In a scenario of dislocation and disadvantage... after Brexit the UK will go the way of the USSR, writes Gerard Howlin
BETWEEN the Battle of Culloden and Brexit, Irish nationalism, or, more accurately, Irish separatism, was the dominant, disruptive threat to the union of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Since 1922, the Ireland in question was, in effect, Northern Ireland. Irish separatism took the forms of political movements for repeal of the union, Home Rule, and violent nationalism. With Brexit, English nationalism has now replaced it. The issue for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is no longer Irish separatism, or even Scottish nationalism, but English nationalism. In Brexit, the eventual threat, which may not be far off, is not to the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, but to the unity, internally, of the United Kingdom itself. More than Brexit, it is this which will have an ultimate consequence for Ireland, North and South.
Scottish nationalism may seem the greater threat to the United Kingdom. It is the more defined. There is the political fact that the defeat of the referendum for independence, in September, 2014, and, ironically, the entrenchment in government, in Scotland, of the SNP, might have seen peak Scottish nationalism for now — barring Brexit. Since Margaret Thatcher’s heyday, there has been a pronounced lack of empathy between the Conservative Party, formerly the Conservative and Unionist Party, and Scotland. Decades of entrenched majoritarianism by Labour, north of the border, led many Scots to the view that it no longer had the aptitude to govern the northern kingdom. Too long a tenure in safe seats at Westminster allowed them go native and become indolent and arrogant. Ceding effective power internally, within Labour, to London, which, in return, ineffectively supervised the party in Scotland, saw it become feral — and even corrupt — in local councils and constituencies there.
What Scottish nationalism fundamentally lacks, however, is a history of oppression, as distinct from a cause for complaint. Even if it is colourful, the Stuart cause is too old to be even remotely relevant and, in any event, is extinct. Culloden is historical mist; 1916 is political fact. There is the inconvenient truth that the dynasty was the first of the unionists. Bonnie Prince Charlie might have landed in Scotland, but he was headed south. When his great great grandfather, King James VI and I, inherited the English throne, in 1603, he went south, and only returned to Scotland once before his death, in 1625.
It is this dynastic origin of the union, buttressed and bound, over centuries, by the twin forces of Protestantism (as a unifying cultural force) and colonialism (as a shared political enterprise) that is ultimately threatened by Brexit. The union of the United Kingdom will not ultimately survive the disconnection of the UK from the EU.
In an unchurched era, we miss the context of Protestantism in the construction of British identity. In its biblical roots, it succoured the notion of a chosen people. That is extant, in the Ulster protestant identity, even now. It bound Scotland and England successfully, though Ireland much less so, in internal unity. The notion of an island people, separated from a Europe characterised by strife or popery or both, grew over centuries.
The rhetoric of that defiant stance, of self-preservation from superstition and tyranny, is rich indeed. From Queen Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury, on the eve of the Armada, to Churchill’s soaring defiance, it is the distilled synthesis of component parts of xenophobia, pride, English nationalism, and British identity. In 1940, as the Battle of Britain was about to begin, Churchill prophesied it would be “their finest hour” and said: “Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation.”
Brexit doesn’t quite rise to it, but, for its proponents, it is the successor to it. The problem for the union is that Ireland is now almost absent and Scotland can’t be conscripted to the Brexit crusade to save Britain again. In broad, historical terms, the European Union may be a successor to popery and superstition in xenophobic myth-making, but, warts and all, Brussels bureaucrats are pale imitations of the Spanish Inquisition. The potency of myth, and its recreation as comedy, is exampled by Boris Johnson’s claim that on the creation of a European super state, “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods”. He might have added to his litany the Spanish Hapsburgs, and Louis XIV, for completion. Brexit is a complex, multi-faceted distillation, not of Britishness, but of its profound dislocation. With the awkward exception of Ireland, ‘Britain’, from 1603, was increasingly a political fact, and culturally felt by most as a unifying identity. It didn’t eradicate its constituent parts, but, when successful, it subsumed them.
As the overlaying glaze of British identity thinned with time, the underlying fact of English exceptionalism emerged ever more prominently. Secularism, immigration, end-of-empire, and dwindling global status all contribute, now, to the continuation by other means of forces that only recently, and over centuries, united these islands by might or conviction, and accumulated an empire on which famously the sun never set. Now, the sun has set and Brexit is the twilight.
You can stand in graveyards in places as far apart as Aswan, Kuala Lumpur, or around Ireland, and see not just remnants of empire, but the extent to which, out of either conviction or opportunism, Ireland played a part. Unlike in Ireland, the vote on Scottish independence demonstrated that a clear majority of Scots see that their best opportunity, for now, is still in Britain. What is markedly absent, however, is an ideological or national conviction. It is pointedly a calculation, not a principle.
In those circumstances, Brexit would, over time, and perhaps only a little time, shift opinion in Scotland as to which union serves its interest best. Given a choice between the European Union and the union of the United Kingdom, there is good reason to think Scotland might opt out of a union of 400 years and choose, instead, an even older arrangement. The ‘auld alliance’ with what was then France, but which in political terms is now the EU, would look more attractive in the 21st century. Ironically, the last thread of that was savagely severed at Culloden. English nationalism is a reaction to diminishment of status, and, if successful, via Brexit, is destined to be an accelerator of it. The obvious issue of Brexit, for Ireland, is economic and immediate. The greater issue will be political. The unravelling of the United Kingdom, which it would likely propel, in a scenario of serried dislocations and economic disadvantage, will force an eventual reckoning, on this island, of a future in which not only has Britain no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland, it has no interest at all. After Brexit, the UK will go the way of the USSR.
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