Whether by now we have a deal or not, we have left Europe, against the will of people in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London. Six years ago, we voted to stay in the United Kingdom, this time against the will of many in the poorest parts of Scotland. Shortly before the independence referendum, I had the chance at a discussion to ask Gordon Brown a question that troubled me greatly: 'What would you think if the UK were to leave the EU?' His answer was concise but unhelpful: 'It won't happen'.
Well, it did, and the question remains hanging in the air. The mechanisms whereby Brexit was engineered are now well known. It is no exaggeration to state that the disadvantaged and less well-educated in the UK were targeted by UKIP and the Conservatives, persuaded that they would be better off out of Europe and told they would then have real democracy and no further competition from foreigners for their jobs.
It has also become apparent that the persuaders, a rather small group of financiers and politicians who had grown rich from speculation and tax evasion, had no idea what to do with their victory other than crow about regaining sovereignty and boast about our glorious future. Nevertheless, those who were duped understandably did not wish to acknowledge their folly but compounded it by voting for those who had lied to them at an election caused by further right-wing bickering, leaving us with a government of historic and monumental incompetence, notable only for their wealth and ability to divert massive amounts of public money to their allies in the private sector.
In anger, I wrote some lines:
'I was a miner once,' he said.
'Us miners are proud men,
toiling in t'dark, hewing black rock,
breathing black dust', he said.
'We were brave men back then', he said.
'We fought Ted Heath and won,
for workers' rights and decent pay,
through t'union', he said.
'They came and shut our pit', he said.
'For months we went on strike;
it did no good, we lost our work
And now there's nowt', he said.
'Some Brexit folk came round', he said,
'and asked, 'ow will you vote?'
'I'm Labour, me, I'll vote for 'im,
The blond 'aired one', he said.
'What was that moaning sound?' he said,
Nye Bevan from his grave:
''ave you forgot 'ow much we did
for all you men?' he said.
From 1969 until 1980, I worked for British Coal and went regularly to Luxembourg to bid for grants, initially from the European Coal and Steel Community and after 1975 from the EU. These grants were for research into improving the conditions of miners and incidentally allowed us to show that chronic obstructive lung disease was caused by coal dust as well as by smoking. Our work had led to dust standards in mines that were adopted by all countries of the EU.
This was a defining point of the Common Market, that workers were able to labour under the same conditions and that no one country could reduce efforts on safety to reduce costs and thus gain an unfair advantage, the so-called 'level playing field'. If you have wondered why this is such an important point to Europe in negotiations, I hope this helps. Their worry is that a Conservative government in the UK, known to be beholden to influential people who regard regulations on health and safety as hindrances to enterprise, will diverge from European regulations. The EU, for all its faults, is the friend of the exploited.
Later, from 1990, I found myself chairing a committee charged to advise the UK departments of the environment and health on appropriate concentrations of air pollutants to use as air quality standards to protect us from harm. I was advised that it was urgent to do this as the EU was about to embark on the same process and our government wanted to go to the table with our own justified scientific recommendations. Each of our recommendations was accepted by the then government and all also became EU standards.
All countries across Europe now are required to adhere to the same air quality and those who do not and industries that cause breaches can be fined. Again, a level playing field, requiring oversight and legal backing. This is a major reason that these negotiations seem to be failing; the Europeans have reason to believe Boris Johnson is not to be trusted, not least from his earlier behaviour as a newspaper correspondent in Brussels for which he got the sack.
So now we have left Europe, whether we like it or not, either with a bad deal or no deal, and confronting not just the inevitable economic fallout but also climate change and the pandemic, with an incompetent government in Westminster and little to inspire one in Holyrood from the SNP or any of the other parties – save one person. Perhaps if, no longer obsessed by independence, Nicola Sturgeon could turn her attention fully to improving the lot of Scotland as a part of the EU, I see some reason for hope. Is it possible, and can she negotiate it?
Would the EU be deterred by fear of further national schisms or would it welcome more smaller but re-energised countries like Ireland? Could that lead to necessary reforms of the EU? But what about a customs border with England? What currency would we be obliged to use? Could we face all the argument of negotiating an easily mispronounced Scotxit? I wonder what Gordon Brown thinks, now that he has been proven wrong. I'm coming off the fence but fear I am too old now to expect to see any outcome. I think I'll take the grandchildren's advice.
Meanwhile, I wish you all a happy but safe Christmas, and a vaccinated New Year.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own