AS Scottish Labour form a disorderly circular firing squad and 2014 No voters watch nervously as a No-Deal scenario snaps into sharp focus, we are witnessing (finally) the end days of Britain.

It’s unravelling in unseemly chaos Even Simon Jenkins writing with dripping condescension observes: “Johnson is in a long line of Westminster leaders determined to infuriate the Scots – as a century ago they once infuriated the Irish. With the exception of Tony Blair’s partial devolution, London has simply ignored the progressive disintegration of the ‘first British empire’, the one that has embraced the British Isles since the Norman conquest and was cohered as a supposed United Kingdom in 1801.”

This “first British Empire” line is unusual for an English writer, but it stands out as a coming to terms of the reality of things. Brexit has cleared the air.

Jenkins reflects on the current shambles with a bit of history: “While France, Germany and Italy (if not Spain) have steadily assimilated their disparate provinces over time, the United Kingdom has done the opposite. Through persistent, bumbling misrule it has alienated the so-called Celtic fringe, and fuelled the fires of separatism.”

It’s true these provinces are disparate and un-assimilated, but Jenkins’s remedy for this tragic state is quite something: “Sooner or later, London will be forced to grow up and recognise that it has sacrificed the right to rule the British Isles. Ireland has gone and Scotland will clearly go one day. Whitehall should take the initiative and prepare a fiscal and legislative independence package; one that withdraws Scots MPs from Westminster and sees Scotland rejoin the EU, but keeps travel, currency and citizenship ties in place.”

Glancing across the Cabinet room you know that is not a scenario that is going to happen.

But if the London commentariat are coming to terms with what’s under way, so too are the political parties as we sprint towards Halloween.

Scottish Labour is now in open civil war, while the divisions and splits of the Scottish Tories are a more private affair. Both suffer from an extreme form of cognitive dissonance. They demand and expect self-determination from their centralised party structure, while resting their entire political outlook on denying the same to the Scottish people.

Scottish Labour is split on a left-right axis by MSPs who have never accepted Richard Leonard (or Jeremy Corbyn). They may have been motivated by ideological differences and then had these beliefs boosted by the incompetence of their leaders north and south of the Border.

But they have nothing to offer in their place. They have neither charismatic competence nor a political programme to challenge. Jackie Baillie would offer jobs at Faslane and the Pittakionophobic Ian Murray clings to the idea of the Union like a man adrift far from land clinging to the wreckage.

But London Labour have cast Scotland Labour aside knowing that power and agency lies more with Westminster allies in the SNP than with Labour colleagues at Holyrood. That’s hilarious.

We are now in a situation where both parties north of the Border could split and reform – could they come together as centre-ground Unionists, a sort of Better Together party where they could find solace? Stranger things have happened in Brexitland.


HOW do those who have committed to the Union as an eternal good react to the crisis and the shifting position of the Scottish electorate?

There are three main options: Embrace it and act as if you are in the Blitz; re-create the fantasies of federalism and miraculous constitutional reform; face the reality of change and a United Kingdom torn apart not by Scottish “separatism” but by English exceptionalism and xenophobia.

The people who voted No in 2014 and are getting No Deal in 2019 are confused and angry. They are either doubling down in rage and confusion or quietly shifting to the exit route.

The more the realities of No Deal are revealed – Newsnight reports the possibility of 45,000 dairy cattle to be culled in the event of No Deal in Northern Ireland – the No voter shrugs it off as an opportunity for a BBQ. In one sense the idea of shrugging off Project Fear will be recognisable to pro-independence voters. In another sense being blase about the economic chaos of Brexit being imposed after you were promised economic and political security must be devastating.

And shrugging off the very real problems of impact to food supply and medicines with a sort of stoic British stiff upper lip and a resort to the language of wartime is a new scale of embarrassment.

Tensions between the three response options mentioned above become more strained as No Deal nears.

Option 1: “Embrace it and act as if you are in the Blitz” is fun as a game, but loses its appeal as supermarket shelves thin out. The “British people” weaned on Xbox and Deliveroo don’t have as much resilience as they think they do. While the extremists will blame all on the Europeans’ intransigence, no-one will really believe that (including, crucially, themselves).

Option 2: Engage in fantasy about federalism and constitutional reform. The timeline for this is sharp and the agencies that might create a movement around this are absent. Despite all of the talk of “taking back control” the insurgent English nationalist movement has no desire to do this at all. It already has, as John McDonnell said this week, an “English parliament”. What’s to campaign for?

Enthusiastic commentators and former politicians still indulge this parlour game, but it doesn’t have a future without a political vehicle, and while billionaires can bankroll astro-turf parties at the click of a finger, actual political movements can’t be summoned so easily.

Option 3: Facing the reality of change – real, deep change – is difficult, but there are some ready to do that. Not just the pro-Brexit people in England who would happily jettison the Union to fulfill Brexit, but some on the Labour left who envisage a partnership of equals and a future of four republics.

A lot of talk about how “Scotland changed forever” followed the 2014 vote, and it’s true that some of the deeply ingrained deference was cast aside, a generation politicised and the terms of political debate fundamentally changed. But it’s worth realising how much England, Wales and Ireland have changed as well.

In the London Review of Books (“How bad can it get?”) William Davies writes:

“Since the referendum a distinctive and separate political faction has coalesced, accounting for at least a quarter of the electorate, possibly as much as a third.

"It is predominantly English and its members are older than average, dwelling in those vast swathes of Leave country outside the major cities and university towns.

"This faction is outraged that Brexit has not been delivered, and it has turned out in large numbers to vote for the Brexit Party in the European elections in May. It also dominates the Conservative Party membership.

"This group is currently on a collision course with the British constitution, because it is giving up on parliamentary democracy.

"As social movements go, it has some enviable assets: a very clear demand to rally around (No Deal), a strong sense of indignation, and a well-known spokesman (Nigel Farage).

"These resources, together with a background hum of Islamophobia, have succeeded in uniting Thatcherite retirees in the South-East with furious Tommy Robinson activists.

"For all the talk of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Marxism’ and ‘terrorist sympathies’, as well as Labour’s real problems with anti-Semitism, Labour and Momentum look positively liberal by comparison.

"This faction put Johnson where he is today and it’s not going away. The question is how he intends to deal with it. For a nihilist such as Johnson, there is every reason to seek its support and call a General Election. That, of course, would commit him to ‘No Deal’.

"Leaving aside the chaos that would ensue, the question is: What would this faction – and its spokesman – demand next? And that’s where things could get very ugly.

"Britain is witnessing a phenomenon already seen in the United States, where it has been called ‘asymmetric polarisation’.

“Aided by new media platforms such as Breitbart, a large chunk of the radical right has snapped off from the rest of the political spectrum and renounced all compromise or negotiation. Trump is the result, and the Republican Party has largely fallen into line behind the radicals.”

CATCH 1852

AS the sun fades on the “first British Empire”, we are at a crossroads between an amicable separation and a bitter divorce.

The paradox is that Scotland must act as a force of internal security while acting as midwife to the future. The new child wants to have nothing to do with the militarism, imperialism and jingoism of the past.

It has challenges ahead that aren’t about delusions of grandeur or a hyper-nostalgic imagining of the past but of creating the possibility of a shared and viable future. That’s only possible if we move beyond self-deception, enabling liars and glorying in blame politics.

As our rain-soaked summer fades among political chaos, Neal Ascherson predicts in the London Review of Books: “So we have leading Tories – not only Johnson – apparently prepared to suspend a sovereign Parliament in order to force through a Brexit meant to restore the sovereignty of Parliament. That’s not Catch-22; it’s Catch-1852.

‘‘Remember Louis-Napoleon’s futile suppression of the National Assembly, in order to rule by decree and plebiscite in the name of ‘the people’? Stand back for Boris Bonaparte.

“When this stuff happened nearly 400 years ago, English Parliamentarians went home and ground their swords to an edge. Not this time. The courage and integrity of most MPs flare up only briefly before they fizzle.

‘‘My autumn forecast is rapid deadlock, an uproar of scatological cartooning, another Tory rebellion and finally the nastiest, dirtiest General Election for a hundred years.”

The problem, as Ascherson points to, is what happens when the right’s political project fails and collapses under its own contradictions and absurdity. The conditions of fear and poverty that propelled them are still here.