LOOKING back 31 months to the start of Brexit, it would have been impossible to believe the process might end in such utter disaster. During the EU referendum campaign, we had heard nothing of Northern Ireland, let alone its backstop, nothing of hold-ups at the ports and shortages of vital goods, nothing of invalids dying for lack of imported drugs, nothing of threats to our security because state secrets will no longer be shared, nothing of hospitals or farms deprived of the workers they need in order to function.

Immediately after she became Prime Minister, Theresa May started intoning her mantra “Brexit means Brexit”. Since she has a simple or at least a blinkered mind, she must have imagined this summed up all we needed to know, and gave the proper answer to anybody who pointed out the coming complexities. Yet in the end, Brexit hardly means Brexit. Under her deal, we do not in many respects leave the EU. We will remain bound by rules we have no hand in making.

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It is typical of the woman that, even in the wake of crushing defeat in the House of Commons, she shows little inclination to amend her deal. When a previous Tory premier, Ted Heath, passed the first European Communities Bill in 1972, he did so with support from all sides. Then as now, his own party was deeply divided, but on the opposition benches sat enough Labour Europhiles – Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and others who later seceded into the SDP – to give Heath a majority, small but sufficient. Without them his whole project and the great prize of his political career would have been lost.

In personal terms, is Brexit any less significant to May? It does not appear so to me, yet she had made no attempt to woo the other parties in Parliament or seek compromises that might bring them on board. Her entire focus was on the Conservatives and their internal splits, in particular on a failed effort to secure the loyalty of the extreme Brexiteers. Even in last week’s initiative she confined herself to calling in opposition leaders and trying to persuade them to say yes to something or other that might be tweaked into her package. There could be nothing more: “The door was open but the mind was closed,” as one of her fleeting visitors said. This week we are back to square one.

Similarly, according to reports from Europe, she has been phoning up premiers and presidents and to them, too, saying the same old things over and over. The stratagem is transparent: she wants to spin things out till the straight choice between her deal and no deal becomes inescapable. And then she thinks her deal will win. Luckily there are enough obstacles strewn across her path, many laid by her own alienated Tories, that she will more than likely fall flat on her face, once again.

It is a disaster not just for a Prime Minister and her government. The cancerous tentacles stretch right the way through the structures of a UK that only up to about 10 years ago was still regarded by its European neighbours as a paragon of parliamentary democracy, with a robust constitution that over the centuries had withstood everything. To all appearances, it guaranteed the population their freedoms and in return was rewarded with their loyalty. How lucky the Brits appeared in comparison to the Germans or the French or the Italians, let alone to all the nations further south and east, whose liberty had only been bought in blood and suffering!

But the UK the Brexiteers want to preserve is being destroyed by Brexit. European neighbours stand astonished that for 31 months it has been split into two warring camps, who as their struggle wears on grow not more understanding but more furious with each other. Face to face they bawl and brawl. They jostle or shout down politicians from the opposite side and have even murdered one of them. In a revival of racism, they abuse and threaten immigrants who had come to this country for its tolerance and safety. “Go home!” howl the thugs, while officials of the Home Office only talk, rather than act, differently. To many of the victims, going home now seems the preferable option.

The rot started at the top, however. In the system that invented the principle of collective cabinet responsibility, different ministers publicly advocate contradictory policies, with May too feeble to stop them. The ruling Conservatives, for whom self-preservation has always been a prime principle, are split into warring factions, some openly co-operating with Labour counterparts. Not that Labour is anything but a disgrace to the concept of an opposition, unwilling to lay down any coherent line of its own. Its leader tells his comrades elsewhere in Europe that Brexit is unimportant when set against his grand ambition “to build socialism”.

No wonder the very pillars of a state that till recently seemed a model of balance and detachment show ominous cracks and begin to totter. The Speaker of the Commons and his clerks conspire in corridors with one faction or another.

The civil servants, in a service once a byword for impartial efficiency, turn out as clueless as the politicians – and above all incompetent, for lack of experienced personnel, to deal with complex policies that will come back from Europe and land on their laps from March 29. To repeat my opening thought, 31 months ago nobody could have believed Brexit would so damage and corrupt the entire British state in its innermost nature.

On March 29, I doubt if these unsavoury ingredients of the crisis are going to look any more appetising. At least here in Scotland we can view it all as a distant scene in relative immunity from an epidemic of the new “English disease” of xenophobia. We voted Remain in 2017, and nothing since has changed the national mind, but if anything strengthened it. For example, we accept we need foreign workers to sustain our economy, and we don’t abuse immigrants. During the last 43 years, strengthened links with Europe on many levels have served as something of a counterweight to the growing centralism of England. Once we are outside the European Union, we will find being inside the British Union much more stifling.

So I agree that, given the sorry scene south of the Border, this ought to be the opportunity for us to strike once again for national freedom. Yet something is not quite right. I see no surge in public opinion likely to carry us past 50% in indyref2. Those calling for an early vote seem to me to be repeating the fatuous Scots Tory stance after 1999. It was a formula for stagnation because it assumed that shouting louder could be a substitute for changes in direction.

As I keep pointing out, there is a crucial margin of sceptical voters, 5 or 10% of the whole electorate, needing to be converted to the cause of independence. They are not fanatics for one side or the other, and will first consult their personal interest to see whether or not that cause is going to make them richer. And at the moment the Scottish Government, having lurched to the left since 2014, just does not have the policies to make them richer, or convince them it can. Without such policies the next referendum will be lost, whatever is happening in London.