I wonder if those gathered outside the Houses of Parliament on Friday evening, celebrating the UK’s departure from the European Union, will still be in flag-waving, party mood as the consequences of Brexit begin to bite over the years ahead. My hunch is not.
For me, it was a moment of profound sadness, regret and no little anger. As I have said many times since 2016, I believe the vote to leave was an act of self-harm on an unprecedented scale. It may take time for some of this to reveal itself, but we are already seeing signs. Meanwhile, our European partners, and the wider world, looks on in disbelief, as I was reminded again last weekend while visiting friends in Dublin.
For all his bullish rhetoric, Boris Johnson knows that Brexit is nowhere close to being ‘done’. He also seems determined to ramp up the prospects of a ‘no deal’ exit once the transition period comes to an end in December, something his own Treasury officials have warned could cost the UK economy up to 5% of GDP over the next 10-15 years.
All of which has emboldened the First Minister to double down on her calls for a second independence referendum. There are those in her party demanding a re-run of the 2014 vote later this year, and while Nicola Sturgeon knows that is not going to happen, these are people not known for taking no as an answer. Western Isles MP, Angus MacNeil, a close ally of Alex Salmond, spoke for many in the SNP when he called at the weekend for a ‘wildcat’ referendum in 2020.
Nicola Sturgeon knows such an illegal vote would damage her cause, but is struggling to keep the different factions in her party happy while not scaring off those still unpersuaded about independence. Her latest proposals for a constitutional convention rather sum up this predicament, as they commit her government to tying up more resources on constitutional naval-gazing while falling far short of what her more impatient supporters crave.
Needless to say, my sympathy for the First Minister is limited. As distraught as I am about the UK’s departure from the EU, the thought of compounding this division and uncertainty by embarking down the road of another independence referendum leaves me cold. The notion that unpicking a 300 year union would be any less messy, costly or disruptive than unpicking one of less than 50 years defies logic.
Meantime, the incessant focus on the constitution inevitably distracts from other issues; issues that appear to concern people more, certainly at a local level. Tellingly, in the last two years, the Scottish Government has failed to initiate a single debate on education. Yet, last week alone, Ministers led three parliamentary exchanges on matters relating to the constitution, including a debate on the parliament’s flag flying policy!
That cannot be right. It certainly doesn’t reflect the contents of my mailbag or inbox each week. I do receive correspondence on independence, but this is eclipsed by constituents getting in touch to highlight problems caused by a lack of capacity in local care or mental health services, including concerns over the recent closure of OACAS.
Uncertainty over the future of Peedie Breeks nursery, in part prompted by the implementation of government childcare policies, has also been causing real anxiety lately. More than simply an education issue, this has the potential to impact across the wider economy and public services in Orkney.
Transport, of course, is ever-present at the top of people’s priorities. Re-fit arrangements for MV Hamnavoe; delays to RET; ministerial backsliding on fair funding commitments and foot-dragging over the new ferries Orkney so desperately needs. The list of recent Scottish Government failures in transport is long and ignominious.
And scarcely a day goes by without someone contacting me to complain about broadband. Meantime, the First Minister’s promise of a superfast connection to every Scottish household by 2021 is disappearing over the horizon.
I appreciate people feel strongly about independence, both for and against. It continues to split the country down the middle. Yet all the time spent arguing over the constitution leaves less time to focus on other issues. Unfortunately, the latter are starting to show signs of neglect.