I have never been a believer about inevitability of political outcomes. I remember how we were constantly being told by what was the Europhile establishment that joining the euro was inevitable. Well, look at us now. Not only did we dodge that bullet but we have finally left the European Union.
There are some who claim or imply Scottish independence is inevitable. Part of their reasoning is the UK’s departure from the EU will cause such a rift with the rest of the UK the Scottish people, when given the chance, will choose the European continent over our island brethren. It’s inevitable, they say.
I choose to differ. In 2014 the SNP would have taken Scotland out of the EU in pursuit of achieving independence; now the SNP pushes EU membership as its major reason for independence.
Believing in political inevitability is a foolhardy self-deception. We do not know what the future holds, nor can we tell what geo-political events might arise and how they shall impact on our thinking or that of future generations. It would be just as foolish for me to claim the unity of the United Kingdom is inevitable. It is not, its benefits require to be repeatedly explained or their attraction may fade and the Union fall accidentally into abeyance.
I am moved to ponder how political developments can come at us from nowhere rather than be inevitable because of the historical rupture between our country and the European Union on Friday night. It was the Scot, Alan Sked, now professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, who founded what became Ukip following the EU’s Maastricht Treaty. Nigel Farage joined Ukip and in 1999 was elected to be an MEP along with just two other colleagues. When they arrived in Brussels they were treated as a British curiosity and a joke. No one in the European Union’s elite are laughing now.
Was our departure inevitable? No. Had Margaret Thatcher not been deposed by her EU-phile critics it is hard to believe she would have accepted the treaty. Indeed, the written evidence of a letter to Bill Cash, MP, states she would not have agreed to it. No Maastricht would mean no Ukip and no Farage (at least in the role of its leader). EU-philes should have been careful what they wished for.
Likewise, was the outcome of the 2016 referendum inevitable? No. It is conveniently forgotten how Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had called for a referendum on EU membership because he believed endorsing membership would kill the issue stone dead and allow the UK to play a more active role building ever closer union across Europe. He should have been more careful what he wished for.
Similarly, Prime Minister David Cameron thought he could heal the divide in the Conservative Party over EU membership by holding a referendum. He believed if he negotiated fresh membership terms he could demonstrate how helpful and warm EU leaders were towards our country and that reform of the institutions was possible from within. Well, he certainly initiated the healing of the divide in the Tory Party – for it is more united now than at any time in my living memory – but not in the manner he anticipated.
Cameron miscalculated badly on the motives of EU leaders. Just imagine if they had given him some genuine changes in our terms of membership. Imagine if he had been able to come back from Brussels with something substantial that limited the centrifugal forces of ever closer union? Cameron’s Eurosceptic critics would have been muted and sounded shrill if heard at all, while the EU’s advocates would have turned up the volume to 11.
Instead of being able to run a positive campaign about EU co-operation, cohesion and solidarity the EU-philes were put on the back foot; embarrassed by EU technocratic indifference they were forced to rely on the Treasury’s project fear playbook that had nearly lost the union to secessionists in the independence referendum two years before. This time the suggested nightmare scenarios became more and more absurd and thus their campaign more and more disreputable. (I understand we still have lettuces, turkey sandwiches and international footballers signing for big fees.)
Last Wednesday I held my nose and voted in the European Parliament for a rotten transition agreement that would take us out of the EU two days later. On Thursday I made the last speech of any MEP on the subject of the UK’s departure, explaining how our Prime Minister’s legal enactment of having no further extension of membership and his public commitment to allowing divergence in our laws where we choose made my support possible. On Friday I joined the tens of thousands in Parliament Square, celebrating my redundancy as an MEP and my job was done.
None of that process or the outcome it led to was inevitable. All of it had to be fought for; all of the plans, strategies, tactics and reasoning in the ensuing debates had to be adjusted repeatedly to take account of events – such as President Obama saying we would be sent to the back of the “queue” (the absence of the Americanism “line” revealing he had clearly been fed the line to say).
The lessons of what should be seen as the Great European Disruption should be understood and learned by those wishing to defend the United Kingdom. Its maintenance is not inevitable. It requires blood, sweat and toil. It cannot be about economics alone, but should be about solidarity, community and harmony. Its advocates and their advocacy must have a positive tale to tell.
By May this year Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP shall have been in power for 13 years – the majority of the period we have had a Scottish Parliament responsible and accountable for Scotland’s health, education, justice and economic development. It has been a time when even more powers have been transferred from London to Edinburgh – and yet the standards and outcomes that were claimed would improve have in so many cases fallen. The SNP’s focus on the constitutional debate is undoubtedly a large part of the reason. Yet the SNP appears poised to remain in power. We should remember, however, that nothing in politics is inevitable.
Brian Monteith is no longer a member of the European Parliament.