Proof that the public is sick of binary politics and its slippery practitioners
By Graham Grant
THE spectacle of politicians lining up to claim victory in the European elections was almost as sickening as the poll itself.
Three years after we voted to leave a discredited institution, we were asked to participate in an election to repopulate it.
Campaigning among the mainstream parties was virtually non-existent, because they knew what a pointless charade it was.
This has left the field clear for both Remain and Leave to assert they won – but this wasn’t a poll on Brexit; that happened in 2016.
The real winner in the European election, by a landslide, was apathy: turnout was 39.9 per cent in Scotland, meaning more than six out of ten didn’t cast a vote.
And I was among them – partly because I’ve never voted in an election for a parliament I didn’t want the UK to be part of.
But I also voted for Brexit, and I’ve never felt more disillusioned with our political class for failing to deliver it.
I couldn’t bring myself to vote Tory after the catastrophic hash the party has made of the Brexit talks.
If you want a reminder of why the UK did vote to get out of Europe, watch the BBC’s fly-on-the-wall Storyville documentary, looking at Brexit from the Eurocrats’ perspective.
British Brexit negotiators are mocked behind their backs by their European counterparts (one of whom fawningly tells her superior: ‘You really f***** him over. I love it when you f*** over a Tory!’)
It’s also a parliament that will now count among its number Italian tax fraudster Silvio Berlusconi, infamous for sordid sex parties and Mafia links.
Mind you, Brussels admitted in 2015 that £675million of taxpayers’ money had been directly lost through fraud, so Berlusconi should feel at home.
Both Labour and the Tories seem to be in the grip of an existential crisis, though in Scotland the Conservative vote share was higher than anywhere else in the UK.
That’s quite a feat, given the absence of any meaningful campaign; for all its triumphalism, the SNP’s vote share is down eight per cent on its performance in the constituency vote in the last Holyrood election, and it was only one per cent more than its disappointing 2017 General Election result.
But it’s no great surprise that politicians and activists overlooked the most significant fact – that large swathes of the electorate simply refused to take part.
It’s indicative of a widespread disengagement from politics among much of the population, disgusted by Brexit paralysis, and the toxic social divide it has created.
Many are also angered by the constant demonisation of Leave voters as racist, or plain stupid, and fear a stitch-up is under way that will rob them of the result they voted for in 2016.
Perhaps most of all, both Leavers and Remainers are fed up with the binary nature of our politics on both sides of the Border, which has prioritised constitutional issues ahead of all others, with no apparent end in sight.
But it’s disgraceful that the SNP should come to the immediate conclusion that the result should pave the way for another Scottish independence referendum.
Keith Brown, the SNP’s deputy leader, said in the early hours of yesterday morning that his party had strengthened its hand for another vote, while Scottish Government officials are already hard at work on a Bill supposedly drawing up ground rules for a second poll.
But this vote was nothing to do with separatism, and its outcome only reflects a now deeply entrenched public disillusionment with all politicians – which the SNP has helped to fuel by repeatedly refusing to accept the result of the 2014 referendum vote.
Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday that ‘the message from Scotland… is that we will not accept a Brexit process that silences our nation, that treats our parliament and government with contempt and that fails to represent the interests of people in Scotland’.
But the Brexit Party came second, with 14.8 per cent of the vote, while between them Tories and Labour scored 20.9 per cent – meaning parties in favour of EU withdrawal had a combined vote share of almost 36 per cent, compared to 37.7 per cent for the SNP (and we know around a third of its voters are pro-Brexit).
There is no way that a ‘mandate’ for Scottish independence can be derived from these statistics; and in the next General Election – almost certainly with a far higher turnout – the results are bound to favour the mainstream parties.
The SNP’s narrative that Scots are being treated with contempt is becoming threadbare, given that we are to be handed a raft of new powers because of Brexit – even though, frankly, the SNP seems clueless about how to use the powers it already has.
This is an election that produced a damning verdict on the state of politics generally, and the infighting and tribalism that now define it – and in recent times the SNP hasn’t been exactly immune from this phenomenon.
True, there may be material consequences for the main political parties, particularly Labour, which paid a heavy price for its policy of ‘constructive ambiguity’ on Brexit – despite its UK leader’s long track record of supporting EU withdrawal.
The Tories are at least attempting to extricate themselves from the mire into which a vocal subsection of the party has driven the current hierarchy, such as it is, by preparing for a new leader.
The only possible avenue for restoring faith in politics is to make good on David Cameron’s promise that the outcome of the 2016 referendum would be binding.
Of course, it will take time for the scars opened up by this circular ‘debate’ – in reality one that should have been settled three years ago – to heal.
But the prize, of rebooting the economy and getting back to actual governing after years of constitutional navel-gazing and internal party warfare, is one that is worth fighting for.
We should also be deeply suspicious of Miss Sturgeon’s thesis, which she reiterated yesterday, that an ‘extreme Tory Brexiteer’ as the next Prime Minister would compel more of us to vote for Scottish independence.
When it comes to ‘extremism’, the SNP is in something of a glass house: just take a look at its terrifying currency proposals, which ultimately entail ditching the pound – a plan that would lead to economic carnage.
As polling expert John Curtice pointed out at the weekend, we ‘shouldn’t necessarily assume that people’s attitudes to independence would be affected by the appointment of another posh Tory’.
And in any event, is there anything truly ‘extreme’ about a leader who is merely acting on a mandate handed to him (or her) by the UK electorate in 2016?
It’s true that we should resist the lure of demagogues at a time of such political turmoil, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that Miss Sturgeon isn’t among them, as she ploughs ahead with a separatist agenda the electorate rejected five years ago – without any kind of mandate.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on May 28, 2019.