And how is Brexit any different?
Originally published here and here
I voted to leave the European Union, largely on philosophical grounds. I took, and continue to take, great issue with the way that this institution has evolved over time. I took issue with the amount of say it had over our lives, with the way it wielded that power, and with the very notion that a political union should ever be conflated with the progress that all of humanity has made over the past several decades. I sometimes wonder whether, had I been Scottish, I might have voted Yes to independence in 2014.
Indeed, it is difficult at times not to call to mind the spirit of William Wallace when I hear some of those I know on the Leave side speaking of their great pride in their own country; their longing for an independent policy on trade, say, or immigration; or their great desire to make their own way in the world and control their own futures. And certainly, those are ideals and values that I respect and share myself.
But Wallace and his cause were defeated in 1298. The Scottish independence campaign was defeated in 2014. And the spirit of those who voted, with their own brave hearts, to free ourselves from the European Union, today stands upon the brink of a defeat snatched adroitly from the jaws of what they had thought was victory in mid-2016. We have reached this point following a period of negotiation – something which, of course, never came to pass following the victory of the Better Together campaign in Scotland. But I do sometimes wonder: what if it had?
In the run-up to the vote, many voices in Better Together were becoming increasingly exasperated with the pronouncements emanating from Yes Scotland. They would keep the pound, they said, despite the UK Government’s insistence that it would not share its currency with a foreign power. Indeed, they would join the EU independently, but not adopt the euro, in a move that would not be entertained under current EU treaties. They would keep the Queen, too, wishing to retain the sovereign of a separate state in a policy that some found bizarre, given that sovereignty was such a powerful issue in the debate. Responding to the plaintive cries from Westminster that what they wanted was an utter fantasy, Alex Salmond accused the British Government of an attempt to “bully and intimidate” Scotland.
Whichever way you voted in the referendum, you must forgive me for pointing out how familiar this all sounds, when we consider both the tone and the many twists and turns of the Brexit negotiations since mid-2017. Britain was told very firmly by the EU that it could not “cherry-pick” those aspects of membership that it preferred, while seamlessly excusing itself from those it did not. Cakes, it was repeatedly emphasised, were not to be both had and eaten. European leaders made much display of their “sadness” at Britain’s departure – much as I imagine the remainder of the UK would have in respect of Scotland – but all (eventually) hardened their positions behind the European Commission’s red lines.
Had the SNP’s call for independence been answered by the Scottish people in 2014, by all accounts there would have been negotiations. Mr Salmond et al would surely have come down to Westminster, flushed with their success, and laid out their stall. He had already said during the campaign, for example, that a formal currency union would be “overwhelmingly in the rest of the UK’s economic interests” (sound familiar?), and in representing a Government that actually believed in what it was doing (not so familiar!), he would have made his case. At this point, the comparison does not look too easy for even the most hard-line Leavers to fail to acknowledge…
Nevertheless, while I do think we would have stuck to many if not all of the red lines that Better Together had outlined during the campaign, I do not imagine for one moment that Britain’s goodwill towards Scotland would have fallen away in the face of an independence vote. Many would have thought they were making a seismic mistake, but I do not believe we would have viewed the vote as a “slap in the face”. Even in their departure, the Scots would have remained, fundamentally, our brethren. Even in our sadness, and while negotiating hard to safeguard our own interests, we would never have specifically sought to undermine theirs as they moved forward. And never, ever, would any British Government – of any colour, of any form – have turned to the Scottish leaders and told them that their newfound independence “cannot be a success”. And therein lies the key difference between these two great affairs: the one that was not to be, and the one that, if some have their way, may yet not be either. To seek to draw a comparison between the two may be very tempting in some quarters, but I would not find it to be valid for one simple reason: goodwill. The goodwill that we have tried to show the EU, and that I firmly believe we would have shown to Scotland in the reverse scenario, has been rejected and not reciprocated. Our farewell to Scotland would have been undoubtedly forlorn, but never callous, and the goodwill that once united us as one nation would have continued to flow between us as two. I sincerely believe that both Remainers and Leavers would have wanted precisely this with the EU in any event; sadly, it seems that neither side is likely to see it.