Having been a Brexiteer since the late 1960s, when Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Enoch Powell were laying down the patriotic case for opposition to entry into an embryonic country called Europe, I’m all too willing to see the dark hand of the Brussels Empire on any wheeze designed to bring about the destabilization and then disintegration of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
England, known as Britain since 1707, has been annoying the continent for 1,000 years, apart from brief respites in the early and middle years of the 20th century, roughly 1914-18 and 1939-45, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the European Commission had an office – probably over-staffed – whose function is to ensure that no opportunity for making Britain regret leaving its magnificent union is lost. I have, though, ten bob on Britain being quite capable of unfastening its own union without foreign aid.
It will take quite a while. The union was cobbled together over centuries, starting with the Norman conquest of Wales, as circumstances – chiefly England’s, demanded that Scotland and Ireland were kept out of French hands. Now the pieces in three of the UK’s nations are up in the air:
Scotland is split down the middle on secession; in Northern Ireland, the needle on the United Ireland meter has moved from impossible to not at all improbable; and a Conservative government and a pro-Union Labour opposition in England will do all it can to kick all of the cans down the road while English voters will grow increasingly tired of a debate they would happily see concluded with fond farewells to their Celtic neighbours.
While a certain species of British politician cannot utter the words English nationalism without sounding as if they are scraping something exceedingly smelly off their boots, the regard the English have in a union the Tories see as ‘precious’ has been declining steadily.
In their study Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain, Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones chart that waning interest. The number of people describing themselves as ‘more English than British’ or ‘English, not British’ has since the 1990s increased markedly, to 41% in 2016 from 31% in 1992, while those identifying as ‘exclusively British’ fell from 63% in 1992 to 49% in 2016.
They warned of union trouble ahead. It found that self-professed Unionists, most notably Brexit-voting Conservatives, were largely unconcerned about the risks to the union posed by exit from the European Union, and were loath to prioritize the needs of the union over those of their own bit of England. Far from fearing the break-up of the United Kingdom – an outcome the threat of which is supposed to have us trembling through sleepless nights – clear majorities of English Conservatives supported Scottish independence (79%) or considered the breakdown of the Northern Irish peace process (75%) as a price worth paying for Brexit. How’s this for that “precious” union as seen in England? Half of Conservative voters in England said they didn’t want Scottish MPs sitting in the UK cabinet.
The fudge that was the 1998 Belfast Agreement allows for the possibility of a referendum in Northern Ireland on leaving the union and joining the Republic, but only when ‘it appears likely’ to the Secretary of State ‘that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland’.
The first problem here is that no guidance is given on how the Secretary of State should assess public opinion. A border poll, then, on a border referendum? A second one is that the agreement says for Irish re-unification to happen, border polls must be held not only in Northern Ireland but also in the Republic, which would necessitate the consent of the Irish government and legislation there. Any suggestion as to the outcome if the North voted No – albeit narrowly – and the South Yes? Best of luck with that.
Meanwhile, the devolved and power-sharing Stormont Assembly has to keep the lid on the cauldron of score-settling simmering on the streets. A running sore exploited by Sinn Fein is the prosecution, or non-prosecution, of former soldiers for alleged murders during the sectarian conflict, while unionists fume over the well-attended funerals of IRA heroes.
And then there is one of those awkward bits still hanging out of the UK-EU trade agreement which weaponized the border problem throughout negotiations with the May and Johnson administrations.: The Protocol that moves the north-south border into the Irish Sea, and places – bizarrely – the Six Counties in the single markets of both Britain and the European Union, .
Unionists fear the Protocol will in time drag the North into the Republic. Sinn Fein has no interest in tidying up the Protocol. Its leader Mary Lou McDonald says Britain must “honour a bargain fairly struck … If there’s a hardening of the border – well, then all bets are off”.
Sinn Fein is now the largest opposition party in Ireland, where its make-over as a mainstream party has attracted young voters, and in the North it anticipates unstoppable demographic change to give it a majority at next year’s Stormont Assembly election. Within a year or so, Roman Catholics are expected to outnumber Protestants. “The electoral majority for Unionism is now gone,” says Ms McDonald. “Politics on this island has changed in ways that are profound.”
While offering Unionists, “the kinds of protections and assurances they need”, she points to the refusal of British ministers to spell out the exact conditions that would spark a border poll , warning: “I wouldn’t like anybody in the British system to imagine that they hold a trump card that says, ‘We will forever avoid or defer a referendum in Ireland’. They don’t have that right.”
A united Ireland is an enduring aspiration in the south, but as with St. Augustine and chastity, the Dublin government is in no hurry to get it done. It will want to see Sein Fein thoroughly house-trained, and it will need to see if it could accept the economic consequences of taking in the province, which currently gets a £10.8 billion a year subsidy from London.
To the mix must be added the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party; a creationist Christian who believes that our planet is only 6,000 years old, approximately. A BBC opinion poll earlier this year found that a majority of people on both sides of the border believe Northern Ireland will be a part of the UK for the next ten years but will be out of it within 25.
However promising Sinn Fein see its prospects in the North, it is looking to Scotland to lead the way in the deconstruction of the UK. Says Ms McDonald: “There will be a border poll on Irish unity, be in no doubt. We’re down to a question of timing now. But of course a referendum in Scotland, and of course independence in Scotland, changes the constitutional arrangements fundamentally across Britain and will have a very strong effect here in Ireland.”
Some in Brussels would welcome Scotland’s independence (though Spain’s government with its unfinished business in Catalonia wouldn’t) because they think – wrongly – it would be yet another difficulty for England, but the Scottish independence movement pre-dates the EU and the question will be answered one way or the other in Scotland regardless of what the EU wants. Whether the Brussels Empire would want yet another small member state with a dodgy balance sheet and an inability to fund its own public spending is another factor. That would be something for Scotland to work out if and when it gets around to squaring independence with EU membership.
With a small pro-independence majority in the new Holyrood parliament, the Scottish National Party (SNP) can be relied upon to ignore the popular vote which in this year’s election pointed to an equally tiny pro-unionist majority. It can organize a second independence referendum, which can be sanctioned by Downing Street – vilified by the SNP as an English government led by an Eton-educated buffoon – or not.
If not, the contest could go to the courts in Edinburgh and London, keeping our learned friends totting up their billable hours for two to three years, after which the SNP will not have gone away. It would still be there, demanding separation and, reasonably, mocking what passes as Mr Johnson’s strategy for saving the union: chucking more treasure at Scotland and plastering anything that moves with Union flags.
If by then – yet another if – it’s clear that secession can’t be stopped, just as Brexit couldn’t, sit back for the best part of a decade – if the Brexit negotiation was any guide – as the London and Edinburgh governments unpick three centuries of household accounts and reach some sort of neighbourly arrangement for travel and trade across the Tweed.
That leaves Wales, land of song and public services, with a population of 3.15 million dependent on cash from England. It will probably wait to see how Scotland gets on. Many more years, then, in which to stroke the chin at online posts such as this: How about a referendum to see if England wants independence from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales?