Entering the Brexit endgame

endgame photo
Photo by Roberto Condado
Rational people (including most Remainers) have been assuming that the UK and the EU of course would negotiate a reasonable agreement, including a longish transitional deal and a comprehensive trade deal – that all the talk about no deal being better than a bad deal was just negotiation tactics.

However, there have been rumours for a long time that the Tories have always been planning to walk out from the Brexit negotiations later this year.

For instance, here is a tweet by J. J. Patrick from the beginning of March:

I had hoped this wouldn’t happen, but the UK are definitely not trying to win the EU over, which clearly increases the risk that the negotiations will break down. Just watch the following video clip, in which Barnier says (hattip: Steve Bullock): “The UK explained that their obligations will be limited to their last payment to the EU budget before departure. […] After this week it is clear that the UK does not feel legally obliged to honour its obligations after departure.”

The EU negotiators are clearly getting very frustrated, which means they won’t recommend that the trade negotiations should start soon, which again means the UK will have less of an incentive to negotiate constructively. It could definitely end quite soon with a walk-out.

It is also worrying that according to Jo Maugham, the Tories are planning to use the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to allow a government minister to set the exit day:

Yep, that’s right. The government is proposing that a Minister gets to decide when our membership of the EU ends. And to make that decision without any Parliamentary control at all. None, zip, nada.

Perhaps I’m just being a bit paranoid here, but it seems quite possible that the UK Government are planning to walk out of the negotiations before Christmas – blaming the EU’s inflexibility and stubbornness, of course – and then leave the EU sooner than March 2019.

It will of course be an enormous shock to the economy, but that might be exactly what they want. As I wrote last November:

[A] hard and chaotic Brexit will be a huge opportunity for the Tories to completely abolish the welfare state. They’ll be able to get rid of the NHS, free education, unemployment benefits and whatever else they don’t like. They’ll be able to do this while looking immensely sad, saying that it’s all the EU’s fault for denying them the package they wanted (but quietly always knew wouldn’t be acceptable to the other EU member states). They’ll blame everybody else for the economic collapse, but use it to create a neoliberal wonderland where only the strong survive. Eventually people will realise what has happened, but by then it’ll be too late to reverse.

I very much hope the Scottish Government are getting ready to launch the independence lifeboat sooner than they had expected!

No more referendums?

referendum scottish photo
Photo by duncan
I believe Brexit is going to such an epic disaster that stopping it is much more urgent than achieving Scottish independence (I’d prefer both, of course), but time seems to be running out.

One of the main problems is that none of the main parties in England seem to be able to do much about it. I’ve discussed before why I think that a new anti-Brexit party is needed down south. For a long time, nothing seemed to be happening, but James Chapman’s new party seems to be ticking the boxes (even though I don’t think the Democrats is nearly as good a name as the Whigs).

Most of the policies he has suggested for The Democrats are good and sound (in particular I’m delighted that they would enfranchise EU citizens like me). From a Scottish perspective, however, one of his ideas would be quite revolutionary:

At the moment, practically everybody in Scotland agrees that the best way to achieve independence is through a referendum. However, if The Democrats get into power and ban future referendums, how can Scotland achieve independence? As far as I can see, there will only be three ways:

  1. A pro-independence majority at Holyrood will be able to trigger independence.
  2. A pro-independence majority of Scottish MPs at Westminster can declare independence.
  3. A majority of all MPs at Westminster (not just the Scottish ones) will need to vote in favour for Scotland to become independent legally.

It’s unlikely that all three options would remain on the table. The Supreme Court would probably decide on one of them if somebody asked them. If they go for the last option, I have my doubts that such a vote could ever be won, which could effectively place Scotland in the same situation as Catalonia, which at the moment seem to be going down the line of an illegal referendum (seen from a Spanish point of view) and a subsequent UDI.

Although I agree that there are many democratic problems with referendums – especially the fact that the losers might have to implement the result while the winners are criticising them from the sidelines – I still believe it’s the best way to make huge decisions such as whether Scotland should be an independent country.

It is, however, just about possible that The Democrats will get into power in the UK within the next five years, so we need to start thinking about how to deal with them. Will their antipathy towards referendums make them unelectable in Scotland, or will it be extremely popular amongst unionist voters? Will they be able to work closely together with the SNP, given that they both agree on Brexit, or will they become sworn enemies?

Perhaps the new party will never get off the ground, but politics is certainly very volatile at the moment, so we should be prepared.

The UK cannot move for embarrassment

shame photo
Photo by frankieleon
Rafael Behr had a rather interesting wee article in The Guardian recently, but I fear many might have ignored it because it appeared to be mainly about the new Dunkirk film. However, if you ignore those bits, it’s actually about how the UK collectively feels its was embarrassing to join the EEC (as the EU was called back then), and how all outcomes of Brexit are likely to feel humiliating, too:

Embarrassment is underrated as an engine of history, maybe because it is embarrassing to admit it as an individual motive. […] Humiliation corrodes the soul of nations. […]

[It] was at a moment of underachievement that Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973. The empire was lost. West German industry had been rebuilt to a higher spec than its British rivals. Ungrateful France did not repay its liberators with humility. De Gaulle had vetoed British entry a decade earlier. The doors to the club were opened not on demand but after supplication. The seeds of Brexit were thus sown with the foundations of EU membership. It was, at some level, embarrassing to be joining through dread of decline. […]

And in psychoanalytic terms, shame is a kind of violent impulse directed inwards. Brexit, in this conception, is not a rational expression of cost-benefit equations based on considerations of trade. It is self-harm, born of a neurotic urge to expiate an imaginary guilt: the sin of having been obliged to join the enterprise in the first place. I fear we are about to rehearse the cycle of shame and resentment all over again. There are two routes ahead, neither free of humiliation. The enactment of Brexit will complete an economic, diplomatic and strategic devaluation that is prefigured already in sterling’s post-referendum slide. Britain will be measurably smaller on the world stage. The reversal of Brexit, or its dilution into some pale simulation of the status quo, requires a plea in Brussels for more time and a fresh start. That will be hard to distinguish from a grovel. Either way, there is disappointment in store for many leave voters who anticipate a national renaissance. If they don’t get Brexit, their democratic will is denied; if they do, and it makes them poorer, their faith is betrayed. Each path risks incubating more bitterness.

This might explain why most Scots don’t suffer from the same negative feelings towards the EU as many people south of the border – you would need to identify strongly with Britain to feel the humiliation, rather than seeing the UK as a marriage of convenience.

It also provides us with a novel reason for breaking up the UK and letting the nations of these isles regain their independence: If British history has become so painful to deal with that the country needs to lie on the national equivalent of a psychologist’s couch for several decades, perhaps it would be much easier to start with an almost blank slate?

England would probably – just like Scotland and Wales – find it much easier to deal with other countries (including the EU) in a rational and constructive manner if the blame for some of the most painful memories of the past could be blamed on an imperialist UK that had been confined to the history books.

Even Brexit itself could be dismissed as one of the last idiotic acts of the UK, and England, Scotland and Wales could then join the EU as full members without needing all the opt-outs that past humiliations made necessary for the UK (and Ireland could finally reunify peacefully because there would be no Union for the Unionists to cling to).

Winning over the No–Remain voters

Yes–Leave voters in 2015 and 2017.
The British Election Study team has produced some really interesting graphs showing how the four main groups of Scottish voters voted in the 2015 and 2017 elections (the Yes–Leave graph is shown on the right). Here is a brief summary:

  • The Yes–Remain voters (what I’ve called the Blue Tribe in the past) have mainly remained loyal to the SNP, although a few have moved to Labour.
  • The Yes–Leave voters (my Yellow Tribe) used to vote SNP in huge numbers, but almost half of them are now voting for either Labour (probably left-wingers who like Corbyn’s Lexit stance) or the Tories.
  • The No–Remain voters (my Green Tribe) used to vote mainly Labour, but a large number of them switched to the Tories in the last election, probably because they liked Ruth Davidson’s stance on a second independence referendum. Interestingly the SNP lost votes in this group, too.
  • The No–Leave voters (my Red Tribe) used to vote 1/3 Tory, 1/3 Labour and 1/3 others (including the SNP), but most of them now vote Conservative.

Some people (for instance, Autonomy Scotland) have suggested that these graphs show that the SNP need to stop talking about joining the EU after independence to win back the Yes–Leave voters.

I disagree. We didn’t win in 2014, so to win next time we need to appeal to former No voters, not just to keep the old crowd together. Besides, at least some of the Yes–Leave voters are probably so happy with their new political home that we cannot win them back simply by aiming for a Norwegian solution rather than a Danish or Irish one. This means that appealing only to former Yes voters would probably lead to a horrible defeat next time.

The key to winning the next referendum is to convince many of the No–Remain voters that their interests are better served by an independent Scotland inside the EU than by a chaotic UK that keeps arguing with itself whether to be a European Singapore, the 51st state of America, or part of the EU again.

That won’t be easy, however. Many of them feel very British (which is why the Tories won many of them over in the last election), but surely many of them must be looking aghast at the incompetency of the current UK government and wondering whether Scotland would do better on its own.

We also shouldn’t conflate the electoral fortunes of the SNP with the chance of winning the next independence referendum. The Yes vote has generally been holding up well in the opinion polls, which clearly shows that people can remain Yessers while drifting away from the SNP.

Furthermore, it’s unlikely Leave would have won the Brexit referendum if they had had only one campaign. The two main campaigns (Vote Leave and Leave.EU) successfully appealed to different groups of voters, and this is probably something we should learn from.

I simply cannot see how one campaign can appeal to former Yes–Leave voters at the same time as to the ones who voted No–Remain.

It would make sense for the official campaign to take the same stance as the Scottish Government (i.e., Scotland in Europe), but I don’t see why the Yes–Leave crowd couldn’t set up an unofficial Yes campaign organisation to campaign for their standpoint. The alternative is to make the Yes campaign so agnostic on Europe that it doesn’t appeal to anybody post-Brexit.

For better or worse, voters in Scotland feel strongly about both independence and Brexit, and we cannot simply try to pretend that the Brexit referendum didn’t happen. Labour have spent the past three years trying to turn the clock back to before the independence referendum, and that clearly hasn’t worked.

The main Yes campaign should take a strong stance on Brexit and on the EU, one which is in sync with the position of the Scottish Government, and the Yes–Leave people should set up their own campaign. That will allow us to win next time.