I AM up on the far north-west coast of Scotland, where the weather is changing every five minutes under vast skies and huge seascapes. Go to the beach and look left, and it’s a sparkling Mediterranean scene, bright white sand and opalescent turquoise water, what you might call Rossini weather. Swivel your gaze right, and vast dark clouds tower up, obliterating mountain ranges — Bruckner weather. Me? Like Isabel Hardman, of this parish, I just walk straight into the sea and swim. The choppy water is certainly cold but the whole experience is elating, and good for clearing the head.
WHICH is, of course, what we need this summer. August politics is changing faster than the August skies, and this autumn looks set to be the most politically dramatic in my lifetime. (I’ve just turned 60.) Before Wester Ross, we were at the Edinburgh festival. I’ve never known so many people talking so vehemently about politics — conversations everywhere about governments of national unity, Dominic Cummings, Article 50, you name it. For what it’s worth, for more than a year I have been expecting a no-deal Brexit. I still do. That’s because the government has formidable powers, and I can’t see any deal to be done in the remaining time that Boris Johnson can strike which doesn’t finish him. Of course, there might be a no-confidence vote in the Commons within a few weeks. Curiously, he may well find himself in a stronger position if such a vote goes against him. How so? Because if he loses, then under the law he can call a general election for after Brexit day. With Britain out, the threat of the Brexit party is much less. Yes, there may be post-no-deal chaos, not the ideal backdrop for an election campaign; but the no-dealers are united while, almost inevitably, the Remainers will be badly split. Electorally, it’s his best bet. But if he sees off a vote of no confidence, according to the current law it’s then harder for him to call an election on a date that suits him. With an election off the agenda, the Commons alliance against no deal will pivot towards a further referendum. I don’t expect a government of national unity to happen. But I do think MPs may find a way to force Johnson to ask Brussels for a further delay, to give time for a referendum. That would be unbearably humiliating for him… without the alternative route of an election. That, I suspect, is his nightmare.
BUT here in Scotland, people are talking about that other referendum, the second independence one Nicola Sturgeon keeps promising. Many here argue that the underlying terms of the previous Scottish settlement (that Tory England does not impose itself too heavily on devolved Scotland) are broken by no deal. Unionists are despairing. After a no deal, who would lead the ‘stay’ campaign? There is even talk of a new party. For Scotland, being outside both the EU and the British union seems a very tough economic proposition. But there’s an even bigger issue. Suppose the Scottish government calls a new referendum this autumn, and Johnson’s administration sticks by its refusal to give the vote legal cover? What then? Many unionists would not campaign, on the basis that this was an illegal referendum. But if, driven by Brexit, there was a really big independence vote, wouldn’t Britain be close to a Spanish-Catalan stand-off? If independence then happened, it would be after an angry, cantankerous period — marches, civil disobedience (during which the future of Ireland would also be being debated). Borders really might go up. I get the strong sense of living through history.
IN the circumstances, there is a special journalists’ duty to keep a sense of proportion and balance. I’ve been reading a book about how other countries can learn from Germany’s struggle to confront its Nazi past. The author, Susan Neiman, quotes an essay by the philosopher William James on the Boston statue commemorating the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, who fought in the Civil War. He argues that the deadliest enemies of nations always dwell within their borders. But, he says: ‘The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties.’
THAT strikes me as an excellent motto for autumn 2019. I’m delighted that my show will be back at the beginning of September at its old time of 9 a.m. I had been worried that by mid-morning, too many people would be off walking the dog, visiting children or grandchildren, or at church. I can’t promise who will turn up. I can promise due seriousness for serious times, and courtesy in angry times. Join me, please.
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