THIS then is what the afterlife of dead things looks like.
Many obituaries have been hastily written over the last couple of years but one of them is the mirage of Brexit itself. When did Brextinction occur? On June 24, 2016. The project was driven by decades of camped-up mendacity about the tyranny of the EU, and sold in the referendum as a fantasy of national liberation.
It simply could not survive contact with reality. It died the moment it became real. Even if Theresa May were a political genius – and let us concede that she is not – Brexit was always going to come down to a choice between two evils: the heroic but catastrophic failure of crashing out, or the unheroic but less damaging failure of swapping first-class for second-class EU membership. These are the real afterlives of a departed reverie.
If the choice between shooting oneself in the head or in the foot is the answer to Britain’s long-term problems, then we can sure that the wrong question is being asked.
Over the past three years it has become ever clearer that Brexit is not about its ostensible subject: Britain’s relationship with the EU. The very word Brexit contains a literally unspoken truth. It does not include or even allude to Europe.
It is British exit that is the point, not what it is exiting from. The tautologous slogan “Leave Means Leave” is similarly (if unintentionally) honest: the meaning is in the leaving, not in what is being left or how.
Paradoxically, this drama of departure has really served only to displace a crisis of belonging. Brexit plays out a conflict between Them and Us, but it is surely obvious after this week that the problem is not with Them on the continent.
Firstly, it is with the British Us, the unravelling of an imagined community and secondly, within that and claiming ownership rights is an English Us – with severe consequences for England, the rest of the UK and Ireland. The visible collapse of the Westminster polity played out week-in and week-out over recent years may be a result of Brexit, but Brexit itself is the result of the invisible subsidence of the political order over decades.
The Scottish Question, Self-Determination and National Freedom
SCOTLAND as an increasingly self-governing nation has been a leading force in attempting to remake the idea of Britain, and increasingly, in surveying the wreckage looking for new arrangements.
The British elites have had all sorts of last notices and warnings of the need to change their ways, the biggest of which was the 2014 independence referendum.
A popular and civic engagement about what sort of country Scotland aspired to be and where it saw its collective future produced a re-energised public sphere: one beyond even the comprehension of the SNP to marshal and understand.
It isn’t very surprising that this northern popular uprising proved beyond the grasp of the British Government to recognise they were in “last saloon” territory.
So it has proven, with Cameron and the entire Westminster political tribe considering Scotland a closed discussion. Have Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn one original insight or suggestion with regard to Scotland post-2014 and even more post-Brexit? To ask the question is to underline the paucity of their thinking.
An independent Scotland would face many of the same limits on its freedom of action as it does now. The power of oligarchies and markets and inequalities to restrict democratic choice would not disappear.
Freedom does not arrive just because you declare it. And if it ever does arrive, it is complicated, constrained and contested. Scots, coming late to the business of national independence, also come to it with few illusions.
Too much has happened to too many dreams of national liberation for any sensible citizen to believe in a great moment of transformation after which everything will be simpler, purer, better.
But national freedom isn’t meaningless either. Room to manoeuvre can be expanded. Democratic spaces can be opened up. The terms of the struggle between public and private interests can be renegotiated. Citizens can become more confident of their power to insist on decency and dignity. A place can be defined as a society and a culture as well as an economy. And the greater the constraints, and the more naked the power of unaccountable elites, the more vital it is that whatever collective freedom remains is grasped.
Like everything else, though, even this qualified freedom has a price. Some are literal – the financial losses that have to be set against financial gains. But there’s another kind of reckoning to be done, one that is more abstract but perhaps in the long term more important.
National freedom isn’t another word for nothing left to lose. It is another word for no one left to blame – that is, except yourself. If you make your own choices, you become responsible for their consequences.
This is, especially for small nations which have long been part of a larger imperial whole, a severe loss. There is a deep and abiding satisfaction in imagining how wonderful you would be if only those foreign bastards would let you. Being free means having to live with the dawning realisation that you might not be so wonderful after all.
Freedom in this sense is not an illusion – it is an act of deliberate disillusion. What has to be broken free of is not just the big bad Them. It is also the warm, fuzzy Us of the nationalist imagination – the Us that is nicer, holier, more caring.
Us and Them politics even has its limits in progressive Scotland. What a free country quickly discovers is that the better Us of its imagination is not already there, fully formed, just waiting to blossom in the sun of liberation. It has to be created and to do so you have to genuinely decide that you want it.
W. B. Yeats described this kind of freedom well in the early years of the Irish Free State in the mid-1920s. He and his artistic collaborators were under attack for daring to put on stage ugly images of an Irish reality. Yeats drew attention to a crucial distinction between national pride and national vanity: “The moment a nation reaches intellectual maturity, it becomes exceedingly proud and ceases to be vain and when it becomes exceedingly proud it does not disguise its faults” (quoted in Foster, 2003: 309).
What Yeats meant is that before a nation becomes free, it has to wallow in national vanity, creating an idealised picture of a special place and of a people with a unique destiny. When it acquires freedom, it has to replace this vanity with a national pride that consists in having the self-confidence to tell the truth about yourself. Nationalism is a form of myth-making; independence demands a lot of myth-breaking. It has to replace the distorting mirror of fantasy with the sharp reflection of a real self.
This kind of national pride is hard work. You have to decide what are the things your nation should be proud of and how it is going to achieve them in reality.
In Scotland’s case, this might mean moving away from claiming a special culture of egalitarianism and towards an honest appraisal of the massive structural inequalities that call that comforting self-image into question.
It might mean, as Gerry Hassan argued so cogently in his book Caledonian Dreaming, abandoning the notion of Scotland as a wonderfully democratic society and getting to grips with the realities of social division and exclusion.
Without this hard work though, political independence lacks its necessary foundation of psychological independence. The country remains in thrall to a mythic version of itself.
It is much easier to send an external government packing than it is to cut yourself off from the cosy and comforting self-image that dependent cultures create for themselves. But when you’re on your own, those self-images cease to be warm and fuzzy, and turn toxic.
This is largely what happened to Ireland. It gradually disengaged from London rule. But it has struggled to disengage from the exaggerated notions of Irish specialness that were built up through that conflict. National vanity continued to hold sway: Ireland didn’t have to deal with its deeply problematic realities because it was uniquely blessed. It was holier, happier, more cultured, more Gaelic, more spiritual, than anywhere else.
In more recent times, this archaic sense of a unique destiny was replaced with another set of equally delusional exaggerations: Ireland as the richest, most successful, most globalised economy in the world, where banks would grow forever and property bubbles inflate to infinity. These delusions can be seen as compensation for centuries of repression, but they have made it hard for Ireland to deal with its own, humdrum, non-exceptional realities in everything from poverty and mass emigration to the victimisation of children and women.
Scotland’s situation at the point of potential independence is infinitely better than Ireland’s was in the 1920s. It does not risk the violence that stained Ireland’s sense of its better self. Whatever happens, Scotland will not suffer the consequences of partition which, in Ireland’s case, meant that the ideals of a pluralist democracy were lost in the creation of two mutually exclusive sectarian states. And Scotland has, as Ireland did not have at independence, the context of an EU which, for all its faults, gives small nations a set of international institutions within which they can make themselves heard and which will provide a special welcome to Scotland after the trials of Brexit.
These advantages give Scottish independence, by historical standards, a remarkably fair wind. If it happens, it will also create its own energy of euphoria. But fair winds and moments of ecstasy do not last very long in a harsh environment of long-term global instabilities.
Nationalism is a rocket fuel that can get you out of the orbit of an old order but burns quickly and leaves you dependent on much more complex and subtle systems of guidance to get you through the lonely expanses of historic space.
Nationalism on its own is never enough. Look at Ireland. Look at anywhere in the world. It does not matter how “civic” and inclusive your nationalism is, and this is the prevailing story of contemporary Scottish nationalism – it is still a nationalism – it can only take you so far.
Those guidance systems will have to be calibrated to Scotland as it is and the world as it is, not to any nostalgic belief that the conditions of an idealised older Britain can simply be recreated in 21st-century circumstances.
For an outsider like me, this is what is actually most interesting about the possibility of Scottish independence. It is not that Scotland might become a new state, but that it might become a new kind of state. For independence to be meaningful, Scotland would have to start with an acknowledgement that many of the things to which it appeals – the power of government, the legitimacy of democratic institutions, the equality of citizens – are in crisis. They cannot be assumed, they have to be radically reinvented.
After Brexit: New Beginnings?
HOW then is it possible to escape the different interpretations of Us and Them as the UK stutters and staggers to some kind of endpoint?
The political mindset which has captured England as Britain did not arrive overnight, but has deep roots and traditions, and will not be easily defeated. Problematic, conservative forces are not just found in the Brexiteer outliers and Theresa May’s limited leadership, but in those claiming otherwise: the self-declared radicals of the Corbynista project and new found centrist evangelicals in search of a new party and voice, both of whom seek a future Britain in different and unattainable versions of the past.
Scotland is already half-way out of the ruined building; but how you conduct yourself in the face of provocation and England’s journey into self-delusion has implications for the future you embrace and make.
A quiet transformation of a country, its politics and sense of itself has gathered force over the previous twenty years. It may now require a different set of skills in the context of Brexit Britain and its fantasies, but within the chaos and tumult, Scotland can take solace in that it has friends in many places, in Ireland, the EU and across the world, and draw from them to chart a new course. We have to aspire to more than reducing civic life to Us versus Them. Scotland has that chance. Welcome to taking charge of your own future.