What brought about the Brexit own goal? Increasingly clearly much more than a protest against the EU. We've all seen the analysis of the vote that reveals a very real gap between remainers and leavers in terms of age, education, income, geography and nationality. But to my mind the outcome was the result of an even wider, more all-encompassing divide – between what, in shorthand, can be called the haves and the have-nots.
That is why I agree with the Observer’s editorial of 26 June which argued that towards the end of the campaign it was almost not about the EU at all: 'it was about alienated voters, fractured communities…and the seething, hitherto repressed anger of so many people who felt they have been left behind'.
Let me try to defend this view by charting aspects of my own personal history. In 1970 I left Edinburgh for Aberdeen – arriving just at the time when the North Sea oil boom was, as it were, picking up steam. Having sold a quite large, top-floor flat in Edinburgh’s new town for under £5,000, I was shocked by rocketing house prices in Aberdeen. (It was then that I made the unforgettably stupidest remark of my life – announcing angrily that I’d never pay over five figures for a house…) But at this time Aberdeen was still largely a complacently provincial city. It was impossible to find a greengrocer stocking courgettes, aubergines, or globe artichokes, and when I complained that a local shop was out of cream I was told that was because there was little call for it. All this was about to change. And by 1980 when I left for Glasgow, the influx of newcomers had transformed Aberdeen into the prosperous international city that until recently it remained.
Glasgow in 1980 was very different. With two of us in permanent, full-time academic jobs, I was able to buy quite a large house in the West End – and send our children to Glasgow High School. But it was obvious that Glasgow was less prosperous than Aberdeen. I remember being particularly struck by the number of old cars that were on the roads – old bangers we used to call them.
That recollection has come to mind frequently in recent times because of the sharp contrast it provides with the situation today. Now the streets of the West End often seem crowded with BMWs, Mercedes, Volvos, Audis, Porsches, and other expensive cars. In a residential area near St Bride’s church, where I sometimes park, I frequently see no fewer than three Bentleys. Then Byres Road, the West End’s main shopping street, apparently has along its length as many as 26 locations where one can have one’s morning coffee. The street’s supermarkets now include the up-market Waitrose as well as Marks and Spencer’s and Tesco. There are many boutique-style shops – including one selling balsamic vinegar that costs more than champagne. A branch of the major bookstore Waterstone’s has recently opened. In other words there is plenty of evidence that in and around Glasgow’s West End there are plenty of people who are doing well and have money to spend.
But – and it’s a very big but – that is only part of the story. Byres Road also has a surprising number of charity shops selling cut-price clothes and so much more. Waitrose and Tesco invite us to buy items to be sent on to the food banks across the city. Big Issue sellers are much in evidence – and then every day, more troublingly, one passes on the pavement all too many of the destitute, with signs saying things like 'I am hungry please help me’. In other words, the evidence of wealth I’ve been providing co-exists with evidence of extreme poverty and deprivation.
Perhaps I’m over-dramatising the gulf between the two, but the point remains that across the UK from at least the financial crash of 2008 – some would say from the time of Mrs Thatcher – the gap between those in our society doing reasonably well, and the huge number whose standard of living has been declining, has widened alarmingly. Given this situation, it is hardly surprising that millions of people – having read in their newspapers, and been told repeatedly by the leaders of the leave campaign, that we’d all be better off if we took back control and escaped the clutches of the unelected, faceless bureaucrats of Brussels – decided to give it a try. After all what had they to lose?
How then, I’ll be asked, did a substantial majority of Scots decide not to give it a try? The answer I believe is the success of the SNP. Particularly in the most recent general election the SNP persuaded vast numbers of former Labour supporters that it, not Labour, was the party that recognised their plight and knew how to resolve it. Escape from the clutches of Westminster and all will be well. Westminster was the problem – certainly not Brussels. This was why in the referendum our SNP government supported the remain campaign and persuaded most of its supporters to do the same. To my mind, however, this success leaves the party with a problem that remains unresolved and could in the future turn out to be damaging.
The Scottish National Party’s defining mission has always been the breaking of the union between Scotland and England. At the same time the party remains committed to the maintenance of Scotland’s position within the European Union. I have never understood how these two goals are intellectually compatible with each other. If it is perfectly acceptable for Scotland to cede a substantial degree of sovereignty over its economy, its environment, its human rights legislation, its fishing rights, and other areas, to the 27 states in the 40-year-old European Union, why is it unacceptable for Scotland and its devolved parliament to cede similar powers to the government of a union which has endured for over 300 years? What is it about the rest of the UK that makes a continuing union with it less attractive than entering into a union with 27 states some of which have some links with Scotland but many others do not?
Writing in favour of Scottish independence now, in a recent contribution to the Scottish Review, Bill Mitchell argues that the answer is a basic clash of values. 'The events of the last fortnight,’ he tells us, 'represent tangible evidence that our societies have different values'. This strikes me as a quite extraordinary assertion. No doubt there are individuals in Scotland and England who have different values, but to suggest that Scottish society as a whole espouses a set of values alien to those of England as a whole, is absurd.
Are we seriously being asked to believe that the thousands of Scots who live in England – and the thousands of English people who live in Scotland – have different values from those of their next-door neighbours? And in the context of breaking up one union while embracing another, I wonder whether these alleged 'Scottish' values – rejected by England – are shared by all 27 states of the European Union?
Having been in power now for nearly a decade the SNP government has done little to improve the living standard of our country’s have nots. It has chosen rather to enhance its appeal to middle-class supporters. And one of its ways of doing so is by embracing Europe. In the longer term, however, will its increasingly disillusioned radical supporters be impressed by a decision to maintain a union with an unreformed Europe? Somehow I doubt it.