At 11pm on 31st December 2020, the EU-UK transition period ended. A section of Twitter responded by flooding feeds with #FBPE Tweets. Some tapped these four letters on their keyboard and phones as a last act of defiance. Others declared this moment the beginning of a long-term campaign to rejoin the bloc.
To my fellow former Remain supporters: this is not our immediate fight. If you are saddened that we are no longer part of the EU’s family of nations, or are embarrassed by our supposed abandonment of our commitment to peace and internationalism, do not look over the Channel for a rematch, but north to Scotland.
In 2014, enough voters saw an independent Scotland as at best, implausible and at worst, dangerous to prevent a nationalist win. Yet in 2021, with the Prime Minister’s jingoistic bluster increasingly jarring with the more statespersonlike approach of the First Minister, the political risk here has been turned upside down. A changed political environment puts the emphasis not on the SNP to convince Scots to take the risk and vote for independence, but on Westminster leaders to pitch as to why Scotland should remain.
We live in a bizarre political reality where Boris Johnson, the self-appointed Minister of State for the Union (a ministerial position with no ministerial responsibilities), is the greatest threat to the UK union. David Cameron was criticised as having been overly confident of victory in 2016, thanks to his previous string of electoral wins in almost every year of his first term. With Boris Johnson having delivered both Brexit, a trade deal on goods and the largest Conservative parliamentary majority since 1987, this pattern of prime ministerial miscalculation looks all too familiar.
A second Scottish independence referendum is coming. The SNP are on course to top Holyrood polls in a fourth consecutive election. Like last time, Brexit will of course come into the mix. Though now, unionists will have to explain why a ‘No’ vote in 2014 didn’t keep Scotland in the EU.
Today, the field of high-profile unionist campaigners is sparse. Ruth Davidson is no longer the single established and palatable standard-bearer for Scottish conservatism and Leonard’s Labour are not even a competitive second place. Scottish Secretary Alister Jack is not yet a household name and is even predicted to lose his seat of Dumfries and Galloway, according to a December Focaldata poll. Bringing the ‘No Thanks’ band back together is not an option either. We cannot rely on the stars of previous political generations to leap back into the arena.
The task of agreeing a new settlement for the union is not limited to appeasing the SNP. Nor is the subject a ‘niche’ interest for Scottish voters. Though in 2015, Ed Miliband made efforts to broaden the debate by including the promise of a ‘Senate of the nations and regions’ in Labour’s manifesto, an opportunity to discuss the state of the union was missed. This matter has national appeal, not just nationalist appeal. Voters in northern England, Wales and the Midlands are just as anxious, frustrated and alienated by our existing distribution of power, representation and financial resources. These anxieties are in part, what led to England and Wales voting to leave the EU in the first place.
“Discussing the state of the union has national appeal, not just nationalist appeal”
In recent years, the Conservative Party has been the most willing to take up this narrative with its promise to ‘level up’ the country. Mr Johnson’s predecessor, in her first Downing Street speech, used her party’s longer name to stress its commitment to unionism. Though gimmicky and patronising, George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ initiative at least acknowledged that political and economic power is connected and can only be effectively redistributed in unison. In November 2019, I made the case for a stronger political narrative on then UK union and detailed where I thought the centre-left had gone wrong.
Conservatives have long spoken of their status as the ‘natural party of government’, self-justified by their claim to ‘put the national interest first’. Surely it is unconscionable for former Remain supporters to spend 2021 indulging themselves in false #FBPE networking and ensure the next Scottish independence referendum is a straight fight between Johnson’s Conservatives and the SNP.
So rather than reenact battles over Brexit, let’s take on a greater challenge and work to build the necessary broad coalitions needed to tackle a second Scottish independence poll. Your internationalist ideals will re-appear on the ballot, but sooner than you may expect and not in relation to our friends in Europe.