27 March 2019

Brexit, Scottish independence and the dangers of interminable debates


Although I’m a big fan of J.K. Rowling, I discovered in 2016 that it is not always a pleasure to be quote-tweeted by her.

Three days before polling day in the EU referendum, I posted a Tweet that read: “Outside the political classes, there will be very few Remain votes cast with enthusiasm on Thursday.” Now, I accept that this was (a) untrue (more or less) and (b) an attempt at trolling. It was when I started receiving hundreds of indignant and hostile responses that I realised the Harry Potter author had re-posted my Tweet with a comment to the effect that she and many other Remain supporters would be every bit as enthusiastic about their vote as any Leaver would be.

My ill-fated attempt at winding up the opposition was, however, based on what I thought at the time was a reasonable and logical basis, specifically that our membership of EU institutions (rather than Europe itself) was a rather clinical, transaction-based relationship.

It was, in my opinion, easy to see why opponents of EU membership got out of bed in the morning, even if you disagreed with them: the messages about sovereignty, patriotism and territorial integrity were surely more fertile territory for electoral success than messages about the Common Agricultural Policy and Beethoven’s Ninth. At the start of the campaign I had been given access to polling data that revealed that even with a ten-point deficit on the eve of polling, Leave could expect to win if turnout fell low enough. That was the grim reality of voter motivation in June 2016.

And, assuming that most Remain voters’ enthusiasm for the EU project was a case of preference rather than conviction, a Leave victory would be quickly accepted and acted upon by our political leaders.

Three years later, it can hardly be denied that greater numbers of people on both sides of the EU divide feel more strongly about Brexit than any other political issue. I have friends who have genuinely stopped speaking to me because of my support for the Leave campaign. I know others who have been brought to the verge of tears by the thought of Britain leaving the EU. Tears! I would never have imagined it.

And that’s before all the horrible, aggressive behaviour by Leave and Remain supporters outside the Commons, the hate tweets and emails being sent to MPs on both sides of the divide, the descent of public discourse into the black pit of hatred and resentment.

Over the European Union.

It still mystifies me. Until, that is, I rewind a few years to the Scottish independence referendum. Not to the campaign itself, but to the months and years before the campaign began. In modern political times, there had always been a solid but small minority of opinion in favour of independence. That small percentage grew larger following devolution in 1999, but no poll had ever suggested that the Union was in serious danger.

More to the point, independence was rarely talked about in pubs and even homes (unless you were a true believer and an SNP member with a Lion Rampant duvet cover). Polls asking voters for their policy preferences put the constitution in the bottom half of the list, well below the health service, education, tax and transport. It was just never much of a priority.

And then David Cameron acceded to Alex Salmond’s demand that, following the SNP’s landslide victory at the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, a referendum on independence should be held. There are many lessons for the Unionist community that arise from the way that referendum was handled, but aside from the main one (don’t hold referendums at all) the biggest mistake was in allowing Salmond a three-year campaigning period.

Had Cameron insisted that polling day had to be within a year of the SNP’s Holyrood victory – that is, by summer 2012 – not only would the No campaign have won by a much greater and more comfortable margin than it actually did in 2014, but the consequent SNP landslide that destroyed Scottish Labour as an electoral force would almost certainly have been avoided.

The reason those two things happened was a simple matter of time. After nearly three years of headlines about the campaign, of debates and speeches from the various camps, of door-to-door campaigning more intense than anything that had been seen before, voters were slowly persuaded of the importance of this constitutional issue. Instead of independence being relegated to the lower half of that league table of issues, it gradually made its way, from January 2012 to September 2014, to the very top of the league.

By polling day, Yes voters were still outnumbered by No voters. But everyone had become convinced that this was an issue that put every other issue in the shade. It was being debated in homes, in offices, in the street, in the pub. And after such a long campaign period, people were comfortable enough with the terms of the debate to become not just supporters of one side or thee other, but devotees.

So when Yes lost, those Yes voters didn’t return to business as usual. This was a cause now, not just an option on the ballot paper. And they wanted revenge on those who didn’t support that cause. Which is why all but three of Scotland’s constituencies returned SNP MPs eight months later.

After that experience, I was more confident than most that the Leave campaign would win whenever David Cameron called his much-promised EU referendum. Unlike in Scotland, where, before the independence campaign, there had never been anything approaching a majority for separatism, at a UK level there had been numerous polls suggesting majorities for life outside the EU – some with very large leads.

And supporters of our EU membership faced another challenge. To opponents of Scottish independence, the Union is more than just a transactional arrangement, it’s more than a system for subsidising Scots with England’s taxes: it’s about a shared history, a shared language, a shared culture. That was always going to be a problem for Remain supporters: how do you encourage an emotional attachment to institutions as large and faceless as the EU Commission?

And yet that’s what has happened. Look at the faces, look at the anger and the sadness of Remain supporters on Saturday’s march in London. These were people who feel very, very strongly opposed to Brexit, arguably just as strongly as the most committed EU-sceptic. There can be no doubt that Britain is divided in a more dangerous – and possibly irreparable – way than in June 2016.

And, as in Scotland, it’s all about time.

If it had been possible to trigger Article 50 on the morning after June 23, 2016, and leave the EU the following week, there is little doubt that we would today be more united in a common endeavour to make post-EU Britain work. Not everyone would be happy about it – far from it – but we would have knuckled down. Perhaps Sunday dinners would once again be an opportunity to discuss football results and house prices.

Delay was inevitable, of course. Few doubted that the two-year period mandated by the EU treaties would be needed to negotiate a departure deal. And, if anything, the nine months delay between the referendum and Parliament agreeing to trigger Article 50 was too short. But those searching for the reasons as to why a normally sensible and moderate electorate, an electorate that could barely be bothered to turn out for European Parliament elections, has now descended into a vitriolic and obsessive focus on EU matters, should look no further than this. The longer any subject, however dry, boring and seemingly irrelevant, is allowed to dominate the news headlines and public life, the more likely are the people to get on board and join that conversation.

That isn’t an entirely unhealthy development, democratically speaking. Perhaps it’s simply inevitable that fundamental constitutional change will consume ordinary citizens as well as their political leaders.

None of this is to offer solutions or to suggest that the febrile atmosphere in the UK today could have been avoided. The only way that could have happened would have been if Remain had won: the campaign had only lasted a few short months; any divisions that had arisen that quickly might just as quickly have been healed, even if some Leave campaigners would have been inevitably unreconciled to the result.

Similarly, Scotland, even though it rejected change, was damaged in the long term by an unnecessarily extended campaign, damage that could have been avoided if only Cameron had insisted on a short campaign ending in 2012. Now, the UK faces the same fate because polling day in the EU referendum turned out to be no more than a punctuation mark in a long, interminable political debate.

These are the consequences to constitutional debates. And they only prove that for any moderate opinion to flourish into a life-or-death conviction, the only thing that is required is the ticking of the clock.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.