Associating Scotland’s independence cause with Brexit must surely count among history’s great political blunders. The mandate for a new constitutional referendum in Scotland was never formally made contingent on Scotland actually being wrenched from the EU despite a decisive Remain vote. That’s not what the SNP’s 2016 manifesto says no matter how many idiots in the independence movement claim otherwise – invariably without having taken the trouble to read the relevant part of the document in question. But it cannot be denied that the SNP leadership have subsequently committed themselves wholeheartedly to linking the two issues of Brexit and a second independence referendum.
Scotland’s cause demands a certain amount of passion. People are not passionate about the EU. They just aren’t. There are no pro-EU counterparts to the ranting Europhobes with whom we’ve all become familiar over the past forty or fifty years. There are no Raving Remainers equivalent to the Mad Brexiteers who created the current mess. Lots of people hate the EU. A few even have reasons which rescue their detestation from total mindlessness. But nobody loves the EU. Not among the electorate.
There are people who understand why the EU exists. There are people who appreciate what the EU has achieved. There are even some who understand how it works. These people have not been taken in by the constant drip-feed of anti-EU propaganda that turned to a torrent before and during the 2016 referendum. They see the EU for what it is – a flawed but functioning attempt to create a novel form of post-imperialist international association. They recognise that, if the EU did not exist, it would be necessary to create something all but indistinguishable from what we have. They are pragmatic about the EU. They are not passionate about the EU.
Putting Brexit at the centre of Scotland’s cause has proved to be a very bad mistake. The cause of restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status needed no further justification. It is, and always has been, fully warranted by the inherent injustice of the Union. Self-evidently wrong as it is to act contrary to the democratic will of Scotland’s people, the core issue is not Brexit, but the Union which strips Scotland’s people of the right to have their democratic will honoured.
Brexit was never going to fuel the drive to restore Scotland’s independence. It simply doesn’t burn hot enough in the lives of Scottish voters. Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its will may stand as a particularly egregious example of how the Union serves us ill, but it clearly is not the issue that might unleash the passion needed to take the independence project forward.
Forty months on and after countless ‘poor-us-it’s-not-fair’ plaints from the SNP, there is still no sign of the hoped-for Brexit effect. Still no indication that the infinite patience approach is paying off. Scotland’s metaphorical cheeks are raw from being ever more viciously slapped by the British political elite. And still we are assured that stoically accepting yet more abuse is the winning strategy.
Eventually, we are told, people will realise the economic cost of Brexit and make the calculation that independence is a viable alternative. But Scotland’s cause is a matter of principle, not policy. It cannot be reduced to a pound value. To make that cause about economics rather than the anti-democratic injustice of the Union is to rip the heart from it and replace it with a calculator.
Whatever their conceit of themselves, people don’t vote on the basis of facts and figures. They vote on the basis of feelings. Their decisions come down to where they sit on the spectrum of fear/hope. They can feel enthusiastic. Or they can feel angry. Or they can feel despondent. It is that feeling which informs and drives their choices and not the mass of confusing, conflicting, contradictory data that is thrown at them. The graphs and charts and spreadsheets are useful only as a way of rationalising decisions made on the basis of how they feel.
When it comes to the EU, the vast majority of people don’t feel anything very much. A relatively tiny number are fervently opposed. Almost none have strong feelings in favour. Wrapping Scotland’s cause in Brexit was a sure way of damping down the fire that was lit eight years ago, and which still blazed in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum. Unless that was the intention – which I do not suppose to be the case – then the SNP’s obsessive focus on Brexit must be considered a serious misjudgement.
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