In the wake of the EU referendum result, and the momentous political events that have followed over the past week, it seems almost banal to return to everyday stuff. I watched the results of the referendum over the course of the night and into the early hours – sleeping fitfully, but returning to the TV screen to see the unfolding picture. For me as a ‘remainer’ the nightmare was happening whilst I was awake! But the decision is made and I don’t intend to rehearse the issues of the campaign (you’ll be glad to hear). But I feel that more has changed than just our relationship with the EU.
I find myself returning to everyday normality, but with a strong Pythonesque sense of the surreal. Take the issue of minimum unit pricing (MUP): Readers may recall that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) published a judgment on this measure in December 2015. They kicked the decision back to the Scottish courts on the basis that MUP did break EU free movement of goods regulations, and taxation might be a better way for the Scottish government to achieve its health goals in relation to alcohol. The Scottish government now has to convince the Scottish Court of Sessions that there is no measure they could take that would be less trade-restrictive than MUP and which could achieve the same results. And of course the boys and girls from Sheffield University were on hand with a new mathematical model.
What strikes me as surreal is that in a couple of years’ time the UK will no longer be a member of the EU and therefore not covered by the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Except that Nicola Sturgeon would like, somehow, for Scotland to remain in the EU, even in advance of another Scottish independence referendum. But the UK is in until it is out – and both sides in the MUP case have stated they will appeal the Scottish court’s decision to the Supreme Court in London, should they lose.
Will any of this matter in a couple of years’ time? We will have left and therefore Scotland can impose MUP if they want to and the EU won’t be able to do anything about it, right? Well, not quite. If Scotland, outside the EU, introduces MUP then the ECJ won’t be able to act, but the EU will be able to impose trade sanctions on, for example, exports of Scotch Whisky. Maybe a quota system, or a 15% surcharge. Of course we will have “got our sovereignty back” and we will “no longer be subject to the dictats of a foreign court” so that’s alright then. People should reflect on which is preferable: an orderly judicial process or a trade war – echoes of gunboat diplomacy and the whiff of cordite – we don’t have Lord Palmerston any more, but we do have, er…Boris. Oh, but we don’t – he’s just bottled it and declared he’s not standing for leader. He who wields the knife rarely wins the crown!
Another unwelcome development earlier this year was the publication of the new low-risk Alcohol Guidelines. The Guidelines proposed an upper limit of 14 units of alcohol a week for both men and women and a new mantra: “There is no safe level of alcohol consumption”. On Tuesday the 28th June Byron Davies, Conservative MP for Gower, secured a debate in Westminster Hall on the alcohol consumption guidelines. The minister, Jane Ellison and her Labour counterpart Diane Abbott were both present and summed up the government’s and the opposition’s viewpoint respectively.
Byron Davies made an excellent speech, criticising the unrealistic level of ‘low-risk’ consumption; the way that decades of science that proved the health-protective effects of low and moderate consumption had been ignored by the Review; and the disproportionate influence of members of the temperance movement whose members served on the advisory committee that drew up the Guidelines. All good stuff.
But again, I found this more than a little surreal. Diane Abbott gave a speech in which she banged on about cancer and alcohol-related ill-health, completely missing the point of the whole debate. As far as she was concerned alcohol was A Bad Thing, and anything that was intended to reduce consumption was therefore A Good Thing. This prompted Andrew Griffiths MP for Burton to comment “Your speech is ridiculous.” But perhaps Diane Abbott had other things on her mind - like the disintegration of the Shadow Cabinet and the coup underway against Jeremy Corbyn. It amazes me that in the wake of the political earthquake taking place in both the main political parties, Abbott can still find the energy for an anti-alcohol rant.
I said at the beginning of this article that I thought something more had changed than just our relationship with the EU. I respect the considered views of those who want to leave, but I can’t help but feel that the whole tone of the debate has exposed a dark side to our political discourse. The upsurge of hate crimes comes to mind. Michael Gove commented on what experts had said about the economic consequences of Brexit: “I think the country’s had enough of experts.” Perhaps he could give us an example of where anti-intellectualism has ever led to anything other than bigotry. Introducing the politics of identity into the Brexit debate was playing with fire. Fear of foreigners and an upsurge of racism have somehow slithered onto the agenda.
Perhaps the way to restore some sense of normality and stability is to retreat into the small stuff; the everyday stuff. I fear that prospect might be some way off.