This is a crisis of English politics and identity which is developing into a disaster for the British state. Within hours of Nicola Sturgeon’s Bute House speech Michelle O’Neill announced that Northern Ireland should hold a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom and joining the Republic of Ireland as “as soon as possible”. Soon after Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said: “The announcement from the Scottish Government today shows that any failure by the UK Government to recognise Scotland’s interests could lead to the end of the UK as a state. In that situation, Wales would need to decide its own future.”
David McWilliams has written that: “If Britain leaves the EU, it could start a domino effect – at the end of which is a united Ireland” adding, “Relative to the South, the Northern economy has fallen backwards since the guns were silenced. If there was an economic peace dividend, it went South.”
Up here we call it “pooling and sharing”.
In a considered piece analysing shifting allegiances, birth-rates and demographics McWilliams adds:
“A cursory glance at the performance of the Northern Irish economy since 1922 would suggest that the Union has been an economic disaster for the people of Northern Ireland. They have been impoverished by the Union and this shows no sign of letting up. The only solace the Northerners might hold onto is the fact that all British regions have lost out income-wise to Southern England; however, “we’re all getting poor together” is hardly a persuasive chorus for an ode to the Union.”
But if the economic realities driving Irish politics are very real, so too is the fact that Brexit is now making the economic case for independence. Simon Wren-Lewis, Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College notes:
“Brexit changes everything. The economic cost to the UK of leaving the EU could be as high as a reduction of 10% in average incomes by 2030. If Scotland, by becoming independent, can avoid that fate then you have a clear long term economic gain right there. But it is more than that. If, Scotland can remain in the Single Market it could be the destination of the foreign investment that once came to the UK as a gateway into the EU. By accepting free movement, it could benefit from the immigration that has so benefited the UK public finances over the last decade. No, that is not what you read in the papers or see on the TV, but I’m talking about the real world, not the political fantasy that seems so dominant today.”
As the economic and constitutional energies feed off each other the inky-bastions of the union are slipping into a new hysteria.
If Theresa May looked disorientated by yesterday’s announcement, how confused and demented will she become if Brexit leads to multiple referenda across “the devolved nations”. The issue of the borders of Scotland and Ireland is a conundrum they cannot resolve. It’s a farce borne out of their enshrined self-belief, as the culture of false-grieveance acts as a wrecking ball to the Union that has taken an almost evangelical status.
The press reaction was predictably – and universally – apoplectic but the Daily Mail perhaps led the way bleating: “Yesterday should have been a historic day for our country, as MPs voted again for removing the last remaining obstacles to freeing Britain from the EU’s shackles. But any new optimism about the Article 50 Bill was overshadowed by a dangerous new threat to our sacred union.”
Setting aside the hysterical language of freedom and “shackles”, this frothing nationalism creates a new possessive relationship. The union is now “ours” and sacred. A New Jerusalem with optional food banks. But at the same time the constitutional and practical chaos of Brexit is set to one side. Peter Geoghegan writing in the New York Times observes:
“Churchill’s distant successor, Prime Minister Theresa May, spent the second half of last year promising “no return to the borders of the past.” Now Ms. May says that the Irish border will be as “fluid” and “friction-free” as possible. What this means in practice is anyone’s guess: James Brokenshire, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, is reputed to placate queries about the border by saying, “Ms. May is aware of your concerns.”
Brexit emerges out of a broken Britain, a land disfigured by inequality.
Whilst its fashionable to blame Cameron (or even poor Corbyn) for the failed Remain campaign, the actual roots of the dysfunctional British state go much further back to the Thatcher era and to her successor in Blair. Thatcher broke the countries ‘social contract’ and Blair’s shallow narcissism broke a nation’s faith in politics.
Writing in the London Review of Books R.W. Johnson reviews Will Hutton’s The State We’re In:
“The heart of Hutton’s book lies in his raking critique of the Thatcher period. This, heaven knows, has been done before but he does it exceedingly well. The sheer social vandalism of those years has lost none of its capacity to shock: the fact that homelessness has increased in every single year since 1979, an utter disgrace committed as a conscious act of policy; the £3 billion thrown away on bringing in and then abolishing the poll tax; the £22 billion given away in public assets sold under cost; the dreadful damage to the manufacturing base, which recaptured its 1979 level of production only in 1988; the crazy adherence to monetarism despite the fact that monetary growth in 1983-8 averaged 14.7 per cent while inflation averaged 4.7 per cent, quite invalidating the alleged causal link between these figures; the destruction of the Serps pension scheme and thus the deliberate infliction of poverty on millions of old people; and the wicked and deliberate increase in inequality of every kind. This last is what makes all the bombast about ‘Tory radicalism’ and Major’s ‘classlessness’ such a terrible, empty sham, for, as Hutton points out, the net effect of all these changes was ‘the entrenchment of the old class structure that Tory radicals affected to despise’, with the gap between those able and those unable to afford private health, welfare and education far, far worse at the end than when it began.”
This is the long-tail to today’s crisis, not Nigel Farage or Major’s ‘bastards’ but social vandalism sustained on decades of a seething British nationalism. Privatisation, me-first, the deification of consumerism and the destruction of social cohesion has all led to a loss of any sense of the collective. It’s very difficult to do this for thirty years and then say “we’re all in it together” with a straight face.
How Late it Was
This is now an economic basket case sustained on pure ego, unprotected by constitution, and consumed by political opportunism. The delusion is fading. We are now in a moment where constitutional crisis is colliding with, not economic uncertainty but dire economic certainty. As the Brexiteers near the actual moment of truth the rictus grin is tightening. As Ian Dunt has put it, Theresa May’s govt is bluffing with cards everyone can see:
“Davis likes to call it “most favoured nation”, because it has the ring of privilege to anyone who does not know what it entails. In fact, the WTO’s ‘most favoured nation’ rule mean the opposite of what it sounds like. It means you cannot discriminate in your tariff arrangements. So if you set tariffs for oranges at five per cent for one country, you must set it at that level for all other countries. It does not mean Britain holds any special status there – quite the opposite.”
Tom Nairn wrote in After Britain in 2000:
“The Constitution of old England-Britain once stood like a mighty dam, preserving its subjects from such a fate; nowadays, leaking on all sides, it merely guides them to the appropriate slope or exit. Blairism has reformed just enough to destabilise everything, and to make a reconsolidation of the once-sacred earth of British Sovereignty impossible. As if panicked by this realisation, his government has then begun to run round in circles groaning that enough is enough, and that everything must be left well alone. The trouble is that everything is now broken – at least in the sense of being questioned , uncertain, a bit ridiculous, lacking in conviction, up for grabs, floundering, demoralised and worried about the future.”
Theresa May can certainly reject a Section 30 Order if she likes. But the trouble is that everything is now broken. It’s too late.