Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget / For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
Those famous old lines of GK Chesterton’s are now wholly redundant. The people of England have spoken. By God, have they spoken. Like a mute suddenly possessed of a voice, they have loosed a long-suppressed howl of frustration, pain and rage that is being heard around the planet and that will ring through the ages.
It is, in its way, hugely impressive. In the end, the English (and, for some less obvious reason, the Welsh) had the courage or the arrogance or both to do on Thursday what the Scots dared not do in 2014: to blithely reject blood-curdling and arguably judicious warnings from global leaders and allies, major institutions, economists and large employers, and go for it. Old John Bull perched momentarily at the cliff edge, threw a two-fingered salute back towards his aghast audience, and leapt. One slight hitch, worthy of a sitcom: those of us roped to him — and who recently chose to renew those bonds — found ourselves dragged along behind, our comparatively puny legs unable to gain purchase, and are now plummeting through empty air. As with the markets, it is not yet clear where the bottom lies.
Be in no doubt that this extraordinary decision bears the brand of St George. While, overall, 51.9 per cent of Britons voted to leave the EU, Scotland went the other way, massively, with 62 per cent choosing Remain. Poor, troubled Northern Ireland, which has come so far in recent decades and which now faces erecting an enforced border with the Republic, was 55.7 per cent Remain. But there was never a chance — the numbers weren’t there. While a majority in every Scottish council area backed Remain, every single English region other than London had a majority for Leave, from 58 per cent in the North East to 59.3 per cent in the West Midlands to 52.6 per cent in the South West. Wales, beneficiary of so much EU money in the past, voted 52–48 for Leave.
If the cold fact of Brexit is as shocking as a bucket of freezing water in the face of a sleeping man, it is perhaps also unsurprising. The warnings were clear — enough polls putting Leave in the lead; enough credible, popular politicians pounding their chests in its favour; a rejectionist flavour to our politics that has manifested itself powerfully and doggedly on both Left and Right; a fluffily ambiguous Labour leadership that has provided no direction or heart; a seething public beef with the elites. But still, we thought: they wouldn’t dare, would they?
Well, yes, they would. They did. Britain is leaving the European Union and stomping off for uncharted territory. Our popular, likeable Prime Minister, re-elected with an overall majority just over a year ago, has resigned, his buddy the Chancellor sure to follow. The EU has lost one of its biggest beasts, the member state that has most reliably steered it in the direction of economic liberalisation and global engagement, and that has ensured the continued existence and fellow-feeling of that entity called ‘the West’.
Nigel Farage is haw-hawing, gape-mouthed, on every news channel. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, has changed her Twitter avatar to the Union flag and is demanding a vote on EU membership in her own country. Sinn Fein wants a referendum on a united Ireland. Donald Trump professes his delight — ‘They took their country back, just like we will take America back’. Radicals of the most distasteful kind are everywhere emboldened — after all, if the unthinkable can happen in boring old Blighty, with its famous obsession with stability and order, then it can happen anywhere.
By October we will have a new PM, exclusively chosen by the 150,000 members of the Tory party. Boris Johnson, long the darling stand-up of the blue-rinsed, has delivered them to the promised land of Brexit and will surely take the crown. We are, sadly, unlikely ever again to see him dangling from a zip-wire in a truss, forlornly waggling mini flags and throwing one-liners at bemused hacks. Big-Tent Boris is now Big-Time Boris, and will face down Putin and take on Isis and send our troops into situations of life or death. We saw this new seriousness, this faux-doleful faux-sobriety adopted in pursuit of statesmanlike credentials and the occupancy of No 10, as he declared victory yesterday.
As yet, though, it is unclear precisely what victory means. Detail around most of the important bits, such as what happens to our economy, our borders, our relationships, our status, our influence, our access, even how and when we go about disengaging from the EU, seem, slightly suspiciously, to elude Mr Johnson (it is surely improper any longer to call such a world-historical figure, slayer of PMs and redesigner of the global order, by his first name). One might view this, if one were feeling uncharitable, as disappointing, even irresponsible, even a little alarming.
The uncertainty that a Leave victory brings, its potentially brutal impact on real people with real families and real jobs, was reflected in the grace notes of Mr Cameron’s resignation speech: ‘I would reassure those markets and investors that Britain’s economy is fundamentally strong and I would also reassure Britons living in European countries and European citizens living here there will be no immediate changes in your circumstances. There will be no initial change in the way our people can travel, in the way our goods can move or the way our services can be sold.’ Don’t miss that ‘immediate’, that ‘initial’ — in time, he’s saying, who knows?
So much for one Union. What of the other? According to Mr Johnson yesterday: ‘[Brexit] does not mean that the United Kingdom will be in any way less united.’ Mr Cameron seemed less sure, warning his successor that negotiations with the EU should ‘involve the full engagement of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments to ensure that the interests of all parts of our United Kingdom are protected and advanced.’
There is some self-interest in this, of course. Mr Cameron’s reputation will not recover from this week’s events: our essay-crisis Prime Minister finally failed a test, and he picked a hell of a paper to flunk. If this leads to the break-up of the United Kingdom, his name will forever sit in infamy atop that dusty list of luxuriantly moustached and frock-coated worst-ever PMs. And while it is hard not to feel sympathy for a fundamentally decent man — the unluckiest of lucky generals, it turns out — he is at least the co-author of his own misfortune.
For many Scots, especially those of us who voted No in the indyref and Remain on Thursday, this is an especially confusing and even tortured time. This isn’t the UK we opted to stay part of: a country bounding like a happy Labrador into the arms of the hard Right, that has delivered the wet-dream, money-shot scenario of Mr Farage and his grisly pals, that with an apparent light sprinkling of racism puts control of immigration above economic prosperity, tolerance and openness. So where should our loyalty now lie? With whom should we feel solidarity? How stands the state of our Union?
Back in 2014, I wrote an article setting out my personal reasons for voting against Scottish independence. They went something like this: the argument for the continued existence of the UK is first and foremost a moral one. Our country is a beacon to those still struggling their way towards modernity, through civil wars and ethnic tensions, through tyranny towards democracy, through poverty and corruption and the oppression of the spirit; it spends blood and treasure on protecting the world’s most vulnerable people because it is the right thing to do. Scotland and England buried centuries of enmity to form the most peaceful and prosperous union in human history. Our civic space is a place of furious arguments, expressions of disgust and awful accusations — and then we resolve our differences peacefully, make a decision and move on.
All this means that, out there in the world, where China, India and the rest are on the rise, where Russia and others continue to make trouble, Britain matters, as both an example and a voice, and as a standing rebuke to those who say that prosperity cannot go with human rights, that tolerance cannot co-exist with robust debate, that the rule of law and personal freedom must be mutually exclusive.
It was important to me that Scotland did not opt to go small, to walk away from the difficult and painful decisions that come with a position in the front rank of world powers. After the events of this week and indeed this campaign, I’m not sure I could write the same piece again. I’m not sure my heart would be in it, or that I’d have the guts. It feels to me like Britain has has curdled in on itself, has made a gigantic decision that is as unpalatable as it is irreversible. Britain has chosen to go small.
Yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon began laying the ground for a second independence referendum, arguing it is ‘democratically unacceptable’ for Scotland to be taken out of the EU and the single market against its will. There was now a significant divergence between Scotland and the rest of Britain, which she ‘deeply regretted’. I could look on this as standard Nat gameplaying, of course, but I genuinely think she has a point. If, in our Union, the might of England pushes little Scotland into places it expressly does not want to go and indeed believes to be dangerous, what is that Union worth? If we want such wildly different things and have such different values, what’s the point in staying together?
I’m not saying I’d back separation in a second indyref, but I’m not saying I wouldn’t, either. I’m in no rush: there’s a lot of talking and thinking to be done. But I can say I no longer find the idea unthinkable. Let’s see how Brexit Britain turns out — who holds the wheel, who gets what, what the direction of travel is. And let’s have a grown-up debate around what an independent Scotland would look like, a realistic discussion of the challenges it would face and how it might tackle them.
Early on Friday morning, as I blearily watched Nigel Farage cackle and bum on my TV about what he’d achieved, I felt a sliver of ice enter my heart. The Ukip leader asked us to ‘dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom… this will be a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people. And we will have done it without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired…’
I resent being made to feel like some kind of alien in my own country — like this isn’t any longer the place we Scots fought so passionately over in 2014, the one for which we willingly and bruisingly fell out with family members and friends and colleagues. I also know that a lot of Brexiters simply don’t care, and believe that losing Scotland is a price worth paying for leaving the EU. What a bloody mess.
The great JK Rowling, who so brilliantly stood up for the UK during the indyref, and who received appalling abuse from the cybernats for her trouble, tweeted yesterday: ‘Goodbye, UK. Scotland will seek independence now. Cameron’s legacy will be breaking up two unions. Neither needed to happen.’ Challenged that she had previously been a ‘staunch opponent’ of separation, she responded that ‘[that] implies I was pro-union no matter what, which was never the case. Many no voters will think again now.’ How many of us does she speak for, I wonder?
This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on June 25, 2016