The rise of Little England marks demise of UK


Wrong call: Cameron will go down in history as one of the most calamitous leaders in British history

Electoral disappointment is an inevitable part of the democratic process. The United States politician Dick Tuck put it succinctly making a concession speech in 1966. “The people have spoken, the bastards.” Many a defeated politician has muttered those words sotto voce.

But in the case of the European referendum, it is not quite as simple as that.

Northern Ireland – now the frontier between the UK and the European Union – voted to remain. Scotland, already conditioned to the potential of independence, voted to remain. Almost half the United Kingdom voted to remain.

The fault lines are clear. They can no longer be disguised.

Let us be in no doubt, this vote marks the end of the United Kingdom as we know it. The Little Englanders (and their fellow travellers in Wales) might think they voted for a return to Britain at the centre of a world map coloured in red; but they have hastened Scotland’s inevitable exit from the Union and they have laid bare the fact that Northern Ireland has more in common with the Irish Republic than with this disunited kingdom.

It is hardly surprising that the UK lost its position as the fifth largest economy in the world within hours of the vote. Billions were wiped off shares and the pound nose-dived. The markets will be up and down in the weeks and months ahead, they are fickle and motivated purely by self-interest. But the long-term trajectory is down, I hope I’m proved wrong.

Cameron’s speedy departure – the only thing he has got right in this saga – will not be enough to halt the country’s slide to ruin. He made a brave face of it, but his legacy is a Britain crippled economically and politically.

By failing to stand up to the Tory right, Cameron has put intolerance at the heart of the political discourse, and single-handedly he has destroyed the notion of one nation conservatism.

This was a referendum we did not need to have. And this result is not just a disaster for the United Kingdom and for Ireland – partners in a peace process inspired in large part by Europe’s capacity to transcend centuries of conflict – but it is a disaster for the EU too.

There is now a crack in the European body politic that cannot be repaired; and Britain’s hubristic decision will fortify sceptics in France, Germany and across the continent. Robbed of one of its strongest, albeit truculent, members the European voice is diminished in the world.

I know it is futile to play the blame game – but blame must be apportioned. My list includes Cameron, not up to the task of being prime minister; Jeremy Corbyn and his party leadership team who gifted the Labour vote to Nigel Farrage; and the EU too, an institution that has clearly lost the trust of ordinary men and women.

Large organisations lose the capacity to listen, and the EU has been turning a deaf ear to scepticism across the continent for years, consequently it has opened its soft underbelly for attack.

Yes, I am angry about the lies and half-truths spewed out by the leave campaign; but this was not a battle where the facts played much of a part. It was clear that leave voters were determined to pursue their course in spite of the facts.

All’s fair in love and war, it is said. Leave executed its battle plan well, and with ruthless efficiency. It is a pity Remain did not do the same. It failed to find its voice until too late in the day.

From Northern Ireland’s perspective the top priority now must be to secure the peace process. Short-sighted unionist Brexiteers may have brought back the prospect of the border – but at the price of the union they say they cherish.

One thing is clear, this decision cannot be allowed to undo the hard work and determination of people and politicians here to transcend the divisions of the past. The pressure for a border poll is unsurprising, but fraught with risk. That boil will have to be lanced, but timing is everything.

An independence referendum in Scotland, and there will be one, should be the catalyst for a border poll – not this.

I am prepared to bet the next vote in Scotland will be a yes to independence. In Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP has a much cannier political operator than Alex Salmond, and a more persuasive one.

Independence Day or Armageddon? The wrong movies. Brexit is more a case of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

  • This column appeared in The Irish News on June 27 2016

It’s the beginning of the end for the United Kingdom

half mast

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.



Suffer the little children: Dunblane 20 years on


Gwen Mayer and her class targeted by Thomas Hamilton – 16 children died alongside their teacher

In the cathedral church of Dunblane stands a simple carved stone. Its smooth surface is at odds with the weathered pillars supporting the cathedral’s ceiling. Until the roof was restored in the 1890s, the nave had been opened to the elements for 300 years, and the Scottish climate had taken its toll.

The building is one of those anomalies of the Reformation. It is a Presbyterian church built by a Catholic saint with the encouragement of the pope; and a cathedral without either a bishop or a grand city to sustain it – Dunblane is a sleepy little town, almost a village.

Just a few hundred yards from the cathedral’s entrance is a post box painted gold – a reminder of the 2012 Olympics, and the victory of one of its most famous sons in the tennis finals. A year later Andy Murray won the Wimbledon men’s singles title too – the first Briton to do so in living memory.

Dunblane is the place Murray thinks of as home, and the cathedral was where, last April, he married Kim Sears.

A commuter town, just an hour from Edinburgh and Glasgow, Dunblane is the sort of place where nothing much happens. We all know places like that. But terror is no respecter of sleepy towns.

Dunblane’s time came 20 years ago. On March 13 1996, Thomas Hamilton – a bit of an oddball – entered its primary school and headed to the gym. He was carrying four legally-held handguns and more than 700 rounds of ammunition.

Hamilton murdered 16 children and a teacher before killing himself. It was mass murder on a scale almost unprecedented in Great Britain (in 1987 gunman Michael Ryan killed 16 in Hungerford).


Tennis champion Andy Murray speaking about Dunblane in a BBC interview with Sue Barker

Andy Murray and his brother Jamie were pupils at the school. Eight-year-old Andy’s class was on the way to the gym when Hamilton struck. It’s not something the Murrays talk about much, and who can blame them.

The two boys knew him, in an interview given two years ago to Radio Times their mother Judy said: “They had been to boys’ clubs he ran locally at the high school.

“I knew him too, I’d given him lifts from the boys’ clubs to the station. He was a bit of an odd bod, but I wouldn’t have thought he was dangerous. So he’d been in my car.”

There is controversy still about what could have been done to prevent the massacre. Concerns had been raised about Hamilton’s behaviour in the run-up to March 13. The inept handling of the aftermath too by the police added to the anguish of the victims and their families. And just last week questions were being asked about the independence from political considerations of the judge-led inquiry.

Had Hamilton’s arrival time been later, the course of British tennis could have been so different. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Murrays’ careers is their capacity to transcend this most appalling of events.

And who is to know what the 16 children who died would have achieved?

The stone monument in the cathedral is a fitting tribute to those young souls. It is not maudlin or macabre. It celebrates the joy children bring to our world, and the hope.

In every child there is the potential to be something great – a great mother or father, a great statesman or stateswoman, a great friend or companion, a great teacher, a champion.

On one face, the stone mason has carved words from Richard Henry Stoddard’s Children’s Prayer: “If there is anything that will endure the eye of God because it is pure, it is the spirit of a little child.”

I am not a great fan of anniversaries. They can trap us in the past. But if we do not remember the things that shaped our world, we cannot build a better one. It was right yesterday to mark the day a cloud descended over a small Scottish town, as it is right to remember the countless other dark deeds that robbed the world of young lives – each with so much to offer.

In doing so, we should also consider the Dunblanes happening around us now: victims of barrel bombs in Syria, suicide bombers in Afghanistan, the boy soldiers in Somalia, and the bodies of babes washed up on Mediterranean beaches.

We cannot save every child, but we have a duty to do what we can to create a world where children are treasured and given the opportunity to become champions.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on March 14 2016


Patriotic National flies flag for Scotland

The National's first front page

Hold the front page. The press normally reports the news. Yesterday it made it.

The launch of The National defies all accepted wisdom. The newspaper industry is supposed to be on its knees. Who launches a newspaper in this day and age?

The chances of success are about as remote as landing a spacecraft on a comet.

Yet here it is, in all its glory. Decked out in patriotic blue and white, The National – with its witty masthead – looks as if it has been around for ages.

Newspaper launches are often the result of years of careful planning, and even then they can falter. What is remarkable about The National is how assured it is. It is clear about its news values, and confident about its voice.

Much of that must be down to its pedigree. With a campaigning style and poster front page, The National is very much a sibling of the Sunday Herald (unsurprisingly the two papers share their editor).

Those who suspected it would be peopled by articles promoting an inward-looking ‘Little Scotland’ will have been confounded. It takes a global view, and makes it clear that it is not party political in allegiance.

That’s a wise course to take. Not all yes voters were SNP; and, if it gets the chance to grow and develop as a paper, it will have a role in calling Nicola Sturgeon’s new government to account. At times, The Nat will have to become the gnat.

The independence campaign constantly challenged accepted wisdom. And it revealed a gap in the media landscape.

The campaign proved people are not bored by politics: they care. It proved that voter apathy is not an incurable disease – the turnout was astounding. It proved that you can lose the vote and win an election. The momentum now is with the losers, who exceeded all expectations, rather than the victors.

The National is the result of that momentum. “The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland” helps heal one of the most striking deficits in Scottish public life.

In a nation where almost half the population supports independence, the press is overwhelmingly unionist. That’s not a healthy situation. Journalists are the first to recognise that, and they will welcome the arrival of a new kid on the block (even if the added competition worries them).

For all the gripes about the BBC, the media had a good referendum. The debate was fairly handled in the press, and on screen. But those who support independence have a right to see their views validated by the editorial policy of some of the papers they read.

The challenge for The National will be sustain its sureness of touch on days when it is reporting the news, not making it.

The daily grind can be debilitating – particularly on those lacklustre days when nothing exciting seems to happen. It will also need to find a voice that speaks to those beyond the Glasgow-Edinburgh axis. Readers outside cities abhor metropolitan elites.

When news of The National’s pilot launch first broke, some may have suspected its readership would be confined to the ‘yes’ voters alone. The paper – fleet of foot – has a much wider appeal than that.

For the rest of the press – including its sister paper The Herald – The National represents increased competition. But that’s good for readers and it is good for newspapers.

In its first editorial, The National stated its commitment to “passionate and committed” journalism. It deserves a chance to prove it can live up to that ambition.









Salmond: Scotland’s Independence martyr

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlex Salmond’s shock resignation in the aftermath of the independence referendum result brings an end to one of the most colourful political careers in Scottish politics.

And Salmond’s influence stretched far beyond Scotland. The Westminster press corp regarded him as one of the most astute politicians in British politics. His innate political ability exposed the paucity of the current batch of national political leaders.

Salmond’s departure, so quickly after the loss of the independence vote, came as a shock. But it is astute. By passing the baton to the next generation, he will help the nationalists regroup, and develop their tactics for the next assault on the Union. His deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, is almost certain to succeed him. She is a formidable politician, who has learned an enormous amount from this campaign. And, if anything, she wants Scottish independence more than her fallen leader did.

The gap between Yes and No was clear. But those who think the vote draws a line under this particular constitutional adventure are wrong. The fun is just beginning, and the nationalists believe time is on their side. The No voters are primarily older Scots, while Yes galvanised the young.

It is trues that the simple arithmetic of the result suggested a cut-and-dried decision to keep the status quo. As soon as the result was clear, the banks – who had threatened to flee south in the event of a Yes vote – were issuing statement saying ‘it’s business as usual’.

But it’s not business as usual. The United Kingdom has looked into the abyss and realised it is not immortal; to save his skin Cameron has over-promised powers to Scotland; Labour has lost authority in its electoral heartland, and after a poor showing on the stomp few now see Ed Miliband as a prime minister in waiting.

The Scottish Nationalists may not have won, but they have succeeded in dealing a near fatal blow to the British body politic. Alex Salmond has already banked the extra powers offered by a panicked prime minister and the other main UK party leaders. Ever the pragmatist, it will be used for extra leverage as his party continues to establish itself as the natural party of government in Scotland.

Ironically, this independence poll was a vote Salmond did not want. He would have preferred to establish the SNP’s credentials in government before going to the country on independence. He was not supposed to win the last Scottish Parliament election outright – indeed the voting system had been established to deprive parties of an absolute majority.

Minority government would have suited him well. But having been returned with a full mandate, he had no choice but to go now with the referendum. It was in his manifesto. He played it long – the No side wanted the ballot earlier in this parliament. But in his heart of hearts, Salmond must have known the timing was not right. The final result was probably as good as he could have hoped for.

Also bad for him was the timing of the YouGov poll showing a majority for Yes. Westminster mobilised and threw money and more powers at the Scots, the Yes campaign lost control of the story for a crucial couple of days, and the No voters focused on what they had to lose.

Peaking too soon is often fatal, and so it proved. Like Moses he has seen the promised land, but will never reach it himself.

Although they won the war, and you cannot dismiss the scale of the victory, the Labour-led Better Together campaign lost most of their battles. Lacklustre Alastair Darling failed the leadership test, and the No campaign only started showing passion when Labour’s fallen leader Gordon Brown entered the fray.

The loss of Glasgow, the cockpit of Labour in Scotland, to the Yes campaign bodes ill for any hope of a resurgence for the party at the next Scottish parliamentary election. Disaffected Yes voters are flocking now to the SNP.

The only party leader who emerged from the No campaign with dignity was the youthful Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, a former broadcast journalist. Her high profile may help the Tories claw their way back electorally. Yes, there are Tories in Scotland – almost half a million in the last general election.

The result has ended one constitutional crisis, but it has created another. David Cameron said the British constitution will be turned on its head in months rather than years or decades, but the pledge – made without consulting Tory backbenchers – is unravelling, and constitutional experts are already warning of the unintended consequences of his timetable. As we have seen over the weekend, English nationalists are waking up to the impact on them and their constituents.

English Tory MPs (there is only one in Scotland) find it hard to justify subsidising a socially liberal Scottish regime to their English constituents who are feeling the pinch. Free higher education, care for the elderly and free NHS prescriptions north of the border are being subsidised by the English. Northern Ireland, and its head-in-the-sand Assembly evokes a similar reaction.

Expect to see guerrilla warfare in the Commons and Lords over new constitutional programmes, a resurgence of English (rather than British) nationalism, and a Scotland disappointed once again by the pace of change – with almost half the electorate feeling they have been cheated forever of their birth-right to be a nation once again.

For all the talk of a federal UK, it is hard to see how it could function effectively with a country as large and rich as England – its population is some 54 million – alongside the minnows of Scotland (5 million), Wales (3 million) and Northern Ireland (1.8 million).

There’s one other constitutional oddity from this campaign that is worth reflection. Widening the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds has been a success. They have taken their obligations seriously, listened to the debate and made their decisions. Many voted Yes. Hopefully the disappointment of the outcome will not discourage them. There is no question in my mind that the franchise should be extended for all elections.

The underpinning principle of the Northern Ireland peace process, was John Hume’s post-nationalist doctrine: people not territory. It was a vision which promised a new way of managing our relationships with others: a turning away from the narrow nationalism of the 19th century which saw two world wars, provoked genocides across Europe, and created a world divided by walls.

Recent events in Eastern Europe suggest that nationalism has not gone away. Salmond tried to position the SNP as civic nationalists. But there was a degree of flag waving and triumphalism in this campaign that was disturbing and backward looking.

With independence now off the agenda for at least a generation, it remains to be seen whether Salmond’s successor has the intellectual and emotional capacity to become Scotland’s John Hume. Can the SNP heal the wounds of this campaign, and unite the Scottish people, in the process delivering the material rewards they promised? The alternative is unthinkable, retiring hurt and bloodied; wrapping the Saltire more tightly around their shoulders and retreating into factionalism.

By falling on his sword, Salmond has neutralised the impact of the lost referendum vote on the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon who headed up the Yes campaign, and made a martyr of himself in the process. Salmond is not without his negatives, but his speedy and unexpected resignation has garnered a fund of goodwill for him and his cause, and created another flawed hero for Scots to rally round.

A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on Saturday September 20