On the issue that now defines modern Britain and the stances taken by England and Wales’s two main parties, is it time to start using the dread term “consensus politics”? As Martin Kettle pointed out in the Guardian this week, for all Labour’s sound and fury, its position on Britain’s future relationship with the EU is “in many essentials... indistinguishable from the prime minister’s hard Brexit”.
The fact that Labour MPs offered up tissue-paper amendments to the Article 50 bill and then accompanied the Tories through the lobbies, regardless of their defeat, feels like a symbol of pathetic acquiescence that will endure. And despite the Lords’ admirable move on the rights of EU citizens, so did this week’s spectacle of Labour peers being instructed to oppose the amendment for Britain to remain a member of the single market.
Effectively, the anti-EU posturing of old Bennites has fused with the Conservative party’s decision to surrender its soul to rabid Euro-scepticism, and threatens to reduce Westminster politics to a grim charade.
Now think about what all this looks like in Scotland, and how it chimes with a sense that London-based politicians little understand a country that voted 62 per cent to 38 per cent for the remain side, nor have any idea what to say to its people.
Last weekend, in one of the most clunking stunts I have ever seen from a Labour politician, the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, travelled to the party’s Scottish conference in Perth and made the specious argument that the diverse coalition of people who think Scotland ought to run its own affairs is comparable to the nasty forces behind Brexit and Trump, and “those who would try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion”. The reaction sent Khan and his people into something of a panic and they tried belatedly to dilute the message, but the damage was done.
The following day Jeremy Corbyn addressed a third-full hall and told the SNP it had to “respect democracy”, concentrate on Scotland’s domestic affairs and fall into line with the UK’s exit from Europe. He tweeted that “those who actually love their country would never seek to divide it”. Give or take the prime minister’s apparent resistance to demands for even greater Scottish devolution, such messaging then blurred into the speech Theresa May gave yesterday at her own party’s thinly attended Scottish gathering, and her insistence that she is committed to “strengthening and sustaining the bonds that unite us”; that the Scottish government should concentrate on the state of its country’s education system; and that once Brexit begins in earnest “the strength and stability of our union will become even more important”.
Yet again we have the fingernails-down-a-blackboard sound of Westminster politicians pitching up north of the border and telling Scotland that whatever its collective view of the most dramatic turn Britain has taken since the second world war, it will just have to meekly put up with it.
And in response, the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, predictably makes the opposite case: that the prospect of Scotland being dragged into hard Brexit underlines a glaring democratic deficit, and may well make the case for another independence referendum all but unanswerable.
I have plenty of misgivings about the SNP, but on this point Sturgeon’s case is plain, and persuasive. As she said at the end of February, the May government has “an opportunity to change course and to seek compromise”, but seems little interested. As a result of the Brexit vote and Westminster’s interpretation of it, “Scotland and the UK stand now at a crossroads. The question is, should we decide for ourselves which path to take or are we willing to have that path decided for us? We may all offer different answers to that question, but surely the choice should be ours.”
If you voted remain and have watched in horror as the so-called 48 per cent have been routinely ignored and maligned, you ought to understand what those words represent: opposition to the arrogance and recklessness of Brexit taking the form of coherent political action, and the promise of some kind of resolution
Just about every development in Scottish politics is now being read as a possible pointer to either the timing or the implications of a second independence referendum. The SNP’s conference comes in two weeks, and there is speculation about Sturgeon accelerating the push for a second vote, and challenging May to defy her. Corbyn and Khan’s rhetoric is being interpreted as an early taste of the approach the Scottish Labour Party would take: going down shouting, essentially.
I have plenty of misgivings about the SNP, but on this point Nicola Sturgeon’s case is plain, and persuasive.
Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Tories (and one-time vocal remainer), claims that if a second vote is called, the unionist side will win by an even bigger margin than last time. Meanwhile, creative voices are coalescing around the newly launched Scottish Independence Convention, which aims to give greater shape to the movement that gave 2014’s independence campaign such a sense of energy, and ensure that the case for independence amounts to more than the endorsement of Sturgeon and the SNP.
For sure, the economic and fiscal prospects for an independent Scotland look a lot dicier than they did three years ago. As the EU and Eurozone continue to display signs of severe strain, a drive for independence based on a push against Brexit could conceivably backfire.
Among pro-independence people there are widespread concerns that if the SNP moves too quickly on a referendum it will cast the choice in the often bland New Labour-ish terms it uses for everyday politics — and thus deprive Scotland of a crucial opportunity to discuss its future, as well as threatening their chances of winning.
The picture, in other words, is complicated, and the stakes are high — but when is politics not like that? Besides, at the heart of the revived noise about independence are a set of clear points. Last time, if the case for Scotland leaving the UK came down to one shared conviction, it was this: that over the previous 30 years, politics in England had too often taken a mean, callous, small-state tilt that had not only spelt bad news for Scotland but collided with the fact that it is a country with an essentially social-democratic centre, and left it marginalised.
Today, the government’s vision of Brexit surely makes that argument a thousand times more vivid. Meanwhile, as the Labour Party meets hard Brexit with the whitest of flags, it becomes even more obvious that Scotland can leave behind the worst kind of consensus politics, leading in the worst of all directions. Who wouldn’t grab that chance with both hands?
— Guardian News and Media Limited
John Harris is a journalist and author, who writes regularly for the Guardian.