I see people are at last waking up to the constitutional implications of Brexit. Talk from Michael Gove of creating a legally defined internal market in the UK has prompted a flurry of panicky criticism from the likes of Scotland’s Constitution Secretary, Mike Russell and outraged condemnation from columnists such as Ruth Wishart. Apparently, there is a serious threat to the devolution settlement involved in the UK’s slapstick departure from the European Union. It seems the British political elite is intent on exploiting Brexit as an opportunity to undermine the Scottish Parliament. It seems that while the unquestionably and inevitably dire economic consequences of this economic vandalism were obvious to one and all, the equally certain and unavoidable constitutional implications somehow got missed. Who knew?
Well, everybody? Or at least anybody who wasn’t too distracted by the all too credible accounts of economic catastrophe to think it through. Even when the EU referendum was still no more than an ominous prospect and the term ‘Brexit’ was not yet on everybody’s lips, the fact that quitting the EU would cause constitutional as well as economic upheaval was glaringly obvious. But, as always, the spotlight fell on the latter while the former was afforded almost no attention. When I say “always” I am, of course. thinking of the 2014 referendum campaign. A constitutional issue all but totally obscured by a thick smog of economic disputation.
There are reasons for this. Whenever established power is talking about something it’s wise to ask what it is that they are avoiding talking about. And when established power is looking for something a topic that serves to obfuscate, they turn to economics. Three things make economics ideal for the purposes of generating a propaganda smoke-screen. Firstly, the sheer volume of material available. Cross the economists’ collective palm with enough silver and they will churn out an utterly bewildering mass of charts and graphs and statistics and reports and analyses and forecasts. More than enough to bury any subject that established power would prefer to keep off the agenda.
Secondly, economics is the go-to topic for scare-stories and doom-mongering. Rosy pictures are also available if required. But Jeremiads are the economist’s speciality. Bad news is headlines. Good news is ‘and finally’. And when politicians have little or nothing to offer then their only resort is to paint the alternative as worse.
Thirdly, nobody understands it. Economic arguments can be as arcane as you want. And if people begin to get a handle on the intricacies you can always introduce more. This is great if you want people to switch off or if you want to portray opponents as too stupid to grasp the ‘science’. Having made things too massively complicated for people to be able to discern the facts you’re seeking to conceal, you can then make yourself a popular hero by ‘clarifying’ and ‘simplifying’ the economics – a process which involves omitting the facts you’re trying to conceal.
So the constitutional implications of Brexit didn’t get much of a look in. Constitutional politics is dismissed as not being about real life in the real world. As if economics was! Those rights and freedoms are all very well, but will you be paying more tax? That’s the important question. Why are you fretting about democracy when people are homeless and hungry? It’s nice to have aspirations, but they just aren’t economically viable. We have to make the hard choices. There is no other way!!!
But those constitutional implications were always there. When I explained my support for Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, economics didn’t get a mention. Not that I was unaware of the economic issues. I just didn’t attach much significance to them. The economy is like the weather. It’s considerably less predictable and no more controllable. There are periods of sunshine and spells of rain. You have to get through them. That’s all.
Neither did I explain my support for Remain by great enthusiasm for the EU. I am conscious of the benefits it has brought to a Europe previous blighted by bloody and seemingly incessant conflict. I’m aware of its failings. It’s a human contrivance. I don’t expect it to be perfect. I’m content if it sort of works for the most part.
By far the biggest part of my personal argument for a Remain vote was my concern for how the established power of the British state would exploit the chance to redefine the UK for the purposes of a British Nationalist agenda. I knew for certain that they would not miss the opportunity. The UK was redefined on joining what was to become the EU. It seemed obvious that it would have to be redefined again on leaving. Having just been given a fright in the independence referendum as well as having their hive mind focused by the electoral successes of the SNP, it seemed obvious that the British establishment would be intent on doing whatever was required to preserve the Union.
And so it has transpired. It’s no surprise at all. Why would it be? We were told! Only a year ago, since discarded Scottish Secretary David “Baron Snackbeard” Mundell was banging on about “UK-wide common frameworks”. A term which at the time I warned should send a chill down the spine of anyone who placed the smallest value on Scotland’s distinctive political culture. Or, for that matter, our democracy.
If only that elephant in the room had been brilliant orange and decked with sleigh-bells and fairy-lights! Maybe more people would have noticed it.
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