For the last couple of days summer has gnashed its teeth in Scotland, girning and moaning in windy torrents and lashings of rain. The atmosphere has been decidedly frosty too with a cold wind making low temperatures feel even lower.
Somehow this summer weather spat is in tune with much of the political mood in a country which, on top of a referendum on leaving the European Union in which it voted 62% to remain, a bitter general election has left us in limbo.
The uncertainty of the turning of an expected huge majority at Westminster for the Tories into a nail-biting majority propped up by ten MPs from the Northern Irish DUP party, has riveted even those who usually shun politics to news bulletins and social media.
The Tories and DUP want what politicians and journalists call a hard Brexit, that is a withdrawal from everything to do with the EU, although the DUP want a ‘soft’ border (one without customs or immigration controls) between Northern Ireland and Ireland which will remain an EU member. However, some of their Tory friends want to retain the benefits of the Single Market and Customs Union without actually being members of either. The single market seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour – referred to as the “four freedoms” – within the EU. The market comprises the 28 member states, with a few exceptions and anomalies, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway (through the European Economic Area Agreement) and Switzerland (through bilateral treaties).
The Customs Union basically consists of all the EU member states plus Monaco and some territories of the United Kingdom which are not part of the EU and a few other inclusions and exclusions. No customs duties are levied on goods travelling within the customs union and — unlike a free trade area — a common external tariff is imposed on all goods entering the union. The European Commission negotiates international trade deals rather than each member state negotiating individually.
With campaigning in the UK taking on an American hue, the referendum was fought on the basis of minimum information and maximum mount of spin and misinformation, much of which has now been acknowledged as, or in the light of subsequent admissions seen as, lies. So a largely uninformed UK electorate voted out of patriotic pride to ‘take back control’ of their country without having a clue what that actually meant (apart from curbing EU immigration), and whether this would see us also leave the single market and the customs union, and what the consequences of that would be.
With the consequences now becoming clearer some voters are having second thoughts, and this was to some extent reflected in the Tory loss of support in the general election. Manifesto pledges to hit pensioners, a natural Tory-voting group, no doubt also contributed.
Those who voted to remain in the EU have increasingly felt as if Trump’s Mexican wall had, in built form, floated across the Atlantic to position itself mid Channel, cutting the UK off from mainland Europe – a paywall as the heading photograph indicates. EU nationals who have over many years made their homes here, or who have moved for employment or to study, have become increasingly uncomfortable. Many feel they are being used by the UK government as bargaining chips in a battle which is not of their making; others no longer feel welcome in a country where they are settled with husbands, partners and families.
UK withdrawal negotiations have now begun amidst sweeping rumors of a lack of those with skills to conduct such complex negotiations. Remember the EU has conducted these for us for forty-four years since the UK joined the EU in 1973.
The prime minister, Theresa May, who endlessly paraded herself as strong and stable was seen as weak and wobbly, hiding from voters during the general election campaign and only speaking to small groups of selected individuals in out-of-the-way secret venues. Even the press was only notified of these locations at the last minute to avoid placard-waving, slogan-shouting protestors. Her manifesto had barely seen the light of day before she handbraked u-turns on many of its policies and oversaw numerous PR disasters. Online, in quips and caricatures capturing her shambolic performance, the endlessly repeated phrase ‘strong and stable’ made May a laughing stock worldwide.
But against the odds, and against an opposition leader who roused himself and the electorate, including many young people, to slash the Tory majority and come close to winning, May held on. The confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP gives her a majority of thirteen, so enables her to pass budgets and major pieces of legislation including legislation on Brexit – providing she can keep both her own party’s Remainers and right-wing Brexit bravados on board.
May and a few of her cabinet are regarded as having Trump tendencies and slogans (make America great again, make Britain great again), so even though negotiations with the EU have begun, the pubic remains in the dark over what the UK government hopes to achieve, and in denial about what it is likely to have to accept. Daily, we hear one minister asserting one position, while another tempers that or even disputes it. We are like ping-pong balls, batted between opposing sides, swiped off the table, dropped on the floor, perhaps even stood on in the rush to control more of the game.
So not surprising that the recent summer weather matches the mood of frustration, annoyance, despair, apathy, uncertainty and determination that pervades much of Scotland. The tempest of moods certainly swirls around and through the people I know in this part of the country, making it feel more like the chilly autumn of our dreams than the high summer of our hopes.