Greetings from North West Europe

A Ghost Is Born (pt 2)

Taking to the stage at the Gove/Johnson victory press conference, both speakers spoke slowly, quietly. With Johnson the contrast was particularly stark, perhaps through shock, perhaps through tiredness, or perhaps through the dawning realisation of the pyrrhic nature of this most pyrrhic of victories. It was as if the boorish drunks at the cricket club bar had (to their own surprise) been taken at their word and come round from their self-induced stupor to find themselves responsible for a whole country. Leave had won narrowly, but how, and at what cost?

An Operational Majority

In the immediate aftermath of the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 pro-independence supporters were quick to draw and circulate a map of Scotland with the areas of Scotland not coloured depending on whether their region voted in or out, but coloured proportionally (each area divided in to two colours), depending on the split of the vote in that particular area. While flawed, if we’re talking overall share of numbers, this produced a much more balanced overview of the general picture, and one that was much more heartening to the ‘Yes’ camp. It would be interesting to see such a map for the EU referendum — it would show that there was still significant ‘leave’ sentiment in Scotland, just as those industrial heartlands of the North and Midlands were not as fervently ‘out’ as they’ve maybe been characterised over recent days. In addition, within the vote itself, it would be largely futile to try and characterise either vote in a particular way, much as there is an inherent human instinct to want to do this in order to understand it. I say this simply to contextualise what follows. This isn’t seeking to apportion blame, just to reflect on some of the things that have been unfolding. I, like many I think, feel angry and disappointed, and feel that my wooly emotive idea of Europe (as a place of cooperation, friendships and friends, freedom of movement, working for the greater good), to which I feel very attached, has clashed with other peoples equally emotive and fact-free view of Europe as a meddling unaccountable administrator, hell-bent on imposing the will of the ‘other’ on the rule of this country. Both are equally instinctive responses, but the other side now has the majority, and the mandate, to do something about it.

Careerist Adrenaline Junkies

What brought us to this place? Had Cameron developed a taste for gambling, encouraged through the success of the 2014 Independence referendum, that could no longer be sated? Was he out looking for a bigger thrill? Did he genuinely think the referendum could be promised because it would never come? It seems an extreme risk to take if the only aim was to settle a managerial issue within the Conservative party, and though UKIP were making noise, they were hardly a powerful or credible electoral force (only managing to return one MP at the last general election — and even he was someone much more mainstream and ‘moderate’ than their supposedly enigmatic leader). There was no particular popular demand for a referendum to speak of. Could it really be the case that the nation was mobilised to settle an argument that was started years ago, in the smoke filled rooms of men-only Oxford clubs, in between bouts of necro-beastiality?

Johnson’s downbeat demeanour on Friday also suggested that he too loved the game, but was somewhat less at ease with the result — a short term careerist who didn’t really believe anything, other than his own rhetoric and desire to be the centre of attention. He will, it seems, (as the most high profile pro-leave conservative and the most popular amongst grassroots conservatives), have to take the lead of the party and be the person responsible for triggering Article 50. He can’t not, but at the same time, this is a poisoned chalice that could well end his career.*

The only person who seemed genuinely excited was, of course, Nigel Farage, claiming a victory for ‘ordinary, decent, real people’ — displaying, in a single sentence, a lack of grace, a lack of strategic foresight and (accidentally we presume) a comment on phenomenological reality. If you were minded to, this could be contrasted with Nicola Sturgeon’s primary response at her first press conference following the results, thanking all Europeans and immigrants for their contribution to Scotland and making clear that they were highly valued. While people can’t be held responsible for the exact words that come out of other peoples mouths, they very much help create the climate in which those words are formed.

Fantasy Island

As noted earlier, it is both fruitless and inaccurate to try and group or characterise leave voters in any singular way, or to claim an intrinsic moral high ground to the remain campaign, in and of itself. There are many leave voters who see the EU as an uncaring and undemocratic institution, punishing the poor of southern Europe, mishandling the migrant crisis, and creating trade deals that always favour big business. But these arguments were rarely articulated in the mainstream media and it would be naïve to think that they gained much traction with the population at large. It is impossible to not analyse the core outgoing messages being transmitted by ‘Vote Leave’ during the campaign, and also wonder about how they were being interpreted. The main (and for most of the time only) mantra of Leave seemed to be ‘Take Back Control’ — a sort of more administratively focussed and less aspirational ‘Make America Great Again’ — but that too kept cropping up — more an advertising slogan than a plan, and a flash-back to the days of empire that now exists only in the minds of some, (and even then it’s a pretty hazy memory — one that would be impossible to recreate). “The populist promise to make Britain ‘great again’ is not a policy platform. It’s more an offer of a collective real-time hallucination” as one particularly good analysis put it.

Fundamentally backwards looking, at times the mantra focussed on a version of the UK that seemed to wilfully fail to grasp that EU or no EU, money moves, markets move, and people move — interdependency is a reality of the world we live in, if you wish to enjoy the potential benefits it brings such as the trade of goods, freedom to travel and work, and the ability to pool resources. Were people really voting for a UK that could somehow, against all the odds, exercise a unique form of sovereignty — a splendid isolation? Or was this actually a multi-purpose one size fits all slogan that appealed to people on a number of levels? On a logical governmental level, it’s difficult to interpret this mantra in any practical sense, other than as part of a bizarre theme park Britain — but it is possible for people who feel that the government has forgotten them, that they have little control over the circumstances they live in, or they have little influence over the politics of the day, to be rallied by such a claim, on whatever level they relate to it, and however hollow it might be.

It’s important to also address and not ignore the coded racism of parts of the leave campaign (not necessarily leave voters I’m careful to note). Between the posters of UKIP and the leaflets of the official Leave campaign, layered on top of an ongoing media narrative that demonised incomers to these islands (and far pre-dates this campaign), a genie has been released from a bottle and it’s not going to be easy to get it back in anytime soon.

The vote for leave isn’t racist, but, through the campaign that created it, it can be seen to validate and embolden racist views, which we need to counter — immediately and powerfully.

Scotland the Anomoly

Any attempt to analyse the results of the referendum as caused by the mobilisation of a disenfranchised working class vote falls down once you cross the border to Scotland. What is different here? While it would be naïve to suggest direct causation in the following — there are clearly many different factors at play — I wonder if recent engagement through the 2014 referendum has created a populous less inclined to believe what the press say, and more engaged with the issues at hand? Citizens are also part of a now well-established proportional representation system where politicians have to listen much more closely to the population, and to each other. Does this more pluralistic politics contribute to an environment where people feel marginally less disenfranchised, more engaged and more able to affect what happens in their communities?

To what extend PR plays a part in all this is not simple — the level and type of engagement in Scotland is undoubtedly the product of many contributing factors, but it is worth observing. It’s something of an aside, but to hear a group of white middle aged men who have consistently opposed the modernisation of our UK democratic systems or efforts to address our own democratic deficit, (be that through Proportional Representation, Lords reform or otherwise), relentlessly whining about a lack of accountability in Brussels seemed an irony too far, and one we should be more proactive in calling-out. There can be no credibility to this ‘control’ by ‘the people’ argument while our politicians so willingly protect these unaccountable and unelected institutions so wholeheartedly. Following Thursday’s result, I glibly suggested that Scotland and England were operating at incompatible levels of modernity. This was rightly shot down by some, but there may be a grain of truth in it. And that’s not to say that Scotland is particularly modern, just that everything is relative.

What Next?

What may of course account for Boris’s shellshocked demeanour is the pending break up of the UK — his feigned surprise at this prospect is bizarre. Any armchair politician with their finger half on the political pulse could have told you that this was the logical next step after Brexit, so he’s either incredibly naïve, or disingenuous, or duplicitous, (or a heady mix of all three). With the need to implement a land border between Northern and Southern Ireland if the ‘control on immigration’ claim is to hold any water, it risks an infinite complication of an already complex situation. The positive vote in Northern Ireland to remain part of the EU adds another layer to this problem, and plants the possibility of a unified Ireland in the publics imagination.

In the Scottish context, it is inconceivable for Nicola Sturgeon to not attempt to keep Scotland in the EU, given that this is the expressed wish of the people of Scotland. This could conceivably come through some sort of veto on the decision (unlikely), some sort of separate arrangement with the EU that sees Scotland retain membership, but not as a sovereign country (extremely unlikely for a number of reasons), or thirdly, via another referendum on Scottish Independence (not an easy route either, but probably the clearest of the three). This has been carefully floated as a possibility, but the Holyrood government will be hesitant to pursue this unless a strong public and political consensus can be built around the issue. As much as people are excited about ‘indyref2’ this should be approached with extreme caution. And those that accuse the SNP of opportunism (in this particular context) seem to be missing the point that events have consequences, and situations change, unless their definition of opportunism extends to ‘trying to do what people asked you to do’.

Control and Coalitions

If a new Independence Referendum is called, we need to think about a few things. While the trigger will have been the UK government doing something the majority of the Scottish population didn’t want, (and that’s part of the picture), that can’t be the basis on which it is contested. Many, many lessons can be taken from both the 2014 and the EU referendum. From the former, the inability to deal with some of the practical nuts and bolts of currency, the EU, borders, and trade would need to be addressed (along with building on the strengths of a multifaceted pluralistic campaign), and from the latter the warning that while mining grievances might gain traction in the short term, it would deliver a hollow victory, if it delivered success at all. Most importantly, an alliance needs to be built between the SNP, Greens, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Labour.

For Labour to contest an Independence referendum, in the circumstances we find ourselves in, seems beyond kamikaze (though given recent activities, that doesn’t mean it might not happen). In the event that Scottish Labour do support a referendum it is of paramount importance to not re-run old arguments (on either side), and to be ready to genuinely welcome new people in to what was already a fairly broad church. If the Tories stand as the only major party in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom, it becomes a very difficult decision to defend, especially when its main players were vocally pro-EU anyway. The bluster of Ruth Davidsons ‘we decided this two years ago so no need to ask again’ will run out of steam pretty quickly — a second indy ref would simply ask the question again, not necessarily invert the result of the first one as she is suggesting — so the only real argument boils down to whether she thinks people should have a say or not. The same fate will befall the argument that we’re creating ‘further instability’ — her own party having just created the greatest instability in the UK since WWII. That’s tantamount to standing in a burning house, but refusing to deploy the fire extinguishers for fear of ruining the carpet.

Any future campaign would need to be passionate, practical and pluralistic. It would need to operate on a number of levels, all of which sought to take the social and civic dynamics of the last referendum, and open them out to a much broader range of constituents. Where others seek control, (and with it consistency of messaging etc), a vibrant and diverse campaign for independence would be an asset. Whether it even comes to happen is obviously dependent on a huge number of complex and interrelated issues. In either case, we need to look forwards with optimism and a generosity of spirit, building coalitions with those right across the UK and EU who think that there is some value in preserving this collective endeavour. Though this is of course a vague, even wooly, thing to say, there seems to be little other option right now, in order to counter a narrative that is fundamentally small-minded and inward looking. The only alternative would be to march in to the future with Tory and UKIP eyes fixated firmly on a rear-view mirror containing a Britain of past ‘glories’ — one that never even existed in the first place.

Addendum: As I post this, the Labour party seem intent on their primary response to Brexit being complete and comprehensive self-immolation, and to fully complete the end-of-days tableau vivant, England have just undertaken a graceless exit from the European Football Championships. Perhaps mindless optimism is all we have left.

Image: D. Coyle

*This is just one of many scenarios, but seems the most immediately likely.