Disunited Britain: bringing down the flag on UK as a nation
On the face of it, this was a vote on the European Union. In reality it was a vote on the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Brexit campaign, which pinned its colours to the mast of sovereignty and isolationism, may well have hastened the collapse of the UK as a world power.
Like Anthony Eden’s ill-judged adventure in Suez in the 1950s, David Cameron’s gamble on an EU referendum has blown up in his face. Both paid the price.
Within hours of the final count being announced, David Cameron was fighting back the tears in Downing Street as he revealed he was planning to step down. Yet another Tory leader tormented by his Eurosceptic right, Cameron’s career was destroyed by his own side – only a year after he had won a general election he was expected to lose.
John Major, who at least stood up to the ‘bastards’ in his party, left No.10 with his dignity intact, his fate decided by the electorate fed up with Tory infighting and ineptitude. Thatcher, Blair, Brown and now Cameron have each been forced out before they felt their sell-by-date was up.
The Queen, one of the few people in the country without a vote in the referendum, must have the tea and sympathy speech handy in the top drawer of her bureau in Buckingham Palace – marked no doubt by tears and stains of Earl Grey tea.
The supporters of British exit from Europe put it about that she was hostile to the EU (and on demographic evidence alone that’s a fair bet), but even she must have understood the implications of the divided vote for the unity of her kingdom: Queen of England, the second Elizabeth; Queen of Scots, the first; and Queen of Northern Ireland, Wales and – god help us – Gibraltar.
Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain – pretty solidly. England and England alone wanted out dragging Northern Ireland and Scotland with it.
Northern Ireland is a bit of an oddity – a province not a state – and a contested place. Unionists look east to Britain and nationalists south to the Irish Republic. Its adherence to the union is not cut and dried.
But it is the also the only piece of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with the United Kingdom.
It should not be forgotten that the European Union was instrumental in the success of the peace process, demonstrating it was possible for previously implacable enemies to work together in common cause.
Eradicating the border was key to securing the support of nationalists for the new political dispensation. Reimposing it – as must be an inevitable consequence of Britain ‘taking back control’ – threatens peace in the short, medium and long term.
Scotland is more clear cut. A country with a separate legal and political system that sees itself increasingly as a sovereign nation, it has all the trappings of a state.
It has a monarch who claims direct decent to the Scottish Crown before the Crowns were united in 1603; it has a parliament with substantial powers, with its own government and a prime minister in all but name; its own state Church, its own judiciary, education system and a university system that stretches back to the middle ages.
Just two years ago it flirted with independence. In the aftermath of a tighter-than-expected vote the Scottish National Party tightened its grip on the body politic. It is the dominant political force in Scotland; and now this unnecessary UK-wide referendum has demonstrated once again the fault line that exists between Scotland and England.
Every council district in Scotland supported remain.
That fact alone is enough to justify First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion that she now has a mandate to secure Scotland as a sovereign nation within the European Union. In spite of all the hurdles, I suspect that she is capable of securing the majority she needs for Scotland to go it alone.
Although it could be seen as the single most significant act of national self-determination in recent British history – the referendum has also demonstrated the democratic deficit that fatally flaws British politics.
For the first time in modern history, a nation within this awkwardly bolted-together super-state is saying ‘not in my name’.
Having once conceded the Scots have a right to determine their own future, Westminster cannot now turn around and say ‘you cannot have another vote’. The timing will depend on the UK negotiations with the EU, but within the course of the current Scottish Parliament’s term the country could vote to leave the UK, and claim continuing membership of the EU.
Robbed of Scotland, with an economy hampered by its decision to turn its back on its biggest market, and governed by a right-wing elite seen as isolationist, power and influence will continue to seep away.
America will find other and more meaningful special relationships, and England will have little support from other major powers for privileges such as a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Little Britain will have become a reality and the leave voters will rue their heady decision to give two fingers to the tide of history.