European Union

From Brexit to Scotix

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Mhairi Black, 22 years old star of the British Parliament

Mhairi Black is the 22-year-old deputy of the Scottish Nationalist Party in the British parliament. She is very energetic and speaks like vulcano. To have a taste of one of her fiery conversations, just watch her interview with 32-year-old independent journalist, Owen Jones. They spoke at an airport three months before the Brexit vote, and their words seemed to be flying with the planes. Catherine Ashton, Baroness of Upholland and former High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, describes those months as the period when Britain managed to put the Scottish request for independence to bed and everyone was calm.
Well, the newborn baby, as the Westminster Boys’ Club calls her, was not calm at all. In spite of the defeat of the referendum in 2014, she continues to fight for Scottish independence. And she wants it to become socialist. Now that Brexit has become a reality and London has to prepare for its negotiations with Brussels and define the modality of the divorce, Black and her majority party want to secede from the United Kingdom even faster. The main reason this time is that Scotland wants to stay in the European Union.

In 1990, when we Slovenians voted for independence, we were young, too. I no longer lived in Ljubljana, but I visited often to see family and friends. There was no apparent limitation of movement, but since the economy was crumbling, the federal government stopped using foreign currency to import oranges, books, and the like. With the hyperinflation of the local currency, my friends weren’t able to travel as much, so when I could, I “smuggled” books into the country, and carried materials on the human rights situation in Slovenia out to my European Parliament contacts.

The federal decision to ban any participation in European research projects — together with the prohibition on imports of high-tech products like computers — became really oppressive. And yet — I do not know how — many Slovenians still used them. But the fact that Slovenians — about 10 percent of the Yugoslavian population — had been contributing 40 percent of the national GDP and had no say in its spending was, to my mind, the tipping point — the sign that it was time to step out of the federation. I do not recall manifestations of extreme nationalism back then. It was all about anger against the federal government for reducing the space and possibilities for development, and the strong desire of a nation that felt it could do better if integrated in a wider European community. Like the SNP, we wanted to secede in order to join the rest of Europe.

The referendum in November 1990 showed that the vast majority of Slovenians backed independence and the possibility of joining a family of our own choosing.

Once the tension of the civil war was over, things started to go well. We first became known as a small nation with an anthem that celebrates wine drinking. People started to become curious, and when they came to visit, they liked what they saw — an efficient country with hard-working people. And proud people, too. One after another, Slovenia joined international organisations like the U.N., the OECD, NATO, and the EU.

But along with new development, the purchase of arms upon NATO’s request, and the building of motorways and other infrastructure, there also came corruption. First, it fed and financed political parties, and later on, individuals began to benefit from the corruption, too. The strong, united national interest at the time of the referendum devolved into ideological bickering over the remote past. Politicians became biased and lost their vision and capacity to lead. It never happened before, but now Slovenians distrust their own political class. Unfortunately, we are unable to select anyone better with democratic vote.

The country is scared. As is normal for small countries, the refugee crisis created xenophobia in Slovenia. All this did not take away the beauty of the place, which is full of talented people. Perhaps Slovenia should learn from Scotland and pick their ruling class from among the women and the left.

Because this is what 22-year-old Mhairi Black and some of her Scottish colleagues from the SNP are all about. “It’s been Labour for years and years and years. In the last two years, there has been a seismic historical shift from Labour — proper old Labour –to SNP. You’ve got people like myself, whose heroes are Kier Hardie and Tony Benn, at an SNP conference, an SNP member of Parliament. That’s because, in the last 10 years or so, the SNP’s the only party that’s actually been trying to help folk at the bottom,” Black explained in the aforementioned interview. It was not only because of the historic contrast between countries. It was also because of the new awareness that for decades people were sleepwalking to the polls. It was the failed referendum for independence that opened the eyes of Scots, who realized that there was no difference between the Tories and the Labour Party. The referendum failed because of the high level of complacency within the Labour. It prevented the party from thinking harder about its politics and how it campaigns, or from choosing better candidates. In the end, there would be no difference if they put a monkey on the ballot, Black said in the interview. Blind as voters were, they would still vote for him.

The failure of the referendum for independence in September 2014 was a good political experience for the forthcoming general election a year later. This time, the Scots were ready, politically educated, and much more articulate. It was one heck of a campaign, and the SPN came out of the polls as the third strongest political party in the whole country.

Mhairi Black was 20 when she was elected. When she first came into Westminster, she caused an uproar: she was young, female, gay, and soon to become the most popular MP. The Boys’ Club, as she calls the British Parliament, is a subtly sexist congregation, with its patronizing observations, arrogance, and condescending remarks, says Black, who swears to work to prepare the second referendum because this, she says, is the only way to change things and build a socialist Scotland. You can’t do it in a country of four nations, Black insists — you have to make too many  compromises.

Will it be possible? The combatant Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish first minister and leader of the SPN, went to 10 Downing Street last week to discuss the strategy for Brexit negotiations with with Prime Minister Theresa May.

“We discussed the UK’s negotiating position in general, but it is safe to say we got no more information or detail on that than we had before we went into the meeting, and I got the strong sense the UK government itself doesn’t know what it is trying to achieve.

“That is why many parts of the meeting were deeply frustrating, because we felt as if we weren’t getting any greater insight into the thinking of the UK government,” Sturgeon said. But the Scottish first minister — who enjoys the support of young fighters like Black — intends to hold off the second referendum until the government shows its cards, as Martin Kettle observes in the Guardian.

It’s not only Prime Minister May who will have to figure out what her party — which encouraged Brexit — intends to do. The situation depends on many factors, and at the moment, almost nobody can guess what will happen between now and March 2017, when the British government will call for Article 50, which will, in turn, start the procedure of separation from the European Union.

“Nobody quite knows what Brexit would look like,” Catherine Ashton said on Wednesday in a meeting at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C., just two blocks away from where Donald Trump and his clan were inaugurating his empty gala hotel in the former post office building. Ashton explained that nobody has negotiated anything similar before, and that there are many different possible scenarios for the outcome.

There is also the possibility that nothing will happen, and that the outcome will actually depend on the decision of parliament. Why? Simply because the referendum was an advisory vote that has no legislative power. That is why the U.K. Supreme Court will have to examine it and figure out on what basis the referendum was approved. As Ashton explained, the High Court will have to see whether there was any suggestion that it would have come back to the Parliament for the final decision. In other words, was there — during the initial debate — a suggestion that the final decision on the outcome of the advisory referendum should be taken by Parliament?

Yet again, the opinion of Supreme Court is not obligatory for Parliament. It is the Parliament that is supreme and above all in U.K. Ashton, who knows the law and the Parliament’s mindset, says that if there is some suggestion that Parliament should decide, the MPs will respect the decision of the voters.

But there is another aspect of the Parliament jurisdiction that is getting increasing attention: the question of how far one decision (like this referendum vote) can undo all the legal decisions that Parliament has taken in the past. And as parts of those past decisions that Parliament has taken are related to the interwoven relationships of the country with the European Union, this could well decide what happens with Brexit.

Ashton observed that the government is getting quite nervous about this issue because it’s obvious that, if it comes down to it, Parliament will vote to stay in the EU by a large majority.

But even if the Parliament lets it go, and the government triggers Article 50, we still do not know if Britain’s exit will be soft or hard. If soft — that is, a solution that would leave Britain with many of its current trade privileges — it might create a bad example for other countries that may opt for an exit.If hard, Scotland — and perhaps even Ireland — might call for another independence referendum.

As I learned, this year’s Brexit referendum attracted 3 million more voters than the 2015 election. That is almost 10 percent more voters. According to statistics, a good portion of those three million voters were white, male, over 50 and not college educated. The grand majority of those people voted for Brexit. As Peter Kellner, the president of the online polling organisation YouGov, remarked during the Winston Center panel, “The ‘exam-passing’ classes voted to remain.”

And they lost. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the ‘exam-passing’ voters in the presidential elections two weeks from now will likely vote for Hillary Clinton. The hope is that in this case, they will win.

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