Henry McLeish: What's the point of a union that's unwilling to take Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland seriously?

Written by Henry McLeish on 11 November 2016 in Comment

Henry McLeish on what Brexit could mean for the debate over independence

Our politics and democracy, our governance and constitution are at risk, post Brexit. Broken politics, treacherous and delusional behaviour, represented by cheap patriots such as Gove, Johnson, Patel, Fox and Duncan-Smith, and a lack of any constitutional safeguards are driving a divided Britain to the edge and casting further doubt on Scotland’s continued membership of the UK.

Scotland gained legislative powers under devolution but little real political power, as is being brutally exposed by Theresa May.

Scotland’s First Minister is right to reject the fiction that, post Brexit, there is a one-solution fix for all four nations of the UK.

The Conservative right and narrow intolerant xenophobic nationalism in England conspire to deepen the political differences between Scotland and England, stir the anger of Scots who wanted to remain in the EU, and further weaken the resolve of many unionists who are reluctant to leave the UK. And Britain looks diminished and confused about its role in the world.


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So what are the immediate consequences for Scotland? There was intense speculation that a Brexit vote, with Scotland voting to remain, would boost the cause of independence and reignite interest in an early referendum. This hasn’t happened. Opinion polls have barely changed since September 2014 and Scotland remains equally divided on the big question. But this might be about to change. Brexit is such an overwhelmingly complex and potentially destructive political event that its significance and impact may shift and strengthen the case for leaving the UK.

First, if Theresa May pushes for a ‘hard Brexit’, coming out of the single market and pandering to the zealots demanding an end to the free movement of people, many Scots will think the UK Government has taken leave of its senses and face a choice between the UK or the EU. This was not the choice in 2014.

Second, the state of England’s politics is alarming and threatens the very fabric of society where any notions of stability, security and solidarity are being trashed by a lurch to the right, and where intolerance and nationalism are creating a bitterly divided Britain.

Third, Theresa May’s ill-informed remarks about no four-nation veto, no new referendum after negotiations and no serious scrutiny or parliamentary votes on the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 or the commencement of Article 50 invoke the spirit of an elected dictatorship at Westminster and a serious contempt for democracy. So why should we trust the PM to achieve outcomes that are remotely in the national interest, never mind Scotland’s interests.

Fourth, our internationalism is being shredded. Scots have a different world view and we are more inclined to embrace a broader and more informed humanity where the idea of global citizenship, tolerance and compassion are forces for good and the complete antithesis of the intolerance and racism of Farage and Fox. For Scots, not in our name will become a recurrent theme.

Fifth, where does this Brexit madness end? Do we remove Britain from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and scrap the European Convention? Will we end up being thrown out of the Council of Europe, where Britain, led by Churchill, was a founding member in 1949?

Sixth, will Westminster ever abandon the absurd idea of absolute sovereignty in a world of shared aspiration and sovereignty? Wallonia, part of Belgium, has a say on an EU trade treaty with Canada, but Westminster will not extend any real power to Scotland!

Finally, a consensus or settled will of the Scottish people must emerge. Political parties should unite around this abuse of power and contest the political, legal and constitutional authority of Westminster. There should be an opportunity for the Scottish Government, Parliament and the electors to debate and vote on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations; we should constantly remind Theresa May of our intent. 

The constitutional question shouldn’t be the sole preserve of the SNP or nationalism. What kind of country we want is the concern of everyone. The Brexit campaign has shown that a referendum producing a small and insignificant majority, relative to the scale of the issue and population, could have disastrous consequences. Scotland should learn lessons.

The traditionalists, the fundamentalists and those who argue for Scotland to be independent at any price need no further persuasion, but most Scots remain unconvinced: this is where a better case must be made and not just about independence. Slim majorities, as Brexit has shown, can undermine national solidarity and create a bitter legacy that can be enduringly destructive. When does a majority become large enough to justify major constitutional change? When is a matter settled beyond reasonable doubt? Brexit may be influencing hearts and minds in ways that were never envisaged when Scotland voted to remain. The settled will of Scots remains elusive.

What is the point of a union that is unwilling to take Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland seriously? Interdependence in Europe is a much bigger idea. The diverging politics of Scotland and England may ultimately decide Scotland’s destiny.

Sir Walter Scott’s words ring true: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.”

After a deceitful campaign, Britain is indeed losing sight of what the truth is.

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