There was a story about two years ago which suggested that when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary his response when given what he considered to be bad news – usually about Brexit – was to cover his ears and hum the national anthem loudly until those giving him the news went away. I’d like to think that it isn’t true – having ministers simply ignoring the facts doesn’t exactly promote faith in government – but in his case it’s all too believable.
And he’s still at it. Last week, he said that anyone calling for a second referendum on Brexit is “doing the work of the Scottish National party” by making it more likely that there would also be a second referendum on Scottish independence, leading to the end of the UK as we currently know it. I’m not so sure that that’s true, in reality – a second EU referendum which led to a ‘remain’ outcome might actually make it less likely either that a second independence referendum would be held soon or that the majority would vote ‘yes’. The point, however, is that he seems to believe that independence can be prevented by simply not allowing a vote; as though preventing anyone from delivering the bad news means that the bad news doesn’t exist. It’s true, of course, that in terms of political reality, even if not in strict constitutional terms, independence cannot come about without a public vote of some sort but trying to prevent people from expressing their opinion is not the same as preventing them holding that opinion. Ultimately, if the people of Scotland want independence, in any sort of functioning democracy (a not entirely irrelevant caveat these days), then that outcome can only be delayed, not prevented, no matter how loudly Boris hums the anthem.
It isn’t only Boris, either. One of the arguments used by those opposing a second EU referendum is that we cannot simply ignore the 17.4 million who voted to leave. It’s true, of course, that asking people to say what they want and then ignoring the answer is a dangerous thing for a democracy. But given the increasingly strong evidence that, if another vote were to be held, it’s more than possible that the result would be very different, what definition of democracy says that is it better to ignore the probable majority now in favour of the actual majority three years ago? It’s another example of fingers-in-ears; people’s opinions don’t count unless they express them through the ballot box, and if they are not allowed to do that then they can be ignored.
In truth, there isn’t a simple non-damaging way out of the situation which we’ve reached. Whatever is decided, some people are going to feel that they’ve been cheated and deceived, and with considerable justification. But testing the state of opinion again is always going to be a better option than simply humming ‘God Save the Queen’ ever louder.