Dark days of Brexit

Written by Henry McLeish on 22 November 2017 in Comment

The failure to devolve power is at the heart of the current crisis, writes Henry McLeish

Henry McLeish: Picture credit - David Anderson

Theresa May, in a state of panic amidst chaotic leadership and daily humiliation at the hands of Gove, Johnson, Patel and Fox, has now confirmed that 23:00 GMT on Friday 29 March 2019 will be the blackest day in Britain’s post-war history – the day we exit the European Union. To quote former US President FDR, talking about Pearl Harbour, it will be “a day that will live in infamy”. Outside Britain, people think we have taken leave of our senses. 

We should be incensed about the skirmish for the soul of the Conservative Party masquerading as a battle for the future of Britain. The principal actors in this struggle are deranged, delusional, and determined to take Britain down a path of economic nationalism, protectionism, populism, xenophobia, and isolationism as the key elements of a right-wing assault on progressive politics. 


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Michael Heseltine, in a recent radio interview, visibly angry and upset at some of his colleagues, said there was “no upside to Brexit”, implying this was the best it gets. He is right. We will be preoccupied for the next decade trying to minimise the damage this pointless and disastrous Brexit will inflict on Britain. 

If the future direction envisaged by these cheap patriots isn’t convincing enough, look at the international cheerleaders for Brexit. Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Philippines embrace varying degrees of indifference to human rights, racial and religious tolerance and have also embraced populism, protectionism, and authoritarianism. 

Britain needs to recognise and deal with the politics of Brexit. Labour is moving in the right direction, despite being apprehensive about the possible backlash from Labour Brexit voters in the north of England. There is a natural majority for Remain at Westminster; and there is a significant and powerful block of support for Remain in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and London. These positive forces must step up the fight against Brexit and engage in a broader public campaign to save Britain from a looming catastrophe. 

Derailing the EU Withdrawal Bill and voting on the outcome of the negotiations in the Westminster Parliament, or in the country, or both, provide democratic and legitimate opportunities to confine

Brexit to the dustbin of history and set Britain on a path to a less toxic and more inclusive future.  

Winning the argument for Britain to remain in the EU is a priority, but so is settling the future of Scotland. This is not the time for its ambitions to be sidelined. In or out of the EU, the structural arguments may look much the same, but an exit from it will change the parameters of the debate and ignite in a much more serious manner the notion that Scotland is paying the price of an English farce. 

The lack of political power in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the total contempt in which the nations have been held by Westminster in the Brexit negotiations and the lack of any serious commitment to radically transforming the way Britain is governed, reinforce the case that the shambles of Brexit mustn’t obscure the need for new ideas and a more inspirational debate. 
More devo-unionism is not the answer to Scotland’s ambitions, or indeed the best way to handle the chaotic way Britain is governed. Only federalism can offer an alternative to independence in Scotland.  

There is, however, no settled will of the Scottish people and the clear question thrown up by the Brexit fiasco is, what would constitute one? The lesson of the EU referendum should be ringing in our ears. Delivering the destiny of a nation with a binary mindset and binary vote is no easy task. There must be a wider debate which transcends the tribal politics that characterises Scotland today. Old or devo-unionism does not begin to rise to the challenges of an ambitious Scotland or the circumstances of a bitterly divided and declining UK.

The battle will be between a federal structure or independence. Independence is up and running. Federalism is barely at the starting gate, and therein lies the problem. Despite the efforts of Gordon Brown and Kezia Dugdale to talk about federalism, not mirrored by either of Labour’s leadership contenders in Scotland, this remains the biggest challenge facing Labour. This is an issue that won’t go away. Within the context of Westminster’s proven inability to reform itself over centuries, can federalism move from being a theoretical but sustainable option, to a frontrunner for the constitutional future of Scotland and Britain? The odds on this happening are long, but the fact that so many Scots remain unconvinced by independence, after a decade of SNP dominance, suggests there is a future for this idea.  

What’s the matter with Britain remains a valid question that needs answering. Post-war decline continues, bitter divisions have emerged in every aspect of our social and economic life and a dangerous, delusional, and sentimental embrace of the past threatens Britain’s stability and solidarity. Many ties unite Britain, but political allegiances are wearing thin. The failure to distribute real power away from Westminster lies at the heart of the current crisis and will remain a source of frustration and anger in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  

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