Take note Mrs May – no clear Brexit aim and Tory ul­tras will fuel bid to break up UK

The Scotsman - - Perspective - Brian Wil­son

Iflew this week from St Peters­burg to Helsinki or, to put it an­other way, a quick leap from out­side to in­side the Euro­pean Union. A planeload of Chi­nese tourists had landed just be­fore us.

There was an im­mi­gra­tion chan­nel for EU cit­i­zens, I in­serted my pass­port, looked at the cam­era and was in Fin­land within sec­onds. Af­ter Brexit, would I and – more im­por­tantly – those who come af­ter me take our places be­hind 200 Chi­nese tourists? That ques­tion re­mains unan­swered.

Once through im­mi­gra­tion, my phone was de­liv­er­ing e-mails and I was free from fear of puni­tive roam­ing charges. Will I be able to do so af­ter Brexit? A re­cent re­port es­ti­mated the cost of a re­turn to roam­ing charges, which the mo­bile com­pa­nies fought so hard against the EU to main­tain, would be higher even than be­fore.

For po­lit­i­cal grandees, this is the small change of diplo­macy, barely worth a men­tion. They should be care­ful. It is the com­plete lack of re­gard for ques­tions which di­rectly af­fect peo­ple’s lives that is bring­ing gov­ern­ment into con­tempt and stretch­ing the pa­tience of those who were per­fectly pre­pared to give Brexit a chance.

Al­ready, I hear the cry of “scare­mon­ger­ing” and it may still be that the fi­nal out­come will ad­dress such is­sues in a sen­si­ble and sat­is­fac­tory man­ner. Un­til now, that has been my own work­ing as­sump­tion but next week will mark the sec­ond an­niver­sary of the EU ref­er­en­dum and the pic­ture is still no clearer.

It is now bor­der­ing on scan­dalous that we are not one step closer to hav­ing a de­fin­i­tive an­swer to even the most ba­sic ques­tions be­cause we are not one step closer to know­ing the fun­da­men­tals of the deal on which the UK’S with­drawal will be based.

That scan­dal in­ten­si­fies when you pin down the sin­gle rea­son for this as­ton­ish­ing lack of clar­ity. It is the ex­is­tence of ir­rec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ences within the Con­ser­va­tive Party which the Prime Min­is­ter has felt un­able to ad­dress, cre­at­ing a cli­mate of ut­ter un­cer­tainty which goes far be­yond pass­ports and mo­bile phones. This week, Paul Drech­sler, pres­i­dent of the CBI, blamed the Brexit im­passe on “a tidal wave of ide­ol­ogy”; warned that large sec­tions of Bri­tish in­dus­try face “ex­tinc­tion” with­out a cus­toms union and found “zero ev­i­dence” that other trade deals would com­pen­sate for that loss.

He will be dis­par­aged as some in­con­solable Re­mainer with an axe to grind. But it is those who de­cry him who oc­cupy a po­si­tion of power with­out re­spon­si­bil­ity – the power to in­flict the dam­age which Mr Drech­sler warns against with­out re­spon­si­bil­ity for ad­vanc­ing a vi­able al­ter­na­tive which goes be­yond Boris John­son’s ar­ro­gant vacuities.

You might ex­pect the vicar’s daugh­ter to be fa­mil­iar with Matthew 6, verse 24, which is the one about no man be­ing able to serve two masters. At some point, she must take it as her text be­cause the im­pli­ca­tions of ig­nor­ing it are so ex­treme.

Mrs May is deal­ing with a hard core of fun­da­men­tal­ists who sim­ply don’t care about con­se­quences. This was re­flected in the sup­pos­edly “leaked” record­ing of John­son sneer­ing at the Ir­ish bor­der is­sue as “pure mil­len­nium bug stuff ” – an imag­ined in­con­ve­nience hardly worth dis­cussing.

A man who can talk like that about a com­plex mat­ter which could eas­ily tip over into life and death is un­likely to give a toss for pass­ports and mo­bile phones, or in­deed jobs and busi­nesses. That is not the world in which the Brexit ul­tras live and Mrs May has to con­front that level of dogma or be con­sumed by it – as John Ma­jor was.

Even giv­ing Par­lia­ment the power to block a bad deal re­mains shrouded in cal­cu­lated am­bi­gu­ity. Its im­me­di­ate ef­fect is to of­fer cover for many more months of Tory in-fight­ing. The far bet­ter so­lu­tion would lie in a be­lated dec­la­ra­tion of clear-cut ob­jec­tives which re­spect the Brexit vote while leav­ing us as close as pos­si­ble to the ex­ist­ing re­la­tion­ship.

That so­lu­tion comes clos­est to a na­tional con­sen­sus and those who, on either ex­treme, re­ject it should be left to con­tem­plate their op­tions. It is prob­a­bly what has been go­ing on be­hind the scenes all along but it can­not be done by stealth. There has to be some cer­tainty and the an­niver­sary of the ref­er­en­dum would – af­ter two wasted years – be a suit­able date on which to pro­vide it.

What of the Scot­tish sub-plot? While ev­ery part of the UK has an equal right to de­mand an­swers and ev­i­dence of progress on mat­ters of sub­stance, we – as ever – are con­sumed by the fix­a­tion on process and griev­ance pe­cu­liar to our­selves. Whether there had been a House of Com­mons de­bate for ten min­utes or ten weeks, the out­come would have been the same.

What­ever the other mer­its or de­mer­its of Brexit, the cer­tainty is that it will re­sult in more rather than fewer pow­ers com­ing to Ed­in­burgh. There is no “power grab”; only an in­evitable di­a­logue over mech­a­nisms for re­turn­ing pow­ers from Brus­sels – pow­ers which were trans­ferred at a time when de­vo­lu­tion did not ex­ist.

Not one Scot in a hun­dred could tell you what points of sub­stance are at stake in this sup­posed con­sti­tu­tional out­rage. Faced with the same chal­lenges, Welsh min­is­ters de­fended Welsh in­ter­ests and reached a set­tle­ment. Scot­tish min­is­ters had ab­so­lutely no in­ter­est in any such out­come for the sim­ple rea­son that their ob­jec­tive is re­ally not about Brexit at all. So we had the rit­ual walk-out over the vi­tal is­sue of whether a vote on an ar­cane pro­ce­dural point should be taken at 12.20 p.m. or 1 p.m. The crib sheet for Na­tion­al­ist MPS left be­hind even of­fered stage di­rec­tions to ex­press “out­rage/dis­ap­point­ment” which one might have thought they could be re­lied upon to man­u­fac­ture with­out hav­ing it writ­ten down.

None­the­less, Theresa May should take note. Fail­ure to pro­mote a sen­si­ble out­come that the great ma­jor­ity of us could live with is cre­at­ing a plat­form for those whose de­struc­tive tar­get is not the EU – but the United King­dom. An­other rea­son to re­mem­ber Matthew 6, v24.


0 PRO-EU pro­test­ers at West­min­ster this week – two years af­ter the vote the pic­ture is still no clearer

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