IN HIS WEEKLY column in the The Times (£), Hugo Rifkind — a writer with whom I frequently disagree — nails perfectly the contradictions at the heart, or maybe the soul, of the Brexit movement.
As his opening gambit he argues that Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is busily urging everyone to vote Remain on June 23 while in reality hoping that a majority will vote Leave, thereby giving the Scots, who she fervently believes (and probably correctly) will vote Remain, the perfect opportunity to demand another referendum on Scottish independence.
Brexit, he says, would in a nutshell,
… recast(s) the question of “should Scotland leave the UK?” as “should Scotland stay in the EU?” and that is a much easier sell.
It is, therefore in Scotland’s interest for a Leave vote to triumph but that in itself raises certain problems as far as campaigning goes. You cannot reasonably campaign for a Leave vote as a ploy to stay in.
That’s not politics. That’s a con trick you do on a pavement with a trio of cups.
Quite so. But Rifkind then comes to the serious meat of his argument.
In playing with Brexit, British unionists play with fire. They do this because many of them are not truly British unionists at all. Rather, they are English nationalists, who want to maintain a union with Scotland in much the same way that Russian nationalists bemoan the end of the Soviet Union. If you think that sounds like hyperbole, ask yourself why there is so much convergence between Brexiteers and those who campaign most vociferously for an English parliament, or English votes for English laws.
To be honest, he and I part company on that last aspect of his case because it seems to me eminently logical that if you devolve powers over health and education (to name but two) then that devolution must be complete, to wit that if these are a matter for the regions then then cease to be a matter for central government and the national parliament should cease to have any say in the matter. You can be a Remainer and still believe in a proper devolution.
But he then goes on:
They may speak of “British sovereignty”, but what they mean is “English sovereignty”. They just don’t always recognise the difference.
As any Scotsman or Welshman will tell you!
And at that point he strips bare the facade behind which the Leavers attempt to hide and exposes them for the world to see as the Little Englanders they are.
I was roundly condemned in the language now common amongst those who post in comment columns (we really are going to have invent a name for these people!) for applying just that description but consider this remark by Iain Duncan Smith in reply to a question by Andrew Marr:
What if Scotland votes to remain and we remain, and England votes to come out? Does that mean England has to have a referendum to leave the Union? It’s an absurd concept!
Oh, really? How about this scenario: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland vote by a considerable majority to Remain; England votes by a narrow majority to Leave, a narrow enough majority so that the overall UK vote is in favour of staying in.
Isn’t an English referendum just what the headbanging tendency will be screaming for? Did IDS never read any of the comments in the English tabloid press (and not just the tabloids!) in the six months prior to the Scottish referendum? How many of us would like £1 for every time we read ‘let them go’, ‘good riddance’, ‘why can’t we have a voice as well ‘cos we’d soon get shot of them’? And other less savoury opinions.
Rifkind also makes the point that the United Kingdom is also a Union, something that the Scots and the Welsh are well aware of but which the English all too often appear to forget. And if it comes to the point where Scotland and Wales (I think Northern Ireland is always likely to be a special case for all sorts of reasons) wish to go their own way and England has lost the moral authority to prevent the break-up of that Union what then?
If the rest of the world (including the EU) is not likely to bend over backwards to do favours to the UK once it leaves the EU how much less likely is it to look kindly on England alone? The smaller nations may well find life initially difficult outside the EU unless the other members are prepared to find some fast-track system which permits England to leave while the rest stay but if countries like Cyprus and Malta can survive and (hopefully) thrive inside the EU then there is little doubt that Scotland Wales could do the same.
How England alone and isolated would fare is another matter.