IN A Warning To The Curious by MR James, a certain Mr Paxton searches for a buried Anglo-Saxon crown.

It is supposed, by local legend, to protect England’s sovereignty from continental invasion. He manages – perhaps to his own surprise – to unearth the crown, but almost as soon as he has done so things start to go wrong for him. Instead of receiving the fame and wealth for which he had hoped, Mr Paxton is haunted and hunted to his eventual destruction.

Although a narrow majority UK-wide (not, of course, in Scotland) voted for Brexit, many have already realised it was a grave mistake. It is the biggest economic, diplomatic and ­constitutional mistake in the history of the ­United ­Kingdom. It is likely to be proximate cause of the ­United Kingdom’s ultimate ­collapse. It has scuppered an economy that had never ­really recovered from the 2008 financial crisis and a decade of ­austerity. It has torn through ­whatever ­threadbare fabric of the unwritten const itution ­existed.

“The worst of it,” Mr Paxton says when he ­realises his error, “is I don’t know how to put it back.” He thinks that by putting the crown back in its place, he can shake off whatever strange ghostly affliction is tormenting him. “Perhaps,” liberal Remainers in England say to themselves, “if only the United Kingdom could rejoin the European Union, we could end this nightmare.”

Although a majority now recognise the scale of the Brexit error, we are stuck in the ­position of Mr Paxton. “Putting it back” is not easy. Some things in life are irreversible. One ­cannot take back words said in anger. Trust once ­broken is hard to restore. We may at once realise a grave mistake, and wish we had acted differently, but be unable to avoid the slowly ­unfolding ­consequences of our actions.

Even if, in domestic politics, a majority for re-joining the EU could be won, the trust and goodwill of our European partners is already squandered. We would need to show a steadfast commitment to play by the rules, supported by a deep consensus across the political spectrum. That’s a very long way off.

What’s more, without a proper written ­constitution, the United Kingdom no longer meets the criteria for EU membership. That should be a spur to pro-European constitutional reformers south of the border, but it is another high hurdle to clear.

Rejoining is a possibility for Scotland, and for Wales, and maybe even one day far in the future for a reformed and renewed England – but the United Kingdom has pretty much blown it.

It is too late even for the “soft Brexit” with ­Single Market membership that might have spared us all this pain. Theresa May’s ­self-imposed and totally unnecessary “red lines”, with her insistence on ending freedom of movement, are to blame for that. The best that can be hoped for is damage-limitation: to soften the edges of a hard Brexit by seeking ­membership of the Customs Union, while also demonstrating a more humble and ­constructive relationship with the European Union in terms of things like the Erasmus scheme (for ­student exchange) and Horizon programme (for ­research collaboration).

At this point, Remainers, Rejoiners, soft-Brexiters, and Leavers who have seen the light, should unite their efforts around “Customs ­Union+” as the best practical step forward.

Mr Paxton does eventually succeed in returning the crown. But he cannot avoid his fate. It is too late. The curse has fallen. Putting it back does not fix the damage done. Even if by some great miracle the United Kingdom can get back into the Customs Union, it might not be enough.

The fact that we got into this mess in the first place demonstrates multiple failure. ­Nothing stopped it. Parliament failed. Devolution failed. The media failed. The three main United ­Kingdom-wide political parties all failed. The courts tried and rallied, but ultimately, they failed, because they had no proper constitution to stand upon, and the sovereignty of ­Parliament means that Parliament’s failure is the failure of the whole polity. The monarchy failed. The elite schools that produced a corrupt ruling class failed. Every institution in the state failed to prevent a crisis, and having failed to prevent it, failed to mitigate it.

It is hard to recover from such failure. ­Looking at the quality of leadership in the United ­Kingdom, it seems impossible. The ­Conservative Party has gone “full-UKIP” mode, its ­leadership contenders vying to ­offer little but more of the same incompetent, ­corrupt, ­authoritarian ­populism. Perhaps Rory ­Stewart could have turned it around, but the ­political system has become so toxic, corrupt and ­dysfunctional that people of his calibre are ­driven out of it.

For Scotland there is no way out of this ­calamity, except that marked “independence”. However difficult independence might be, not taking that chance would be worse.

It’s the only hope left.

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