Following David Cameron’s ‘success’ in securing the basis for a new relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, television pictures showed the Prime Minister deep in conversation with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, but without dialogue. Here I imagine what might have come between the two men had the microphones been switched on.
DC: “Well, Jean-Claude, we’ve made a great leap forward but I need your help because considering press reaction to the agreement back in the UK, it could still get messy.”
JCJ: “And who created this mess in the first place, David? You – by committing yourself to a referendum in your election manifesto.”
DC: “Believe me, I would have avoided it but for UKIP breathing down my neck. Despite their failure to break through in terms of seats at the election they attracted almost four million votes and, to paraphrase a controversial Hibernian politician (breaks into ‘Oirish’), ‘T’ey haven’t gone away ye know’.”
JCJ: “But, David, it’s not just you; all establishment governments in Europe are under pressure from right-wing parties. Look at France and the Front Nationale.”
DC: “But these parties don’t have large blocks of anti-EU MP’s within their own ranks like I do. They’re a shower of swivel-eyed loons but the problem is they still have big support among grass roots members – the blazer-wearers and women who still have their hair done in a perm like their grandmothers did 60 years ago. Thankfully they’ll die off sooner rather than later but not so quickly that they can’t scupper our deal.”
JCJ (looking pensive): “Hmm. I see. Difficult.”
DC: “And that’s not all. There’s Scotland. If England and Wales vote to leave the EU and Scotland votes to remain then the pressure for another referendum on Scottish independence could become unstoppable.”
JCJ: “Aren’t you exaggerating a bit, David? We don’t hear the same scare stories coming from Madrid regarding Catalonia.”
DC: “But the Spaniards and the Catalans are both strongly in favour of being part of the EU. My situation is the opposite and the SNP will play up an English vote to leave and a Scottish vote to stay for all it’s worth. Nicola Sturgeon is an astute politician; those in Scotland who deride her as a ‘nippy sweetie’ underestimate her.”
JCJ: “I’ve met Ms Sturgeon and I wouldn’t call her a sweetie.”
DC (laughs): “It’s not a compliment, Jean-Claude. In Scotland a sweetie is a piece of confectionary and a ‘nippy sweetie’ is one of those hot candy balls that sting the back of the tongue – i.e. Nicola.”
JCJ: “Oh I see. Strange people, the Scots.”
DC: “I hope you’re joking; I’m part Scots, you know – my father’s folks are originally from Aberdeenshire.”
JCJ: “Aberdeenshire? Isn’t that where all the fine malt whiskies are made?”
DC: “Yes, on Speyside. But fine malts are produced in many other parts of Scotland too.”
JCJ: “Yes, as whisky is very good for the Scottish and British economies, it would be extremely foolish to vote for something that interfered with the whisky-makers’ access to the 500-million strong EU market.”
(Dave is stung by this implied threat but decides that attack is the best form of defence)
DC (sounding authoritarian): “I should remind you that fishing was once a very important part of the British economy too – until one of my predecessors, Ted Heath, signed up for the Common Market, which forced captains to burn serviceable boats and throw huge catches back into the North Sea. Now,
if that used-car salesman, Nigel Farage, ever got my job there could be a 200-mile exclusion zone around the British coastline and what would those notoriously bolshie Spanish and French skippers do about that!?”
JCJ (ashen-faced): “Noted.”
DC (adopting a conciliatory tone): “I’m only trying to make a point here, Jean-Claude. That’s why I need your help to deliver this deal.”
JCJ: “Okay, let me see what I can do. I will start by instructing my spin doctors to prepare two press releases – one for British and the other for continental consumption. One will highlight the way you drove a hard bargain on your country’s behalf; the other will say that the agreement addresses British concerns while making no fundamental changes to the way the EU operates.”
DC: “Thank YOU, Jean-Claude.”
JCJ (rising from his chair): “Now, David, let’s put this behind us for a little while. Can I offer you (attempts a Scots accent) a wee dram from my drinks cabinet? I think there’s a couple of malts from Speyside.”
(Jean-Claude pours Dave a glass, which the latter finishes rather more quickly than he should, causing a rush to the blood).
DC (by now rosy-cheeked): “Wow! That is a fine malt – from what appears to be a very well-stocked drinks cabinet. They don’t call you Jean-Claude Junket for nothing – ha! So I wouldn’t say no to another wee dram, only don’t make it so wee this time. After all, Great Britain is the second biggest net contributor to the EU – and by implication your blue-chip expense account.”
BORIS JOHNSON AND THE DUKE OF HAMILTON?
There’s an increasing sense of déjà vu regarding the debates over the terms of Britain’s continued EU membership and the union of Scotland and England in 1706/07.
Those who want to remain in the EU tend to belong to the political and business establishment as was the case in the Scotland of 1707 when union was championed by most of the top aristocrats and sharp-eyed technocrats.
Opposition to EU membership encompasses a wider spectrum of society, just as Scotland’s continued independence found support among lower-level lairds, radicals, romantics and risk-takers in what, back then, passed for a ‘business community’.
The similarities are not confined to groups either. Consider Lord Belhaven, one of the more prominent peers on the nationalist side of 1707 who spoke passionately in debate, invoking the memory of past Caledonian heroes who had managed to defeat earlier English attempts at conquest.
Is there not a certain symbiosis between Belhaven and Nigel Farage, who also speaks with passion in the cause of British sovereignty and who frequently emphasises that the issue is about more than just money?
Another key figure in 1707 was Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, an intellectual supporter of independence. He argued that Scotland was too tholed to England in economic terms and called for the establishment of greater trading links with the continent and beyond – much like today’s businessmen not signed up to the CBI/IOD stance who see leaving the EU as an opportunity rather than a threat.
But perhaps the most apposite comparison is that between the Duke of Hamilton, in 1707 Scotland’s highest peer, and contemporary Britain’s most high-profile politician (after the PM) – Boris Johnson.
Hamilton led the pro-independence lobby and given his position in society was a bigger individual than anyone the pro-union lobby could come up with. However, the duke also sent out ambiguous and contradictory signals – and on the day of the vital vote stayed away from Parliament Hall, citing severe toothache as a reason.
Boris is the ‘big hitter’ that many in the Brexit camp would like to front their campaign – but is he a latter-day Duke of Hamilton?
Johnson said on BBC as recently as last month that Britain could have “a great, great future outside the EU” but added: “I’m waiting to see the outcome of negotiations; I think that’s the right thing to do.” This has led to accusations of fence-sitting and much worse besides.
For those still hopeful of Boris fronting the ‘out’ campaign, let’s hope the floppy-haired one does not have dental appointments in June, September or whatever month is finally chosen for the referendum.