And how is Brexit any different?
I voted to leave the European Union, largely on philosophical grounds. I took, and continue to take,
great issue with the way that this institution has evolved over time. I took issue with the amount of
say it had over our lives, with the way it wielded that power, and with the very notion that a political
union should ever be conflated with the progress that all of humanity has made over the past
several decades. I sometimes wonder whether, had I been Scottish, I might have voted Yes to
independence in 2014.
Indeed, it is difficult at times not to call to mind the spirit of William Wallace when I hear some of
those I know on the Leave side speaking of their great pride in their own country; their longing for an
independent policy on trade, say, or immigration; or their great desire to make their own way in the
world and control their own futures. And certainly, those are ideals and values that I respect and
But Wallace and his cause were defeated in 1298. The Scottish independence campaign was
defeated in 2014. And the spirit of those who voted, with their own brave hearts, to free ourselves
from the European Union, today stands upon the brink of a defeat snatched adroitly from the jaws
of what they had thought was victory in mid-2016. We have reached this point following a period of
negotiation – something which, of course, never came to pass following the victory of the Better
Together campaign in Scotland. But I do sometimes wonder: what if it had?
In the run-up to the vote, many voices in Better Together were becoming increasingly exasperated
with the pronouncements emanating from Yes Scotland. They would keep the pound, they said,
despite the UK Government’s insistence that it would not share its currency with a foreign power.
Indeed, they would join the EU independently, but not adopt the euro, in a move that would not be
entertained under current EU treaties. They would keep the Queen, too, wishing to retain the
sovereign of a separate state in a policy that some found bizarre, given that sovereignty was such a
powerful issue in the debate. Responding to the plaintive cries from Westminster that what they
wanted was an utter fantasy, Alex Salmond accused the British Government of an attempt to “bully
and intimidate” Scotland.
Whichever way you voted in the referendum, you must forgive me for pointing out how familiar this
all sounds, when we consider both the tone and the many twists and turns of the Brexit negotiations
since mid-2017. Britain was told very firmly by the EU that it could not “cherry-pick” those aspects
of membership that it preferred, while seamlessly excusing itself from those it did not. Cakes, it was
repeatedly emphasised, were not to be both had and eaten. European leaders made much display
of their “sadness” at Britain’s departure – much as I imagine the remainder of the UK would have in
respect of Scotland – but all (eventually) hardened their positions behind the European
Commission’s red lines.
Had the SNP’s call for independence been answered by the Scottish people in 2014, by all accounts
there would have been negotiations. Mr Salmond et al would surely have come down to
Westminster, flushed with their success, and laid out their stall. He had already said during the
campaign, for example, that a formal currency union would be “overwhelmingly in the rest of the
UK’s economic interests” (sound familiar?), and in representing a Government that actually believed
in what it was doing (not so familiar!), he would have made his case. At this point, the comparison
does not look too easy for even the most hard-line Leavers to fail to acknowledge…
Nevertheless, while I do think we would have stuck to many if not all of the red lines that Better
Together had outlined during the campaign, I do not imagine for one moment that Britain’s goodwill
towards Scotland would have fallen away in the face of an independence vote. Many would have
thought they were making a seismic mistake, but I do not believe we would have viewed the vote as
a “slap in the face”. Even in their departure, the Scots would have remained, fundamentally, our
brethren. Even in our sadness, and while negotiating hard to safeguard our own interests, we would
never have specifically sought to undermine theirs as they moved forward. And never, ever, would
any British Government – of any colour, of any form – have turned to the Scottish leaders and told
them that their newfound independence “cannot be a success”.
And therein lies the key difference between these two great affairs: the one that was not to be, and
the one that, if some have their way, may yet not be either. To seek to draw a comparison between
the two may be very tempting in some quarters, but I would not find it to be valid for one simple
reason: goodwill. The goodwill that we have tried to show the EU, and that I firmly believe we
would have shown to Scotland in the reverse scenario, has been rejected and not reciprocated. Our
farewell to Scotland would have been undoubtedly forlorn, but never callous, and the goodwill that
once united us as one nation would have continued to flow between us as two. I sincerely believe
that both Remainers and Leavers would have wanted precisely this with the EU in any event; sadly, it
seems that neither side is likely to see it.
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