The Debatable Land #18: Taking Back Control
Has Brexit really killed off Scottish independence?
Sometimes you feel seen on Twitter and sometimes a challenge is issued that requires a response. Thus:
The answer to that question is an emphatic NO. For, in the first place, there are no grounds for “apology” here and, in the second, Brexit has strengthened at least one argument for Scottish independence and, thirdly, Brexiteers really don’t think the Union is as important as their Brexit project. We have polling on all of these matters and it is conclusive. According to one survey: eighty percent of Leave voters in England considered Brexit more important than the Northern Irish peace process or the Union itself. Now you may say Brexit was a real and concrete problem that needed delivery whereas these other constitutional problems were more hypothetical and, anyway, some time in the future but, even so, the mood was clear.
And there is this too: Scottish independence is more popular after Brexit than it ever was before it. You may object that this may simply be a coincidence but your objection would be ill-founded. Here is a chart plotting 144 polls on this question since June 2016. Yes is Blue and No is Green.
You will note that after an initial spasm not very much happened for a while. But you will also remember that Brexit took a long time to happen too. The SNP may have thought they would get a quicker and larger Brexit bounce than they did, but they did receive one in the end. The pandemic has complicated things and so has Boris Johnson - though his arrival in Downing Street should be considered part of Brexit - but you can see that as Brexit becomes real, so independence becomes more popular. You can think this unfortunate; you can’t deny the obvious reality.
History is always contested but 2014 and, indeed, 2016, was not so very long ago. It ought to be possible to remember what happened and, for that matter, insist that what happened did happen.
So, a refresher course: in September 2014 the Scottish people rejected independence. A 55-45 result was clear while also allowing independence supporters the hope the issue was not settled once and for all. At the general election the following year the SNP won 56 of the 59 Scottish constituencies but while this was a shattering result - for all parties - it was not one with any great consequence. It was a spasm, not a meaningful result for there was very little the nationalists could do.
It was accepted - even by Nicola Sturgeon - that even an election victory on this kind of scale could not change a recently-established constitutional reality. The SNP might have the numbers but there was nowhere for them to go. Privately and sometimes in public, senior nationalists accepted there were no grounds for another referendum.
Such grounds could only be created by what the SNP manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood election described as “a meaningful change of circumstances”. In the absence of that, there could be no push for another referendum because even Sturgeon accepted that the 2014 vote had to have some meaning. The SNP could not be expected to give up on independence but the party acknowledged that there would need to be significant and prolonged support for independence to force the issue back onto the agenda. By this they meant something like 60 percent support for at least six months, numbers which the cause has never yet managed to attract.
So it really was done for a generation - a real generation, not a fake one - and only something remarkable could bring it back.
Something like Brexit.
Of course that was a United Kingdom vote. We went into the common market as one country and we left the European Union as one country too. And it is also true that Brexit has made the process and practical realities of Scottish independence harder and more complicated than was the case in 2014. Then, you will recall, the Yes campaign argued that Scotland would all but automatically enjoy EU membership. It was the No campaign which claimed that EU membership would be imperilled by a vote for independence. I happen to believe this was true, though one can hardly blame nationalists for noting that Scotland’s No vote subsequently opened the door to leaving the EU by other means.
Still, what is done is done and there is no means by which it may be undone. The nationalists may not have wanted hard questions about the nature of a post-independence Anglo-Scottish frontier but these may not be wished away, no matter how often Nicola Sturgeon and others insist they can - indeed, must - be. If, as the SNP aver, it is an act of economic self-harm to complicate trading relations with your largest market this must be as true for Scotland vis a vis the United Kingdom as it is for the United Kingdom vis a vis the European Union. Even more so, perhaps, given that England is more important to Scotland than the EU is to the UK. This is simple logic and it is not good enough to assert that in some mysterious way Scottish independence will be “different”. Denying current reality is not a sound basis upon which to build a future reality.
Equally, the holes apparent in the nationalist case for independence eight years ago - not least on the question of currency - remain unfilled. The argument remains that everything will be alright on the night and it is in any case unseemly to ask for too much detail. Doing so, you understand, suggests a lack of faith in both the national project and the Scottish people alike. Belief may move many a mountain.
If this seems familiar it is because it should. The same impulse that drove Brexit drives independence: Take Back Control. Power is too far away and would be better concentrated closer to home. Brexiteers and Scottish nationalists may each deny their similarities but, as a matter of feeling and of rhetoric, they are closer to one another than either cares to acknowledge.
Even as we note this, however, we might also find room to remember that several things may be true concurrently. Thus Unionism, or pro-UK sentiment, is stronger and more resilient than is sometimes appreciated and support for independence is now consistently higher than it has ever previously been. The United Kingdom remains an unsettled, disputed, place and while Brexit is not the sole or even primary driver of this it further complicates matters and contributes to this uncertainty, this sense of provisionality.
Après lui, le déluge
French voters go to the polls next weekend in the second round of their presidential election as Emmanuel Macron attempts to see of Marine Le Pen and secure a second term. Understandably, the prospect of President Le Pen concentrates minds but, in truth, this election worries me rather less than the next one.
Macron’s ascent was built on the rubble of (relatively speaking) the French centre ground. The destruction of the Socialists on one side and the Gaullists on the other meant any challenge to Macron could only realistically come from the extremes of left and right alike.
Politics is a game of space and with Macron occupying the centre, there was little room for him to be challenged from within the parameters of “normal” politics. The space available was on the hard-right (Le Pen) and the far-left (Mélenchon). And because parties exist in spaces relative to one another, the candidacy of the populist Eric Zemmour had the effect of making a remodelled Le Pen seem softer and more respectable and mainstream than had previously been the case.
While disaster cannot be ruled-out, I still expect Macron to beat Le Pen. But what about next time? Macronism-without-Macron does not yet exist and may never do so. It is hard to banish the thought Macron’s movement is no more robust than a soufflé, liable to collapse as soon as its brief moment of buoyancy is past. In such circumstances, it would be a mistake, I think, to assume a revived Socialist party, or a more impressive Republican party, will fill the void created by Macron’s departure.
Indeed, further fragmentation of an already fragmented politics must be thought plausible. That in turn opens a road to a presidential run-off between representatives of the extreme left and right. Macron’s challenge, assuming he wins a second term, is to build a legacy which avoids this grim scenario. Whether a movement built upon a single personality can do this must be reckoned an open question.
Two things: first, no matter how attractive a world without borders might be, countries have both a right and a duty to maintain their frontiers. Second, I strongly suspect a liberal immigration regime is in practice only possible if voters are persuaded it is a strict, even beastly, regime.
The British government’s plans to deport many - most? - asylum seekers to Rwanda certainly meets that second criteria. If - a significant hurdle - it survives legal challenges it may even do something about the first too.
In truth, immigration is not considered as salient an issue as was the case a few years ago. The meaning of Brexit is not so much that immigration must be reduced as a confirmation - pleasing to many - that the British government can place sharper restrictions on immigration than would have been the case had the UK remained a member of the European Union. The theory of delivery is more important than the delivery.
On the one hand, voters say they want a tougher approach to illegal immigration; on the other they are entirely relaxed about the possibility, indeed the reality, of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from Hong Kong. For that matter, British public opinion on migration is more liberal than is the case in most other European countries. This is not something often recognised by ardent Remainers but it is still the case.
Nevertheless, the government’s proposal to transport migrants to Rwanda is monstrous. This is not the “off-shoring” of asylum applications. It is the deportation of would-be asylum seekers and refugees to Africa and is designed to make it very much harder to claim asylum in the United Kingdom. Those people deported will instead be entitled to apply for refugee status in Rwanda. It is not a question of them being taken to Rwanda pending a decision on their final status vis a vis the UK.
I am not a lawyer but I would be prepared to wager a modest sum on this scheme - this very unusual scheme - being successfully challenged in court. Of course that will allow government ministers - and the Daily Mail - the considerable satisfaction of raging against interfering judges and ghastly, lefty, human-rights lawyers. (Some of my friends are ghastly, lefty, human-rights lawyers and they must be allowed to enjoy their Enemy Within status.)
Sam’s Timeless Wisdom
Department of Plumbing
Americans enjoy patronising european plumbing and household appliances but at least in this country when you rent an apartment you can expect it to come with a washing machine included. As with much of its infrastructure, so domestically there are times when the United States - a land where the kettle counts as a mystery - remains a surprisingly second world place.
From 1979: Ian McKellen delivers a 12 minute RSC workshop on MacBeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, delivered after he learns of his wife’s death. Just wonderful and a reminder that the greatest actors are also natural teachers.
That’s all for today, folks. As always, thanks for reading. There’ll be no newsletter next week because I’m taking a week off - in Cyprus, as it happens - from all scribbling. But see you here again soon.
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