The shifting sands of reason
Recently, I have noticed the narrative changing among pro-union opinion formers.
In 2014 the line was that Scotland would probably be a successful independent country, but that is was stupid to take the risk as Scotland was an integral and respected part of a thriving, open, and mutually beneficial union. In a few short years, this idea has been replaced by the admission that the UK is in turmoil. A badly governed, disorientated wreck isolating itself from the rest of Europe, presiding over its own decline. Except now they warn us that an independent Scotland might be even worse than that.
I was reminded of this intellectual shift when I read the most recent musings of Alex Massie in the Times.
Alex has become exasperated by the course the country has taken since the EU referendum. He is fairly confident that Brexit is going to be a disaster. He can’t countenance the thought of either Rees-Mogg or Jeremy Corbyn getting anywhere near the levers of power. He even concedes that maybe some of the democratic deficit arguments used by independence supporters in 2014 look stronger now. Yet, for him, independence could only be countenanced as a very last resort. Like the hero in a science fiction film reluctant to abandon his spacecraft as it burns and explodes. Independence is the escape pod he will never get round to using. Unable to get to the airlock as there is always one last control panel fire to put out en-route.
His emotional attachment to his country is understandable and, if we are being honest, so too is his recent downgrading of Scotland’s fate as an independent nation.
It’s hard to argue that Brexit doesn’t make independence more economically problematic. That is because the UK is most likely just about to erect barriers between it and the biggest free trade zone on the planet. A free trade zone we would most likely be within should we choose to part with our closest neighbours. Independence post-Brexit probably means barriers to trade that weren’t there previously.
You could give Massie plaudits for adjusting his argument to ever-changing circumstances except, surely this new position strokes the heart of the case for independence? Leaving the Single Market is a massive problem, but it is one that is being inflicted on Scotland and not one of our choosing. It’s a massive problem for England and Wales too, but the difference here is that those parts of what is called a union, consented to this state of affairs.
In his recent article, Massie lazily compares the nationalism that drove Brexit to the nationalism that drove Scottish independence.
This is nonsense that we have dealt with in detail before. The end goal in 2014 was to make Scotland a normal outward-looking European country. Albeit, one which had a much more modern, more representative and bolder politics. What drove Brexit was isolationism and exceptionalism. It was the idea that the UK is being held back by foreigners making our laws, stealing our jobs and clogging up our public services.
While Massie shifts his arguments to serve his emotional attachment to his union as the circumstances change to expose the weakness of his previous stance.
It’s time to acknowledge that the fundamental arguments we were making in 2014 were correct. We saw that rUK and Scotland were not just pooling and sharing but also pulling in strikingly different trajectories. We understood that if we voted No that we would be dragged whichever way the biggest part of the union chose to go. And we didn’t like the way it was going.
Massie understood our position then. In the pre-indyref article he penned entitled, ‘Why I’m Voting No’, he wrote the following paragraphs. Words that made up the crux of his argument for voting against Scotland taking that different course.
I’m Scottish but I’m British too and I’ve been surprised by the extent to which that latter layer of identity still matters to me and still has something to say, not just about me, but about all of us. I don’t recognise the caricature of England (and it is usually England, not the rest of the UK) offered by Yes supporters. They see a heartless, rapacious, profiteering “neoliberal” dystopia; I see a relaxed, liberal, ambitious, open-minded, multi-racial, modern country.
They see the rise of UKIP and are frightened by it; I see UKIP as a bug not a feature because the feature is the manner in which the UK is open to the world and, actually, quite happy about that thank you very much. A UK in which, despite its difficulties, has managed the transition from a white country to a multi-racial polity with, in general, commendable ease. They see a broken, sclerotic, unreformable Britain; I see a cosmopolitan country that’s a desirable destination for millions of people around the world.
Just over three years on, he seems to be lamenting what a broken, sclerotic, unreformable place that Britain has become.
Now he pens articles fearing the very credible chance that the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg will put the finishing touches to making the UK a heartless, rapacious, profiteering, neoliberal dystopia. What we saw, feared and offered an alternative to in 2014 has come true.
So the sands of reason shift.
The circular logic kicks in. Scotland is in a nightmarish situation due to its lack of autonomy, however, giving Scotland autonomy might make things worse. In his 2014 piece, Massie admits that his argument was an emotional one. During the referendum, he discovered how attached he was to the UK. There is a level of attachment a person can’t reason themselves out of and that is true on both sides of the debate. Massie will no doubt continue to find fires to extinguish on his way to the escape hatch.
Still, I can’t help wondering that if we had taken a different stance in 2014, would Brexit even have happened?
Back then we were right and they were wrong but what if Massie and his ilk had agreed with our warnings? Could it not be argued that with Scotland gone, the other nations might have turned inward and started fixing their own internal democratic deficits?
It’s debatable, but what is true is that if we had left then and if rUK had voted for Brexit, we would currently be holding the best hand in the negotiations. We would be starting to find our feet, at the exact same time as businesses would be searching for a new English speaking home inside the largest marketplace in the world.
Instead, we are shackled to the only country in history to have voted to win back a sovereignty it didn’t understand it already had. At least if we had voted Yes in 2014. and as a result we had become less well off, Scotland would have exchanged our decreased prosperity for sovereignty. That’s the fundamental point that Massie’s shifting argument glosses over.
Now, we are going wherever our relaxed, liberal, ambitious, open-minded, multi-racial neighbours take us.