Professor Seaton's proposition (8 February 2023
) that the proportion of the electorate regretting Brexit will automatically rise as the old die off and the young come of age reminded me of a thought I had about the time I left Kirkcaldy High School in the late 1960s. In those days, the voting age was still 21 and my thought was that if the franchise was switched to under-21s rather than over-21s, then there would be an instant majority for Scotland leaving the UK.
Support for the SNP was massive among my contemporaries, yet it was those same children of the 1950s who came down heavily on the No side in 2014. Perhaps a variation on the adage that if you're not left-wing at 20 then you've no heart and if you're not right-wing by 50 then you've no head?
As regards Bregret
, might what we're seeing be the universal phenomenon of disappointment when a human-devised process inevitably fails to deliver all the expectations it raised in advance?
Might I, as one of the majority 52% who were – in Anthony Seaton's word – 'fooled', reply to his article on Brexit, in last week's SR (8 February 2023
). After all, there were a million of us in Scotland and another 16.4m across the rest of the UK. His analysis of the events surrounding the 2016 referendum misses out entirely many of the most significant ones.
Reading his article, you might think that the vote was won by free marketeers. In reality, as the philosopher John Gray and others have noted, the Leave vote consisted of two very different groups.
There was a group for whom the issue was free trade. This was personified by Jacob Rees Mogg. The other group was dominated by the working class in England and Wales; in places like Sunderland, Crawley and Swansea. These were, accurately, described as 'left behind'. For them, the key issue was immigration, which, they believed, kept wages low and destabilised the communities where they lived.
The Labour Cabinet minister, Alan Johnson, estimated that immigration was 90% of the reason for Brexit. Voters were motivated mainly by fear. They had no detailed blueprint; for the future, they expected politicians to get on with implementing the decision they had been asked to vote on.
In the aftermath of the referendum, a significant number of those on the losing side refused to accept the result. The former leader of the LibDems, Nick Clegg, wrote a book, How to stop Brexit
. It is difficult to overstate how important this was. Democratic society depends on all involved accepting the result of votes, whether elections or a referendum. After every election in the UK, there are those on the losing side who believe that the voters' decision will be disastrous for the country. Routinely, they keep quiet and accept that they have lost.
After the referendum, it was different. The end result was three years of political turmoil, at the end of which the voters' decision finally prevailed. However, during these three years, the possibility of a political consensus, accepting Brexit, was thwarted by an unholy alliance of Tory free marketeers and the 'progressives' who believed themselves entitled to over-ride the democratic vote.
The beguiling prospect of overturning the referendum vote had other results. It allowed the EU negotiators to play hard ball on the basis that it was dealing with a weak government, that of Theresa May. Her government lacked the support it was entitled to, bearing in mind that it was committed to implementing a fair referendum result.
At this point, it is necessary to comment on the tactics used – by both sides – in the referendum campaign. Neither side can claim to have clean hands. This is normal in party politics. Before winning the 1997 General Election, Tony Blair told us we had '24 hours to save the NHS'. This was total nonsense but nobody thought that it invalidated the following result.
Predictably, it turns out that Margaret Thatcher is the real villain of the piece, even more than the 'shadowy millionaires who engineered the whole (Brexit) project'. The fact that the Keynesian consensus had ceased to deliver economic prosperity or political stability is simply ignored. As is the fact that much of the 'Thatcherite agenda' was copied by social democrats across Europe and beyond. Similarly, the very real increased prosperity for most people from the mid-1980s on, does not merit inclusion.
In Scotland, which never took to Thatcherism, we have a depressingly ill-divided society; not because of neo-liberalism, or any other -ism. The fault for our economic and social divisions lies with ourselves. In particular, the expanded middle class, with its wealth propped up by property and pension wealth, has looked after itself ruthlessly. Thus you have, across Scotland, areas which ooze wealth separated from deprived areas by a main road or the traditional railway track. This was established long before Brexit and was guaranteed to survive whoever won the referendum.
Democratic politics does not always throw up virtuous rulers. On the contrary, voters have a depressing habit of endorsing dubious characters. If one group decides it can ignore the result of a democratic vote, why should others – think Donald Trump – accept a result they dislike. Anthony Seaton appears indifferent to this danger. As the American writer, Michael Lind, puts it: 'The establishment response to populism threatens democracy more than populism itself'.
If you would like to contribute to the Cafe, please email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org