Is Brexit killing the UK?

Written by Henry McLeish on 27 June 2018 in Comment

Feelings of national identity are changing, writes Henry McLeish

Henry McLeish - Holyrood

According to a new BBC survey of public opinion, optimism about the future, feelings of Britishness, a deepening sense of Scottishness and the importance of identity, are reshaping our politics and highlighting significant differences between the nations of the UK.

The causes and consequences of a shambolic Brexit are taking their toll, while the future of Scotland and Northern Ireland, and their respective changing moods, could have serious repercussions for the Westminster Government.

The findings suggest that in Scotland and Northern Ireland, people are much more optimistic about the future, evidenced by their belief their best days lie ahead. In England, 49 per cent said they were in the past while only 17 per cent thought the reverse.

Scotland’s optimism contrasts sharply with England’s where notions of sentiment, nostalgia and delusion helped create Brexit, inspired by the Beatles’ songline, “all my troubles seemed so far away…I long for yesterday”. 

In the survey, the overall sense of Britishness was declining and in Scotland, 85 per cent of people felt “strongly Scottish”. In Northern Ireland, there was also renewed interest in the idea of a United Ireland, with 28 per cent saying they had changed their opinions on this issue since Brexit. 

The fragile political mood of Scots was also reflected in poll figures released before the SNP’s summer conference, showing the SNP with a substantial lead in both Westminster and Holyrood voting intentions – after 11 years in government.

More worryingly for the Westminster parties were the National Centre for Social Research findings, that unlike in 2016, when 26 per cent of Scots believed the economy would improve under independence, that now was 41 per cent. 

Brexit may make the economic and financial consequences of the UK leaving the EU more parlous than Scotland leaving the UK.

Slightly better news for the Unionist parties was that The Times newspaper’s poll found no increase in support for independence since 2014, that 52 per cent of electors oppose holding a referendum within five years, and the First Minister’s poll ratings are significantly down. 

Even before the negotiations in Brussels are complete, Brexit is already having an enormous political and psychological impact.

Most people believe Brexit to be shambolic. Blood letting within the Tory party is spilling out to every part of the UK and people are alarmed at this collapse of governance. Theresa May is now a prisoner of the hard right in her party and a lesser Britain may be in the making, dismaying friends abroad and leading to the disintegration of a four-nation idea.  

But despite all of the above, England seems defiantly underwhelmed by the rest of the UK’s fears and anxieties.

Defying the laws of politics, as I used to understand them, the Tories are building a poll lead over Labour, many of the English national newspapers remain unwavering in their support for this act of Brexit national self-harm and large swathes of England seem unfazed by the diminishing of a once great country. 

We are fast reaching a point when the politics of Westminster and England and the politics of rUK, cannot be easily reconciled. Mood, morale, and momentum are starting to push different parts of the UK away from what has been an accepted, sometimes difficult, but enduring political history, a listening democracy and sane governance. 

Is Brexit killing the UK? Are we seeing the beginning of the break-up? Have we reached the point where nationalism in England has nowhere to express itself, so Westminster is acting as the most immediately accessible platform? 

Why does Westminster continue to ignore the warnings, worries, and wishes of Scotland and Northern Ireland and indeed, Ireland itself, and turn Brexit – the most backward decision of post-war Britain – into an attack on the very existence of the UK and 300 years of achievement? 

Theresa May’s Brexit ‘power grab’ represents a massive setback for devolution and a possible forerunner of more attacks on the Scottish Parliament. Brexit also means that we are about to turn our backs on trusted European allies and make foreign and trade policy into a dangerous and unpredictable adventure – Donald Trump versus Donald Tusk is not a serious choice!

These are questions many Scots are now asking themselves, not because they are nationalists, disrupters or anti-English, but because they are decent citizens who want the best for their country, themselves, and their families. They see Britain, Westminster and for some, England, ignoring them and embarking on a breathtaking act of political vandalism, in which their voice counts for little and their futures are more uncertain. People are asking whether England and Westminster are leaving the UK. 

The state of Britain and the state of Brexit are changing the face of Scottish politics. The Scots phrase, ‘Tak a scunner’, is rich in meaning, suggesting dislike, disgust or indeed, loathing.

Scots, today, are scunnered and this is probably the best way of describing a mood which combines a sense of being ignored, lied to, patronised, and dragged into a future with dire consequences, that wasn’t wanted, while identity and pride count for nothing. Politicians at Westminster should ponder in which direction this will move public opinion in Scotland! 

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