This was orginally published on Total Politics. But edited slightly for reasons of space. Here’s the full unexpurgated version!:
In years to come this whole Brexit palaver will be taught in Bubbleology 101 – the study of Westminster by Westminster to the exclusion of all else.
George Osborne was the prick that burst the bubble for me.
One of his infamous, and invariably expensive, Budget quips made it very plain to me that neither he nor David Cameron had been paying attention during the Scottish independence referendum. The pair were too indolent to carry out any post-match analysis on that particular vote and too arrogant to listen to anyone who had.
It’s that attitude that has put us where we are now with MPs scared to walk to work and the general public phoning in to the Jeremy Vine show claiming they’ve some sort of Brexit induced anxiety disorder (I didn’t stick around for the item on gout but that’s probably got something to do with Brexit too as people drink to forget what’s going on in Westminster).
Few will remember the joke that accompanied the 2015 budget announcement of £1 million to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Even fewer will remember those commemorations so that was money well spent. But it was made to entertain the Cameroon acolytes at the expense of the greater good. And that illustrates why we find ourselves four years later on the verge of crashing out of the EU.
Back then Osborne jibed: “The battle of Agincourt is, of course, celebrated by Shakespeare as a victory secured by a ‘band of brothers’. It is also when a strong leader defeated an ill-judged alliance between the champion of a united Europe and a renegade force of Scottish nationalists.”
He should’ve spent the £1 million on more of those ‘Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket’ billboards.
For Agincourt was an English victory while Osborne was the UK’s chancellor. The ‘joke’ was essentially ‘Ha ha ha, some English killed some Scots and although I’ve been telling you for five years there’s no money I do have money to celebrate that,’ with the added implication that the English had beaten the Scots again in September 2014.
It seemed to set up Tory England against Scotland where 45% of the population had just voted for independence. By implication nearly half of Scots were ‘renegades’ in Osborne’s eyes.
It seemed poorly judged to my ears as someone who had covered the independence referendum six months previously and who knew the wounds of that contest – which was both glorious and grisly, democratic and divisive – had not yet healed.
And as someone of mixed parentage (one English, one Scottish) I was very aware that the Scots don’t take kindly to any Englishman lauding it over them no matter how far back in history the slight might go. And they are particularly ill disposed towards posh boy Eton Tories.
It also seemed unlikely to win over Scots voters to the Tory cause at a time when the party had just one MP.
It was as politically unintelligent as it was comedically unfunny.
It was a throwaway line little remarked on at the time.
But events would prove my political antennae correct. And how.
The following day I had an audience with the then PM David Cameron and I put it to him that the joke signalled the Tories had given up on trying to win any seats in Scotland.
His face went a little redder than usual, he put his hands behind his head and leaned right back, “Do you really think that?” he thundered. “Do you really think that?”
I replied that since he’d visited Scotland quite a bit before, during and after the referendum he ought to know that jokes about it aren’t terribly well received.
He said he thought the Scots could take a joke. Six weeks later the Scots returned 56 SNP MPs and the sole Scottish Tory hung on after a recount.
Those 50 new MPs ought to have turned up for their first day at work with a banner reading “Mac-Ha ha ha”.
It’s not that Cameron didn’t understand post-referendum politics. He didn’t care. As far as he was concerned he won, purred at the Queen and started doing evel – English Votes for English Laws.
If he’d paid attention or had better advisors (Craig Oliver would be in my face before I left the room after the above exchange hissing ‘Are you saying you can’t make jokes in Scotland, is that what you’re saying?’ A little less aggression and a little more listening and Rory Kinnear might’ve been the star of the recent Brexit drama on Channel 4) he would have seen the damage done to Scotland and Scottish politics.
Appalled at the division engendered by the EU referendum? In Scotland friends and family may have patched up relationships that buckled under the strain of the independence debate but many still avoid talking politics.
Isn’t it awful that Anna Soubry and Owen Jones are getting abuse? Jim Murphy had to suspend his campaigning tour of Scotland for his own safety in 2014 and the SNP – the ruling party – lampooned Scotland’s foremost political commentator David Torrance in one of their political ads contributing to his decision to quit journalism, and to leave Scotland. Can you imagine the Tories hiring an Owen Jones lookalike (any 14-year-old boy would do) for a PPB aimed squarely at taking the piss out of him?
Scottish politics is not about left and right but Yes and No. (Which is why Labour have been squeezed out of the national conversation, that and a succession of leaders that look like a de-evolution of political ability; on current trends a balloon on a stick will replace Richard Leonard some time in the next 12 months).
And still Westminster pays no heed. Commentators that talk of a single issue general election focussed on Brexit are way wide of the mark. Any general election in Scotland will still be characterised by a choice between unionist and nationalist candidates, Brexit will be a secondary consideration.
UK politics is now cleft along Leave and Remain lines and the example of Scotland shows that will remain so for the foreseeable future.
We are in an era of post-referendum politics characterised by poor quality and uncivil discourse, a shallow pool of political talent and a media that has muddled news, opinion and gossip. And Scotland got there first.
The PM talks of moving on. Ain’t going to happen. No matter what happens on March 29.