A tale of two nations
A flourishing nation is more than just a collection of people who happen to inhabit the same landmass.
A state can hobble along like that but for that state to be a nation something else need to be present. Nationhood requires a collective story that the majority can buy into. A emotional yarn, built from history, culture, shared experiences and a sense of belonging; one tale that furnishes the cohesiveness required to drive a country forward in the future.
Human beings relate to stories easier than they relate to facts, graphs and charts.
The people behind Brexit understand this. The Brexiteers were better at creating a big narrative than the remain campaign. They created a story, albeit false, of a once great Britain waylaid by the incompetence of and burdens inflicted on us by outsiders. A story about how we could once again rise up and rule the waves if we only rid ourselves of the shackles of Europe.
The Brexiteers were selling a vision of British exceptionalism, a nation going through an externally inflicted malaise which those supporting remain chose to counter with the dull hard facts. A graph showing that immigrants are net contributors cannot compete with a horror story depicting hoards of veiled brown people storming across borders to clog up our hospitals, steal our jobs and occasionally blow us to smithereens. A great story can’t be countered with a spreadsheet when that story has the power to protect its audience from having to examine their own failings.
The problem with the story that the Brexiteers told is not that it is was patently false, as every tale a nation tells itself has an element of self delusion to it.
The problem with the story is that it is so extreme that it is unashamedly and helplessly divisive. At least half of the country will never be able to get behind what is currently happening to the UK. It may have garnered short term political success but it is no mythology on which to build a new free United Kingdom. A new nation is doomed if half of the populace can’t stomach the story that nation tells about itself.
Theresa May showed she is only too aware of this problem when she made her Brexit speech this week. She said:
It is only by coming together as one great union of nations and peoples that we can make the most of the opportunities ahead
Which is all well and good but you can’t just wish this sort of unity into being. Especially if you mention it in a speech otherwise parroting the divisive rhetoric of the most ardent Brexiteers. She might well talk of unifying Britain but she is not going to do this with ideas that are universally lauded by Nigel Farage. She is going to falter as she has bought into a worldview that is the antipathy of the values that half of the country believe in.
From a Scottish perspective, in 2014 the Better Together campaign did a good job at defeating the nationalist rhetoric by creating a story about us being better off British.
We were a family of nations with a shared history of greatness, we were pooling and sharing resources for the greater good, we were a partnership of respectful equals. Brexit has obliterated this fairy-tale and now the best the likes of Dugdale and Davidson can do is tell us that the union is the lesser of two evils.
For them, leaving the EU might be devastating, detrimental, backwards and the exact opposite of what they campaigned for but it will be a damn sight better than being in control of our own destiny. There is no point being independent at all if this is the worldview of the majority of Scots.
When the inevitable happens, and the next indyref is announced, fundamentally it will be a battle between two conflicting stories of national identity.
There will be lots of stats floating around talking about currency, economics, defence and pensions but we kid ourselves that these are the things that win referendums. The Brexiteers voted for Brexit despite no sane economist telling them it was a good idea. They understood that there is more to being a country than short term financial predictions based on incomplete data. Their mistake was the narrative that they spun was too odious for us all to buy into.
Despite the doom forecast by the likes of GERS, a nation that has a story the majority can palate will, over time, be a productive and prosperous one.
Tell the right story and executives may see the logic of accepting lower pay and bonuses. Companies and the super rich might try less hard to avoid taxes. Governments would see out of work benefits as a safety net rather than a stick to use to beat people into part time zero hour minimum wage contracts. People would think twice about committing that burglary or dropping that piece of litter. Investors would consider the slightly more risky bet on renewable energy instead of the surefire reward of fossil fuels.
During the inevitable indyref2 campaign, independence supporters have the advantage of being able to tell broadly the same story as we told last time.
We of course need to learn from our mistakes, broaden the appeal, fill in the gaping holes, but the tale we told about the type of nation we wanted to create was a strong one. It was a story of a country that just wants to be normal. An outward looking, welcoming nation, working within a larger, supranational entity that is stronger than any one of its parts. A country that has a long cultural tradition of fairness that still seeps through into political decisions. We value free education, human rights, national healthcare, strong social security and a beautiful clean environment. A country that believes it could do better if given full control over its own affairs. A country that knows it has a lot to offer the world but also a lot to learn from it.
Last time our case could be countered by the conflicting and equally powerful view of the broad British shoulders protecting us.
Next time those shoulders will be looking much more narrow. Unlike with the case for Scottish independence, the Brexit narrative is one of a nation that doesn’t understand it is already sovereign as it is easier to blame outsiders than to take responsibility for your own mistakes. Indyref2 will coincide with a UK that will be paying for that error, and regardless of what tale is spun by those in favour of union the raw truth will be blatantly apparent.
The UK will be looking parochial, weak and isolated.
It will be on the losing end of trade negotiations with the EU while accepting trade deals with the likes of the USA that would make the creators of TTIP blush. Businesses and people with skills will be leaving for countries within the single market. Human rights laws will be weakened which will allow the conservatives to continue with their ideological mission. The slow process of selling off the NHS and the remaining public assets we hold dear will continue. Fracking will happen on a massive scale. Foreigners will be blamed for things not panning out as well as advertised and as a consequence hate crimes will continue to rise. The very people who desperately voted for Brexit as they felt left behind will suffer whilst the political classes who egged it on will be the only winners. They will thrive in the resulting low regulation, low wage, low worker protection UK.
This new Britain will have been created by the Brexiteer’s willingness to tell a powerful yet irresponsible, false and divisive story of the UK.
In the short-term it has won but its ultimate consequence will be the break up of the state. For the reality that will emerge in the next few years will counter the very story of national identity that narrowly saved the union in 2014. That tale is now so perilously exposed as a lie that only bigots, cowards and the gullible could possibly fall for it again.