We'd be better off if politicians tried to build consensus, not increase division

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

I don’t like Brexit – but Scexit would be worse


A guest blog by Rod McMillan


My political journey


Coming from Northern Ireland, naturally I didn't know much about politics growing up.


Well, not ‘normal’ politics, anyway: the UK government would be Labour or Conservative, neither of whom fielded candidates in Northern Ireland. Instead, we had unionist politicians and nationalist politicians. A single constitutional issue drowned out any nuance on more prosaic policies.


Despite this backdrop, and perhaps due to having relatives from Scotland and England, I count myself fortunate to have been brought up so that I could comfortably engage with British, Irish and Scottish aspects to my identity, heritage and history without feeling the need to take a side. Still, I also had the experience of seeing rioting on streets blocked with burning busses. Of negotiating Police, Army and 'assorted other' roadblocks and other tense situations. Of queuing to be searched for incendiary devices before getting into a department store.


My formative takeaway from growing up in Ulster was, and is, what a waste of energy and opportunity a divided society is, and that entrenched dichotomy politics aren't productive. I was a first-time voter at the time of the Good Friday agreement, and I voted for it in the hope that this would help move us forwards, away from divisions along a single fault-line.


Like many Ulster-Scots, I went to a Scottish University. Scottish devolution was fresh. It still felt far less tense and divided 'over here'. Braveheart was a recently released enjoyable nonsense film that no-one took seriously.


Scottish Nationalism was there, but in the background, not in your face. There was the odd incident of anti-English sentiment witnessed. Though English friends assured me it was a more common and serious issue, I guess having an Irish accent got you a pass.


The 2014 referendum


Scottish Independence first came to my serious attention in 2013. The thing which engaged me, and outraged me, was the SNP’s ‘White Paper’. This was meant to reassure people so they would accept separation, but I was astounded by its blatant spin, unevidenced assertions and sly half-truths.


I was amazed that there were so many promises in the White Paper that clearly could not be delivered. I don't mean that were unlikely, or there was not enough detail - I mean where even taking the White Paper at face-value, claims made were just inherently contradictory.


Not to re-run the arguments, but the one that was a pivot, an epiphany, for me was economic: the idea that we could simultaneously be in a formal currency union, against the other party's will, and have ‘full control of economic levers’ is, simply, impossible. That was my first real “Hang on a minute, I *know* that’s not right!” moment. It wasn’t my last.


I was shocked further by trying to reason with nationalists during the referendum campaign. I was depressed and worried by how many either seemed to fail to grasp the difficulties, or got angry and defensive when they were pointed out.


I found it profoundly unsettling to be speaking with people, many I'd known for years and finding out the truth didn't seem to matter to them. It’s like finding out half your class at school suddenly doesn’t believe in gravity.


The nationalists said different things to different people – saying anything which they thought people wanted to hear. The result of this cynical campaign by the SNP was that there were 1.6 million different versions of what people thought they were getting if they voted for Scotland to leave the UK. Not one of them was costed or compatible with the other assertions. Whatever the question was, Independence was the answer.


I looked at the evidence. I made a decision, and I campaigned for a No vote. On foot, online, on the high street. With Conservatives, with Labour, and with Liberals. I believed then it was the right and rational decision - and I still do.


Two years before Brexit, before Trump, this was my first experience of how twisted lies, memes of fake data, spoof news sites, social media propaganda and more were robbing the mob of reason. Like the enlightenment never happened. Longstanding friendships were irreparably broken.


Well, you know how it played out. After the No vote I was relieved but prepared to consider it settled and move on. But it seems that once you have successfully divided a community, a referendum win for either side won't unite it again.


The EU referendum and where we are today


By the time of the Brexit campaign, I had referendum fatigue.


I wanted us to stay in the EU, but I was bruised from the independence campaign. Perhaps the sensible vote having won in 2014 lulled me into a false sense of security in the wisdom of crowds - faith that rationality would prevail again.


I could clearly see the comparisons between the campaigns. Propaganda techniques, fake news being used to divide people, to use a plebiscite to break apart a flawed, but beneficial, union. The Brexit campaign was a chimaera from the start, with different things being promised day to-day, but not put in writing to be held to. Well, we know how that worked out.


Most Scots voted No in 2014, and most Scots voted for the UK to Remain in the EU in 2016. The largest constitutional demographic in Scotland voted to stay on both unions, and I was in that group.


Now, six years after the 2014 vote, I know more than I ever wanted to about how devolution works, how the block grant is calculated, about EU membership criteria. I know more than is healthy about how propaganda is used, and the dangers of social media manipulation. Thousands of us have spent huge swathes of time arguing, with little being achieved.


All I see looking back at the past decade is the wasted opportunity. Imagine if the millions of pounds, hundreds of thousands of hours and god only knows how many joules of effort that have been expended on arguing for or against ripping apart one union or community or another had been put into directly benefiting communities in Scotland. What has been spent on chasing independence and what has it achieved? The Nationalists endlessly promise us "Jam Tomorrow" at the price of never having bread today. Poverty is rising; educational standards have collapsed; drug treatment services have been cut; there's a housing crisis; and we are barely recycling more rubbish than we are burning in Scotland. Where would Scotland be now if these issues had been our focus, rather than separatism?


Brexit hurts. I think I know as well as anyone the problems and issues with independence, but even I would be tempted to support an independent Scotland in the EU over a Hard-Brexit UK.


But I know enough not to trust the SNP to deliver that ‘independence in the EU’ fantasy. I know they are misleading us about if, or how, an independent Scotland might re-join. The idea that Brexit is bad but Scexit is good is the ultimate hypocrisy. The economic impacts of Scexit are in addition to Brexit, and would have an even bigger impact on Scotland than Brexit.


Scexit doesn’t solve Brexit. It makes it worse, and there is a real danger we will end up out of both unions – that’s the position fewest Scots supported across the two referendums!


What are the lessons can we take from recent divisive campaigns?


1. People vote in haste and repent at leisure.


Many people who voted for Brexit regret it. It was a protest vote, and many didn't think it would actually happen. There must be a more nuanced way to make informed decisions, but above all we need to find a way to communicate the true downside risk.


2. Angry people make bad decisions.


During these campaigns, people get angry- indeed, people will deliberately be MADE angry - and that impairs judgement. I don't believe mobs can correctly assess downside risk or understand all the implications. We should try to keep things rational and calm. Hyperbole and emotional oratory might win hearts, but only winning minds can lead to rational decisions.


3. Permanent, complex changes should be based on consensus and have overwhelming support


Recent history has proved that relatively narrow wins in binary referendums don’t heal wounds. There is no room for compromise during the campaign, and this division continues afterwards. I think there is a flaw in the winner-takes-all ‘50% plus one vote to get over the line’ model. We need more nuanced consultations with various policy options, and then for wrenching change we should have some form of super-majority, minimum turnout, or two-stage process. I believe in democracy, but I also believe the process can be improved and I hope we can learn from 2014 and 2016 if we are ever to consider another referendum in the future.


My conclusion: We would all be better off if our politicians were trying to build consensus, not increase division.


The biggest theft from Scotland in the past 10 years has been making everything be viewed through the dichotomy of a constitutional decision. Everything else is parked. While a single issue defines who the government is, no other policies get due process or even a second thought.


There is so much to do, and with limited resources, that surely there is enough to be getting on with in the overlapping common ground. The common ground is much larger than people have been led to think.


I'm not saying I have the answers, or that there is nothing to improve in the UK. Still, it's clear that these close, binary choice, referendums divide societies.


I get frustrated. But it is important to stay calm and rational and focus on what we can control. I hope there isn't a second referendum, but if there is, we will need to meet it with rational analysis of the propositions and evidence. I have confidence in the strength of the evidence.


I was raised in a divided society where I saw so much wasted energy, and sadly I see the same now happening here. I think we have bigger problems to address, from the global pandemic to climate change, population pressure, pollution, the refugee crisis, deforestation, and attacks on science.


I hope we can start pulling in the same direction again. As someone who feels bereft because of Brexit, I hope that if something good can come out of it, it must surely be as a warning of the dangers of tearing ourselves apart again.