James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
The mass of the public don’t debate philosophical questions like “what sort of a country are we going to be post-Brexit?” They consume the comment pages of the media and the dinner tables of the political class, but that’s about it.
This doesn’t mean such questions aren’t politically or electorally important; the answers to these questions are ultimately heard by ordinary people across the country as they come to shape the overall climate in which all political issues are discussed.
Immediately after the referendum, the prevailing mood in politics and the media was that the vote to leave the EU was an act of massive economic, social, and cultural self-harm. The leave vote was presented as a populist, backward-looking, narrow-minded backlash led by those that had been “left behind”.
Even committed eurosceptics were losing their nerve a couple of years after the vote; this view would would likely have become an orthodox political view had Theresa May not been replaced by Boris Johnson, who immediately set about correcting this false impression. We have come a long way in a short space of time.
So, what is the answer to the question: what sort of country we’re going to be?
These narratives are built ultimately on a small number of significant events – which are ultimately stitched together into a coherent story which makes sense retrospectively and which helps chart a course for the years ahead. We won’t and can’t know which will dominate for a while and there are many positive and negative options that might form. It’s certainly possible that further relative decline will follow.
However, we should consider this: there is an emerging case that Britain – or, more accurately, an English-led union – could become an internationalist, confident, fast-moving and innovative medium-sized power. Let’s look a series of significant events.
- Firstly, there was the vote to leave the EU. No, this emphatically wasn’t a self-conscious pivot by leave voters towards a Global Britain; it was more narrowly focused on border control and public service protection; but it was nonetheless arguably the act of a confident public, not one that was apathetic or frightened.
- Secondly, in some ways more remarkably, there was the vote, via the 2019 election, to see the job through and get Brexit done. As I note above, given the prevailing climate in the media and politics, it was staggering the polls didn’t move further against Brexit in this timeframe.
- Thirdly, there was the decision to go our own way on a national vaccination strategy amid vast external criticism. Again, this took courage and the results have been stunning.
- Fourthly, there was the decision to offer Hong Kong residents a pathway to live and work in the UK – with the tacit support of the public. This has unsurprisingly been underplayed by most of the media and the activist class on social media but it’s of huge significance.
- Fifthly, it appears the Government is going to set aside the opposition of the NFU and offer Australia a superb trade deal. The Government might put free trade ahead of sectoral concern. (We’ll see where this ends).
Yes, I’ve ignored a lot; the above is cherry-picked deliberately and I don’t make great claims for national renewal here. My point is narrower: there are a number of different directions the country might go in – and many competing narratives that describe our trajectory and help the country go in a particular direction. But one of these potential narratives is towards this confident, risk-taking, international country.
If the Government wasn’t bogged down in Covid recovery, we might have seen various politicians (the PM included) make such a case. There have been flashes of it visible here and there in the last year or so.
But this all takes us to Scotland.
It is becoming increasingly clear the future of the union between England and Scotland is at least at serious risk. It’s not just the polling numbers; election after election has entrenched the SNP in power. While it’s possible Scottish voters draw a distinction between who they want to govern Scotland and the broader issue of whether they want to be in the UK, let’s be honest: it doesn’t look good. It’s hard to be a single, unified country when nearly a half of one part of it seems desperate to leave.
But what does this risk-taking, confident English-led union tell itself about the future of the union? That we’ll be finished if Scotland votes to leave? That it’ll be a historic catastrophe? That Johnson or whoever the unlucky Prime Minister happens to be at the break-up is the modern equivalent of Lord North?
The English don’t want to hear – and will be annoyed by – the idea that it’ll be the end of the world if we don’t have a union with Scotland. And we surely can’t tell the rest of the world that our entire future depends on what Scotland chooses.
The Government faces a conundrum. On the one hand, it needs to speak on behalf of Britain and make the case we will be stronger/better together. On the other hand, given the possibility the union will break, and given English ambivalence, it needs to ensure that, the day after a Scottish leave vote, the clear trajectory is “up”. We cannot have a repeat of Johnson and Michael Gove’s post-Brexit press conference, which felt like the start of a (dry) wake.
It’s too early to say what this means but the fundamental point is this: the Conservative Party and the country would benefit from the development of an optimistic, modern, inclusive narrative that acted as a catalyst for a national strategy.
Given the precarious nature of the union, this narrative has to be able to withstand a Scottish exit, given its possibility – but it should not in and of itself encourage that exit. Perhaps this will emerge from the provincial arm of the Party.