Brexit, Scexit and the future of the Union

Nationalists are everywhere in political life these days but patriots much harder to find.

The once prevailing belief that self-interest be sacrificed where necessary to the interests of the country may have been starchily old-fashioned but it reflected a sense of duty. It is, with varying degrees of magnitude, what Peel did on the Corn Laws, what Macmillan did on colonialism, and what Callaghan did on public spending. Their decisions cost them personally and were certainly not easy for their parties but the good of the nation came first.

Today, it is not the nation but nationalism that comes first. What starker embodiment of this glum truth than the two most powerful politicians in the land: Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon. Both have achieved high office by riding a wave of emotive nationalism. Both pursue courses that they know are at odds with the global standing of their country and the prosperity of those living in it. Both impugn the motives of critics by questioning their love of country.

Each has their own grand project — for Johnson, no-deal Brexit; for Sturgeon, independence — but the same reckless disregard marks their premierships. They alike claim to be standing up for the national interest when they are in fact willing to reduce the nation to parochialism and penury. The country does not come first; their personal and political advantage comes first.

Some may bristle at the comparison. Johnson says vulgar and objectionable things; Sturgeon does not. Sturgeon projects an (ersatz) air of competence; Johnson most certainly does not. For all his faults, Johnson at least does not seek to tear up the Union, compounding chaos with more chaos.

But these are matters of style and tone and temperament. In the realm that matters — the realm of values, their translation into policy, and the resulting impact on real people — not as much divides the Prime Minister and the First Minister as either’s supporters might wish to contemplate.

Brexit or Scexit? British decline or Scottish decline? Pick your poison.

Nationalism has a base, beguiling magic but predictability is an enduring weakness. The nationalist can stir animus and direct sentiment. He can create the illusion of oppression and make real oppression seem illusory. He can make common bonds appear to be shackles and isolation another word for freedom.

What he cannot do is change the primordial impulses that motivate him and his philosophy: chauvinism, lust for power, and the pursuit of personal meaning through the glorification of the tribe. As these instincts are immutable, so too are their effects and the nationalist’s responses to them.

When a collision occurs between the world as he imagines it and the world as it stubbornly exists, the nationalist turns by instinct to denial. Nationalism must be correct and so unhelpful facts are willed away. Truth is contingent, the nation is forever.

George Orwell noted these tendencies and others in his 1945 essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’, where he contended: ‘All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts… Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them.’

The tragic farce to which Brexit has reduced the Conservative Party, to say nothing of the good government of the United Kingdom, is one of the most damning indictments of nationalism. The reality of trying to exit the European Union is so far from the rhetoric of the Leave campaign in 2016 that Project Fear looks, in hindsight, to have been Project Optimism.

If Brexit true-believers are learning their lesson the hard way, Nicola Sturgeon refuses to learn any lessons at all. The First Minister is not only in denial of the parallels between Brexit and Scottish independence, she is using the occasion of the former to ramp up her campaign to achieve the latter. On Tuesday she delivered her program for government at Holyrood, the centrepiece of which was supposed to be her policies for addressing the climate emergency. Instead she began her speech by talking about her plans to hold a second referendum on separation.

She told MSPs: ‘We intend to offer the people of Scotland the choice of a better and more positive future as an independent nation. The Referendums Bill introduced before recess is about to resume its parliamentary progress. I can confirm today that, during the passage of the Bill, we will seek agreement to the transfer of power that will put the referendum beyond legal challenge. We have a clear democratic mandate to offer the choice of independence within this term of Parliament – and we intend to do so.’

This is part of the SNP’s strategy to market independence as an escape hatch from Brexit. In reality, Brexit is a devastating warning of what could await Scotland if it chooses to go down the same road of splitting from a successful political and economic union — if it pursues what ought properly to be called Scexit. If the polls are anything to go by, the strategy appears to be working. The most recent survey puts support for Scexit on 49%. However once the rhetoric is stripped away, the reality is very different.

For Brexit is a sandbox for future constitutional upheaval in Scotland and many of the same issues apply just as readily to the proposition that Scotland should secede from the UK. The case for independence does not address the similarities between the two because the case for independence is based in large part on pretending there are none. The Brexitshambles is framed as an outgrowth of English insularism and Tory extremism when in fact it is simply cold, hard politics playing out the way it always does and would again if Scotland voted to leave the UK.

If the failure to leave three years after the EU referendum is damning of Brexit (Brexiteers say it is damning of Parliament), it is no less damning of the independence project. The pretence that the two are unrelated phenomena, that one isn’t the ghost of another in a different setting and distinct context, might be enough to convince committed nationalists on either side but it does not withstand scrutiny.

The disarray, incompetencies and indignities of Brexit are a reminder that the Scottish Nationalists, just like the Brexiteers, sold the public a false prospectus that downplayed the difficulties of leaving while overstating the benefits. Five years on from the independence referendum, and despite the public relations exercise that was the Sustainable Growth Commission, the SNP still has not answered key questions about the brass tacks of independence.

Unsurprisingly, given what we know about the striking similarities between nationalists, many of these are the same queries the Brexiteers failed to address.

Consider the matter of trade. As the pro-unity think tank These Islands points out, the UK single market is the heart of the Scottish economy. The goods Scotland sells to the rest of the UK are worth an annual £49billion and represent 60 per cent of our exports market. Two-thirds (£58.4billion) of the goods and services we import come from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Disruption to this frictionless trade would be challenging for the rUK, but for the much smaller Scottish economy it would be devastating.

Project Fear? The Leave campaign said the same but the truth has caught up with their spin.

Scotland would also be the weaker side in separation negotiations. Saying so is not ‘talking down Scotland’; it is simply acknowledging reality. The recent GERS figures — the Scottish Government’s own statistical analysis — showed Scotland is running a notional deficit of £12.6billion. If it was an independent nation, Scotland would have the largest fiscal gap in Europe. Without the financial backing of the UK economy, Scotland would be forced either to raise taxes dramatically or savagely cut public services.

During the 2014 referendum, concerns that banks and businesses could flee Scotland were dismissed as ‘scaremongering’. Leave campaigners said much the same in 2016. However, in January the financial consultancy EY estimated that at least £800billion in assets had been moved outside the UK as a result of the decision to Brexit. Companies including Airbus and Jaguar Land Rover are cutting jobs and even Brexiteer Sir James Dyson has shifted his firm’s headquarter to Singapore.

Any vote to leave the UK has the potential to have the same effect.

An even more fundamental question is that of currency. What would be the currency of a separate Scotland? In what currency would we buy and sell across borders, or simply make next month’s mortgage payment? The SNP position changes with the wind but even if it opted for a fresh currency, as its membership wants, such a regime would not be in place and embedded in time.

Nationalist politicians bat aside such details with a sweeping declaration that Scotland would be a more attractive prospect to foreign investors because it, unlike the UK, would be a member of the EU, with full access to the European single market and customs union. Here, the SNP is uncanny in its echo of the Leave campaign: despite the clear warnings of Brussels that a separate Scotland would be considered a third state and have to go through an application process, Nationalists simply say the opposite is true and that Scotland would be an EU member-state either automatically or quickly.

It is an assertion that echoes Vote Leave’s tendency to claim the EU would simply fall in line and give the UK what it wanted.

Independence would transform the Brexit present into Scotland’s future, and with no end in sight, as negotiations on Scotland’s departure from the Union had to wait until the conclusion of any future UK negotiations with the EU and a lengthy period of post-Brexit reorienting of Britain’s political and economic order. Scotland would face a prolonged period in limbo and suffer the political turbulence and economic upset that would bring. ‘It would be different, because’ is no argument at all.

The SNP’s continuing capacity for maintaining ruses like this is a source of frustration for many Unionists. The debate, they say, should not be about another independence referendum but about the Scottish Government’s unimpressive record on education, health and the economy. They lament that Nicola Sturgeon seems to be the luckiest politician around, given her opponents’ tendency to self-immolate. If she fell in the Clyde, she’d come out with a fish supper in her pocket, though given this First Minister all the chips would be on her shoulder.

However, this is asking the question the wrong way round. Nationalism thrives on the negative, encouraging what political scientists call ‘negative partisanship’ — voting against parties and ideas you revile rather than voting for things you agree with. This is why Scottish Nationalists so often encourage the electorate to vote for them to ‘send a message to Westminster’ rather than to express approval for their policies.

Unionists are more than capable of negative politics themselves, as the Better Together campaign showed, but with the Union under renewed strain, they must be more than a receptacle for the votes of people who dislike Nicola Sturgeon. The question they should be asking themselves is: What does the Union mean to Scotland? The answer cannot begin and end with a pound sign. There must be a positive, confident vision for Scotland and the Union.

The Union, once intrinsic to Scottish identity, should become so again, albeit updated for the 21st century. Replace empty pride in flags and nationality with pride in the good Britons can do working together, whether that is international aid or charitable works, funding research to cure deadly diseases or helping to rescue our forests and seas from pollution, intervening to stop genocide or supporting democrats around the world.

If the Union is to be more than a shield from the economic consequences of independence, it will require more shared institutions that emphasise what we have in common rather than our differences. Organisations like the BBC and the NHS are good examples.

There should also be a rethinking of what it means to be a citizen of a Union — not the familiar self-aggrandising rah-rah sentiment encouraged by nationalism but an attempt to connect the dots between the Union and people’s everyday lives. Despite what the Nationalists may say, it is perfectly possible to be proud of both the wider Union and of Scotland’s special role within it. It is the Nationalists who jealously assert ownership of Scottish identity while telling those who disagree that there is only one way to be Scottish and that it involves purging yourself of any vestiges of a broader UK identity.

The case for the Union is that it offers an alternative to the loyalty demanded by Nationalists — it is about strengthening ties with people rather than building borders between them.

The economic arguments cannot be wholly avoided; there are facts and they inescapably tend to fall on one side of the debate. But the story has to be told as proof of the opportunities of the Union rather than the flaws of separation. Nationalism may give the public something to vote against but the Union should give them something to be for and to vote for.

Answers to these and other quandaries will not present themselves overnight but Unionists must step up their efforts to understand them. Nationalism is predictable but that is no excuse for Unionism to become reflexively sluggish in its own thinking. If nothing else, the future of the country is on the line.

In these angry and chaotic political times, it’s easy to convince yourself that anger and chaos are the only options. That you must either be for no-deal Brexit or Scexit; for your country and your pocketbook to suffer in Boris Johnson’s or Nicola Sturgeon’s interest. In fact, this tribal, binary mindset is what is holding us back, holding back our businesses and our civil society and our parliament. The alternative to competing counsels of despair is a positive, outward-looking attitude based on creating prosperity for the greatest number of people and a chance for the very best ideas to flourish.

The tragi-comic scenes at Westminster serve as a warning to voters to be wary of political chancers selling dreams and a challenge to the Nationalists and their narrative. Above all, however, they demonstrate where unthinking and unreflective politics leads. They encourage us not just to avoid pitfalls here and there but to choose a different way forward instead.

There is no need to settle for Johnson’s no-deal Brexit or Sturgeon’s Scexit. We can opt to spurn nationalism for patriotism.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Feature image, left panel: © Scottish Government via CC BY-NC 2.0; right panel: © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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