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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

'Cool Your Wellies' - What next after Brexit vote?

My old Gran used say, when I was overreacting to some childhood event, 'cool your wellies'. This sounds like good advice post-Brexit, when some calm thinking is required in what is an interesting, but also a very dangerous political and economic environment.

Let's start with some reflections on the campaign. Possibly the low point for me personally, was the Edinburgh taxi driver telling me he was voting leave because the EU was demanding straight bananas. After so many similar doorstep conversations over the years, are we, as Anthony Painter puts it, "replacing scrutiny and scepticism with a trust in our own instinct and cynicism". There is also the question of how referenda are managed and the rules. There is an interesting analysis of this by Harvard Professor Kenneth Rogoff - if a bit late!

I also fear that we have underestimated the post-crash triumph of emoji politics over expert analysis. When the system gets just seconds from stopping people accessing their bank accounts from ATMs, their confidence in experts disappears. The bankers have carried on as if the crash never happened, but the public hasn't forgotten.

On the economy v immigration strategies, I fear the concerns I outlined in my referendum blog proved sadly correct. Margaret Cuthbert has put the same point very well:
"But Cameron and his Cabinet had not properly registered that the rich man at his table has to provide properly for that group of society that they would not consider inviting to their dinner parties. One cannot hollow out the economic life of huge parts of the country, fail to provide a secure worthwhile future, reduce social support, and think they will support you."

Reading the insiders account of the Remain campaign, I was astonished that Cameron really believed that Jeremy Corbyn would campaign jointly with him. From personal discussions, I know Jeremy understands the lessons of Better Together, and in particular, the Evel announcement. Cameron was not a partner to be trusted in a campaign.

Jeremy Corbyn's views on Europe are at lot closer to the typical Labour voter and activist than many Labour MPs. Switching to a happy clappy line would have had no credibility and could undermine his own greatest strength, which is being direct with people. As big a proportion of Labour voters voted Remain as SNP members (almost two-thirds) - it was Cameron who failed to deliver the Tory vote.

If ever there was a group who need to heed my Gran's advice, it is Labour MPs. The Tories are in disarray, likely to be led by Brexiteers, who didn't think they would win and have no plan to deliver on their campaign promises. What a great time to tear the Labour Party apart with the latest opportunist attempt to re-run the leadership ballot. A new leader isn't going to magically resolve the different cultures in the Labour voting coalition, and Labour members are unlikely to support  Tristram Hunt's view that Labour should be run by the very 1% that got us into this mess!

Of far greater concern than these political manoeuvrings is what comes next.

The markets may well stabilise in the short term as they bounce back from the shock of their own misjudgement. However, the medium and longer term questions need to be answered. The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS) has helpfully set out some of the questions that the UK government now needs to address as a matter of urgency. These include what immediate measures it will take to minimise the impact of Brexit on the economy, jobs and efforts to restore the public finances. We would do well to 'cool our wellies' before getting some answers to these questions.

In the last crisis, the Tories took the opportunity to pursue their ideology of shrinking the state. We  can now expect them to use this crisis to extend austerity even further. The IFS has predicted two years, but it could be longer and it is the most vulnerable who will suffer the most. With a Johnson/Gove government, their economic solution to the mess they got us into, is an off shore, Neo-Liberal, tax haven Britain that seeks to drag the rest of Europe into race to the bottom. Those who understandably felt they had little to lose through Brexit, may discover the long term social and financial cost is huge. 

Finally, there is Scotland's constitutional question. Predictably, Nationalists have sized on Brexit as trigger for Indyref2, while Unionists regard it as a cynical excuse to get around the 'once in a generation' commitment. For those of us without an ideological commitment to either side, there can be little doubt that the different EU vote in Scotland reflects wider differences of approach that may be irreconcilable in the UK as it is presently constituted. 

As John Curtis has highlighted, polling during the referendum campaign suggested there might be a four or five point swing in favour of independence should the UK vote for Brexit. While that would put support for independence above 50%, it's still short of the consistent 60% figure SNP strategists will be looking for. They are very aware that the EU may not be on the top of voters priorities, when they are reminded of the economic pain that a post-oil price crash independent Scotland would face on its own. 

North Sea oil revenues have fallen to zero, leaving a huge public spending gap that could be three times greater than the austerity cuts to come. Retaining sterling within the EU is hardly practical now, which means joining the euro or creating a new and untested Scottish currency. 

Getting a competent Bill through the Scottish Parliament will be a challenge as this is a reserved matter. The SNP may well regret allowing the recent Trade Union Bill precedent! However, it may not come to that, as the new UK government may well see no merit in blocking it. David Mundell even hinted at that today. 

The way ahead will be decided by political judgement, not constitutional rules. If the Scottish Government thinks they can win, they will go ahead. They are wisely 'cooling their wellies' to see how public opinion plays out over a longer time period. Scottish Labour should do likewise.

I think two factors could be a game changer for the indyref swing voters. 

Firstly, if the EU indicated that when Brexit is implemented, an independent Scotland could stay as a continuing member of the EU. It would still require difficult decisions on the currency and finances, but would be a radically different proposition from being a new accession country. 

Secondly, an ultra-right wing Tory government in England, possibly after a new UK general election, pursuing the policies I outlined above. For those on the left in Scotland, who have emphasised solidarity with working class communities elsewhere in the UK - this may be an ask too far. 

Ironically, it is a conservative historian Alan Massie who sums up these two potential game changers well, he said: “I’m Scottish, British, European. I would like to remain all three. But a Brexit Britain, the Britain of Johnson and Farage, has no attraction for me. It would be a meaner, nastier place and I would want no part of it. I have never cared for the SNP – the Scottish National Party – but then I care even less for pretty well everything about the Brexiters. So if it comes to the point – and I hope it won’t – I will be strongly tempted to vote for being Scottish and European, and goodbye to a Britain that had been rebranded as Little England.”

So while emoji politics may well be in fashion, my plea would be to spare a little time for a careful analysis of the options, particularly when there are so many variables. And above all, take my Gran's advice and cool your wellies.

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