Yesterday’s speech by the UK Prime Minister managed on the one hand to clarify little about the nature of Brexit (other than that it still means Brexit, although whether saying that X means X adds anything to the sum total of human knowledge isn’t even a moot point), whilst on the other making it clear that in any conflict between control of immigration and the economic interests of the country, the former will take precedence. Inevitably, most of the reporting of what she said will be seen by most of us through the prism of a UK perspective on the world, but I can’t help wondering whether there aren’t European leaders scratching their heads and trying to work out why on earth any government with any sense would think that keeping a few foreigners out was more important than maximising economic benefits. ‘How on earth do we negotiate with people who think that way?’ they must surely be thinking. Perhaps that’s a deliberate part of her strategy – keep them mystified.
Inevitably, her statement that the UK is one single entity and will exit the EU as such will attract attention in Wales, and even more so in Scotland. In Wales, given that a majority of those who voted opted for ‘leave’, it will be easy to dismiss the special pleading of Carwyn Jones and the Welsh ‘government’, particularly since he asserts continually that the one thing he does not want is for Wales to have the sort of power and autonomy which would justify a different sort of deal for Wales. I put the word ‘government’ in quotes for a reason here: another interesting part of the PM’s wording was that she described her government as ‘the government’ and those of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as being ‘devolved administrations’. I suspect that tells us quite a lot about her perspective on devolution, even if only by inference.
There are other clues to her perspective as well, in the way she uses the word ‘sovereign’. It is clear that to her sovereignty lies in London with Parliament and the Crown, and is not the property of the people. That is an accurate statement of the legal position under the UK constitution - that point has been made on this blog in the past. It’s at odds, though, with the idea that Brexit has to happen because the people have instructed the government to organise it, which was another element in her speech. To me, there’s an obvious contradiction there.
At this stage, it looks more likely than not that there will be another vote on Scottish independence, although it’s still far from certain, and the timing will be the subject of a great deal of analysis in Scotland itself. I had the impression from reading her speech that she’s either being as complacent about political developments in Scotland as was her predecessor, or else she really doesn’t get the idea that it’s ultimately up to the people themselves. Maybe both.
But what happens in Scotland over the next two years won’t be happening in isolation. In the immediate future, the spotlight might well be moving to Catalunya, where a showdown between the Generalitat and the central Spanish authorities is slowly but inexorably approaching. As Syniadau has reported, the leader of the government there has made it clear that there will either be a referendum on independence or there will be a referendum on independence; whilst the outcome is not yet certain, the continued short-sighted refusal of the central authorities – which are in a state of limbo anyway after two indecisive elections – even to allow the people a choice is likely to favour those supporting independence. There is a similar demand for constitutional change in the Basque country as well. In the long term, and short of using military might, people cannot be coerced into leaving a state of which they are part – but neither can they be coerced into staying in a state of which they no longer want to be a part. Sovereignty, and where power lies, are issues for the people themselves.The increasingly jingoistic noises, along with the nineteenth century attitudes to the rest of the world, coming from members of the new UK Government are depressing to many of us. They might yet, however, provoke faster and greater constitutional change within the British Isles. And that change might come to look like part of a European phenomenon rather than a peculiarly Scottish or British one. From that perspective, it’s not impossible that an attempt by part of the UK to become less European could actually make other parts become more European in outlook. The question for us in Wales is which side of history we want to be on; at the moment, it looks to me as though we’re in danger of choosing the wrong side. This is not a time for being too afraid of scaring the horses even to put the case for independence; it’s a time for being bold and seizing an opportunity which may not come again for a very long time.