I write this barely 60 hours after finding out that the people of the UK had voted to leave the European Union – and in truth I’m still trying to get my head around it.
Shock was the first feeling. Sure, I knew that a leave vote was always on the cards, but somehow I never really believed it could happen. I thought in the final stages that enough had been done to save the day; that people would reject the narrow minded intolerance on which this most reactionary of campaigns was based. But it turned out that I was living in a Caledonian bubble and that England, outside of its metropolis, is indeed another country.
Shock gave way to anger. This has been the most dishonest political campaign I’ve ever seen, with mendacity and hypocrisy its hallmarks. We were expected to believe that the Hoover manufacturer James Dyson cared about EU migrants driving down wage levels. This from the man who moved production to Malaysia rather than pay the minimum wage in Britain. And we were expected to believe that former Tory cabinet ministers like John Redwood wanted to spend billions more on the NHS. This from a man who has made a career of attacking the principle of free public health care. Lies and damned lies managed to fool most of the people some of the time. Within hours of the result the Brexiteers were queuing up to renege on the promises they made.
But above all else, in the dark heart of provincial England, this was a referendum on immigration. Resentment which has been festering unchallenged for decades was allowed to blossom into the most ugly of manifestations. Prejudice fed by ignorance evolved into hatred. Take control they said. We want our country back they said. They might as well have said England for the English. Johnson and Gove went through the pretence of distancing themselves from Farage’s breaking point poster, but they knew full well it was doing their job for them without them having to get their hands dirty. It wasn’t a dog whistle but a megaphone ensuring that while not every Brexiteer was racist, every racist was a Brexiteer.
There will be terrible consequences. There are now large parts of England where the majority population believe all their ills are the fault of people who have moved there in recent years, and where those incomers must be feeling unwelcome and vulnerable. And when yesterday we saw people with banners saying “repatriation now” somehow I don’t think it’s just Polish people they have in their sights. Shame on the ruling class toffs who nurtured this anger for their own political ends; who turned people with very little against others with nothing. People who pretended that the housing shortage is the fault of those arriving from abroad rather than successive UK governments which for 40 years have built fewer houses than the population needed.
People who came here to work hard and better themselves have been scapegoated and vilified. As they maintain our vital public services and pay their taxes their contribution has been belittled and ignored. That this was allowed to happen on such a mass scale is depressing. But it didn’t happen overnight. These views have been taking root for decades as the left of centre parties in Britain sounded a retreat against prejudice and intolerance and allowed UKIP and their ilk to get a grip on decent working class communities.
And this is why I was so annoyed by those on the left who argued to vote leave. Sure, they voiced many important criticisms of how the EU currently operates, but this was a reason to work with others across a continent for reform, not a reason to leave. Unwittingly they gave a veneer of political breadth to this reactionary right wing campaign. The choice was not between the EU as it stands and some international workers solidarity. It was a choice between having an imperfect association of European nations which could offer some protection for people and the planet in the face of globalisation of capital – or none at all.
And so the people of England, duped and misled, have made their choice. Thankfully the people of Scotland have chosen differently. I had feared that perhaps many Scottish voters would not turn out to vote. For many this felt like someone else’s referendum and the campaign on the ground hardly caught the imagination on either side. But vote they did and in greater numbers than in the Scottish Parliament election the month before. And Scottish voters made their view clear in every single area of the country and across every age and class group.
As Scottish politicians we have a duty to represent the views of those who elected us. That means that we need to aim to keep Scotland in the EU. People in Scotland voted two years ago to stay in the UK, and now they have voted by a bigger majority to stay in the EU. As things stand they cannot do both. So we need to find a way to make this happen. If there is the political will in London and Brussels I believe that rules can be changed and this might be possible. We are in completely uncharted territory. The UK is itself a political union between four different countries. There’s never been a case of an EU state wanting to secede, never mind a state where one of its component units so clearly wants to stay.
How this unfolds depends in large part by who runs the Brexit from now on. If the Tory right succeed in a coup, the political will to find a different solution for Scotland may well not be there. And indeed our pleas may be rejected by Brussels too. In those circumstances it will become apparent that the only way in which Scotland has the option of being a member of the European Union is to become an independent country. We need to prepare for that possibility which is why an independence referendum is very much back on the table.
Two million people voted no in 2014. Amongst them will be people who would never, under any circumstances, consider voting for an independent Scotland. They will be given their voice by the Scottish Tories – but they are a minority. For the greater number their decision was a balanced choice as they weighed up the pros and cons. And for many no voters a huge pro was keeping their European passport. The world of 2014 changed last Thursday – the UK no longer means you can bring your kids up as European citizens. And in the same way you can ask for your money back if something turns out not to work as promised, so many people may ask for their vote back as the deal has changed.
I think that many no voters will come to this realisation by themselves but we must be careful to give them the time and space to do so. This is not a time for “I told you so”. We need to nurture a new inclusive Yes campaign where old opponents will be new allies. Next time round it could be the Tories against the rest of Scotland.
If this is how it pans out then the offer will need to be revised and updated too. Given that the Brexiteers have just won a referendum without any plan at all, there will be an argument for fewer details rather than more. But we can do better than emulate the political dishonesty of others. Our independence plan will need a lot of thought and require the application of the best brains in our country – not least as we chart how our relationship with England might work if Scotland was in the EU and they were not.
I wrote three weeks ago that after an intense period of electoral activity our party should aim to take stock, build on the recent electoral success and the surge in membership and plan strategically for the future. But with a referendum campaign around the corner that might well turn out to be wishful thinking. The game has changed and we need to play the cards we’ve been dealt. There’s much to do and not a lot of time to do it. Strap yourselves in, we’re about to go up a gear.