Sunday National, 13th December 2020.
So this is what we’ve come to. Boris Johnson – with a Dover sole in either hand – snarling “from my cold dead hands, Pierre,” as he orders Royal Navy gunboats out onto the Thames to keep Britain’s codfish British. As the clock ticks mercilessly down to the end of December, as attempts to peel off the French president and the Chancellor of Germany fail, pro-Brexit British tabloids are consoling themselves this weekend with the idea of setting loose Wildcat and Merlin helicopters on the French fishing fleet to keep “rogue French fishing vessels” away from the national turbot.
No deal looms, and our agitated Prime Minister is reduced to trying to appear statesmanlike and sanguine on telly, as our sleepy media finally wake up to the profound consequences of the UK government’s glib lines and consequence-free promises. It turns out that nifty slogans disintegrate when confronted with hard political realities. Who knew? That is has come to this – and that much of the media is treating it as a surprise – is a national indictment of how Britain is governed and how that government is scrutinised.
Even if some kind of EU accord can be salved at the death, that it has come to this, in the middle of pandemic which has already turned the economy inside out, with no evidence Britain is braced for January the 1 st 2021 – is a damning judgment on the irresponsibility of this Tory government, the boorishness of its leadership, and its reliance of snappy lines and sloganeering. You can keep your hollow levity, Prime Minister. I’m sick of the sight of it. Reality always bites in the end.
Even trying to get the idea that no deal is an “Australia style deal” up on its feet now is symbolic of the extent to which this government believes that it can spin its way out of jeopardy. If there’s any justice in this world – and it is a big “if” – the sky should fall in on this band of chancers. Does this administration really believe nobody will notice if, in less than three weeks’ time, the UK crashes out of the common market with no or few substantive agreements in place? Do ministers really reckon that the euphemism of an “Australia type deal” will blind the electorate to real world consequences of unviable factories shuttering and the tariff and non-tariff barriers clanking into place for Britain’s farmers and producers?
In last December’s general election campaign, Boris Johnson and his surrogates deliberately conflated the withdrawal agreement and the unfinished work on the future relationship with the rest of the EU. The cheap mantra was “getting Brexit done” – when any honest reckoning would realise the agreement on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU was just the end of the beginning of the Brexit process and not the final word on the flow of people, services and goods across our new European frontiers. Leaving the EU was always going to be the easy part, and that took bad-tempered months of advances and setbacks to conclude, in great part because of Eurosceptic yahoos in the parliamentary Tory party, and Boris Johnson’s machinations to promote his own career and undermine his predecessor.
But this confusion was cynically encouraged. It was encouraged by the analysis that the British electorate had had it up to the back teeth with talk of Brexit, the diagnosis that it was a boring, unsexy issue which long ago stopped selling newspapers and winning new audience on the television and radio. It was encouraged as a canny bit of political strategy by the new Tory government, reflecting the public mood.
Convince the British public that Brexit was finally over and done with – after the interminable creaking of Theresa May’s administration – and the vote would thank you for the peace, if not the peace of mind, and the political and media caravan could roll on to those sunlit uplands Boris Johnson is endlessly whiffling on about. This collusion helped give Boris Johnson his majority – and greenlit most of the media to switch off of Brexit as a done deal. Or to quote the Prime Ministerexactly one year ago: “If you say – ‘Can I absolutely guarantee that we’ll get a deal?’ – I think I can and I’ll tell you why – look at what we achieved in three months with the new deal that I did.
We did it and it’s a great deal and it will take this country forward and I’m very proud of it.” Given the obvious unreality of what the UK government thought it was entitled to – all of the advantages of full EU membership, combined with a sovereign independence to do whatever it damn well pleased – can anyone be surprise it hasn’t met with a warm reception in Brussels or in European capitals? Do you want a Brexit without Brexit, Prime Minister?
It is the logic of the spoiled wean, and in a serious country, its prospects of success would have been analysed as such. But in Britain? It was all seen through the lens of cunning debating points and political positioning – unanchored in the clear and present danger it represented – and now clearly presents to the United Kingdom’s interests in general, and Scotland’s in particular. Having voted to remain in the EU, there’s every likelihood we’re going to be utterly shafted on January 1st because of our continuing Union with territories whose political aspirations are simply incompatible with what the overwhelming majority of Scots want.
Gestures of “working with our European friends and allies” were made by some elements of the Leave campaign during in 2016, but nobody, I think, took them terribly seriously. These warm words were consistently eclipsed by the screamer posters promising hundreds of thousands of Turks invading Britain and the decades-long run of lies and propaganda about bendy bananas and the British sausage.
Although endless ink has been spilt about Facebook manipulation and dishonest NHS banners on campaign buses – the emotional case for Brexit was powerfully negative. “Taking back control” is only a superficially positive message. The fear and anxiety leeches out of it. It can be read as a demand for restoration, loosening the UK from the alien restrictions, foreign laws and Euro-judges which have so animated the tabloids for decades.
But if you’re the kind of person who experiences a multi-ethnic society as an unsettling development, who consciously or unconsciously perceives a departure from the monochrome as a loss of “control” over their communities, the promise of returning “control” may be a seductive one. It spoke to social anxieties and a sense of an economic, social and cultural precariousness which ironically – this Conservative government’s austerity measures have done so much to foster. If you are blaming immigrants for taking your job, sending their kids to British schools and accessing NHS services, you aren’t asking the government why it is slashing spending on these public services.
If you see the problem as the competition for scarce resources – you aren’t asking the government why resources are so scarce in the first place. You aren’t interrogating the case for austerity, but accepting it as a fact of life rather than a political choice. The responsible men and women avoid accountability, and convenient scapegoats feel the heat.
Against that emotional backdrop, it isn’t exactly surprising the Johnson administration struggled to find a meaningful language of cooperation with the EU26. If Brexit is a repudiation – why not make it as stark as possible?
And for Scotland? The choices become starter and starker. Is this really the best we can do? Is this really the best way of promoting this country’s economic, social and cultural interests? There is no reason why we should permit Scotland to be governed in this way. We can do better than stoically enduring the geopolitical failure which Westminster rule consigns us to. There is no reason why our horizons have to be so low, our ambitions so paltry, our capacities so limited – that we need a British governing class who again and again have proven they cannot govern to order our internal and external affairs for us.
In 2014, the Better Together campaign managed – successfully – to frame independence as a choice between stability and discord, between certainty and uncertainty. It wasn’t true then. It isn’t true now. The myth of a stable United Kingdom has burst.