policy. We heard bleating about the conjunction of the EU referendum and the Holyrood poll, but next to nothing about substantive questions of European policy. This isn't good enough.

If Britain does choose to depart from the European Union, the version of Scottish nationalism which has sustained the SNP these last decades takes a fundamental knock. Make no bones about it. It will necessarily prompt a reappraisal of a vision of Scotland in Europe which has been fundamental to the party's mature thinking. This vision represents a riposte to allegation that independence is about narrow nationalism, about separatism, and the reclamation of a fantasy-land 19th century political sovereignty.

Where does the social and economic interests of an independent Scotland lie, if its key trading partner sits outside the confines of the European Union? These questions are acute also for the Republic of Ireland, which must be contemplating our big democratic summer with increasing anxiety. Is EU membership a question of honour, of identity, for Scots -- or is it also just a heartless commercial calculation? And if economic interests and questions of identity and international solidarity pull in different directions -- which of these should the SNP privilege? Which is more important?

The result of this referendum won't just shake the Conservative Party: it has the real potential to sew disorder - and open up fundamental decisions - for the SNP and the wider independence movement. It may not come to that. But for the next few months, I suspect I shall be mumbling Yeats, in fear and trembling, in exaggerated pessimism, over and over.

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." 


  1. '. . . the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words'- Henry James, August 1914

  2. You are right to anticipate a great deal of political instability, but why the pessimism? It's not a time for worrying and struggling to read the political cyphers correctly. It's a time for the simplifications of a childrens pantomime.

    Democracy is on trial for its life. Can the demos be in control of everything again, can they be trusted to vote for mass immigration in general elections, or are they just not up to it? Do they need supervisors, experts, legal constraints upon their choices?

    What is at stake is the Vote. Surely it is immensely inspiring, rather than a source of pessimism, that the Chartists and the Suffragettes are back (at least in spirit). The people who fought for democratic sovereignty are some of the most inspiring characters in our history.

    I suppose any pessimism comes from the fact that we might vote to stay in. That's pretty bleak.

  3. "The smart money sees the country briskly carpet bombed by corporate fear and menacing metaphors - and the British people shrugging their way back into the European Union"

    The difference with this referendum is that the LEAVE campaign is just as likely to embrace the 'Project Fear' mentality. Fear of immigrants and fear of terrorism will be whipped up, and the right wing press will go into overdrive as polling day approaches.

    I'm not optimistic about English people voting to stay. Part of the mentality seems to be far more nationalistic than the Scots. Based on a history of empire. UK/England is generally seen as one and the same, so support for the UK union or a British identity has always been a fig leaf.

    1. I've lived in Scotland and now I live in England. I think you're right. Many English people see the relationship between England and the other parts of the UK in colonial terms - England is the imperial power which rules over Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, bringing the benefits of its civilisation to the slightly odd inhabitants of the outer fringes. There's certainly a lot more popular feeling against the European Union in the part of England I live in compared to Scotland, also a lot more anti-immigrant sentiment even though there are very few immigrants living here.

    2. I share your pessimism. Living in the North East of England, I certainly don't feel the jingoism and little Englander sentiments propagated elsewhere in the country. In fact, I sense a stitch up either way. Cameron's reforms, such as they were, were in the interests of retaining the authority of the City as an off-shore financial centre for Europe. I certainly don't see any interest in devolving any of this "hard won" authority to the outer regions and countries of the UK.

  4. As someone who lives in Scotland and wants an Independent Scotland I am worried that if the UK votes out then Westminster will refuse another refferendum and even of we hold one it will not recognise it and possibly dissolve the Scottish Government.

    Coming out of the EU will give Boris and his chums free range to do what they want, we know they want to change human rights legislation, further cut benefits and deregulate big business and banks. A rather pessimistic view but I am worried.

  5. As someone who lives in Scotland and wants an Independent Scotland I am worried that if the UK votes out then Westminster will refuse another refferendum and even of we hold one it will not recognise it and possibly dissolve the Scottish Government.

    Coming out of the EU will give Boris and his chums free range to do what they want, we know they want to change human rights legislation, further cut benefits and deregulate big business and banks. A rather pessimistic view but I am worried.

  6. @Douglas Reid.

    "Boris and his chums will have free range to do what they want." You don't trust the voters to intervene?

    The case for the EU is so often just a phobia of democracy.

  7. I really don't understand your thinking that a Brexit would harm the SNP and Scottish independence. It would pretty neatly dispose of one of the large weapons the Unionists used against it. They could hardly argue that 'Scotland couldn't get into the EU' when they had dragged themselves out.

    1. JR,

      I didn't say that. I said that a Brexit "would the version of Scottish nationalism which has sustained the SNP these last decades takes a fundamental knock". It would. This isn't to say it wouldn't have opportunities too. It isn't to argue that it would harm the SNP or Scottish independence, per se. Merely challenge what has become mainstream thinking on these issues.

  8. will be down to currency again


  9. Don't know why all this hand wringing. Man up FFS. The vote will be to stay in. All the rest is just machinations by the media to sell newspapers. Just be happy you are living in exciting times.

    Boris Johnson is just covering his ass by leading the OUTS. A vote to Stay will still give him a large support base among the disgruntled OUTS in his coming battle for the leadership with Osborne.

  10. ’m in favour of the UK staying within a reformed EU; but not because I think a Brexit will lead to Scottish Independence.

    I think if UK leaves to vote EU there may well be another Indy referendum; and the hardline nationalists will still vote for Indy, but actually I think the stay in UK vote would go up; because Europe would be forced to take a position on iScot, and it would be clear of the difficulties. It would be a choice between being out of the EU within the UK, and being out of the EU AND the UK, and no way will most Scots vote for that.

    Just think of the steps for Scotland to become its own state in Europe after the vote would need;

    UK to leave Europe

    Scotland to leave the UK *then* ( given we have seen the inability to agree negotiations in time on the fiscal framework for the already agreed Smith Commission, we know that the Scotland / UK split negotiations would be far more lengthy and complicated than the SNP told you; and really they couldn’t start until the UK had completed the complicated exit negotiations from EU)

    Scotland to set up, at massive costs, an independent state. ( forget “£250 million”, Nicola Sturgeon's current estimate is £660 million per government department)

    That state to have a fully functioning market economy, with a track record of stability (to meet the Copenhagen criteria. )

    We couldn’t apply for EU membership while in a currency union with a non-EU rUK

    We wouldn’t meet the Copenhagen criteria if using GBP as a plan panama currency

    We would need to launch our own currency, depegged from Stirling , with cash reserves and stabalise it

    We would need to maintain a low dept to GDP ratio for several years in a row ( while massively borrowing billions to set up the country)

    Only then Scotland could apply for membership.

    Then it would simply be a case of joining the back of the queue, and making concessions on everything from fishing to agriculture to VAT, to dealing with every other EU state, any of whom could veto our membership for any reason.

    So when you hear Nationalists claiming Brexit will lead to iScot, and Scotland will waltz into the EU as a strong independent nation...

    ...just ask them how long it will be, after leaving the UK, before Scotland would meet the Copenhagen criteria.

    After all, if they are *not* lying to you, they will have no problem answering because they must know; right?

  11. Just to brighten up your gloomy day, contemplate the scenario where rest of UK votes narrowly to leave EU but Scottish vote tips the balance to stay in.

  12. What makes any of you think an EU referendum result will somehow trigger another indyref? It will be just another demonstration among dozens of the UK's democratic deficit that has existed since 1928. Same shit, different day!

    Besides, we'll be independent long before June; The EUref is scheduled to establish the sovereign will of the two newly independent states of Scotland and England post-dissolution.

  13. What do you think about the debate at report stage on clauses 1 and 2 of the Scotland Bill in the Lords today (from 16.54)? Particularly the position of the Labour Party and Government. To link back to your article, are there any potential future triggers for a referendum foreshadowed there?

    1. I really don't think so. The Lords debates on the Scotland Bill have been cantankerous in places, but basically a sideshow. The UK government seems to have been placing their Lordships in a vice, rejecting amendments, ramming it through as is.