Is this the beginning of the end of Britain?
Sunday Mail, July 3rd 2016
It may not be the beginning of the end of the UK quite yet. But it is the end of British politics – and Britain, as we know it.
The British state faces its biggest geo-political set of challenges in generations. Blair and Iraq, Anthony Eden and Suez pale compared to this in terms of damage to the UK’s reputation, and only Neville Chamberlain and Munich, and Lord North’s loss of the American colonies, are in any way in the same league.
Fifty years of British statecraft towards the EU have been completely blown up, itself part of over two hundred years of how the UK has seen itself in relation to Europe – in attempting to keep the balance and prevent one country from controlling the continent. Now the EU will be left even more to German dominance.
A sizeable minority of Europe led by France want to punish the UK; the majority led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel still hope to do the best deal possible with the British. But there is widespread anger with the usually calm Dutch Prime Minister Mark Ruffe commenting, ‘England has collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically.’ And that’s from a friend.
There is a Tory leadership crisis, Labour meltdown and UKIP joy and fury at being excluded from any Brexit negotiations. Against all this the SNP exhibit a quiet statesmanship.
So many assumptions are biting the dust. The next two years are going to be high wire politics. What sort of deal will the UK do with Europe? A Norwegian one? Swiss? Or more implausibly, as Gordon Brown floated, Liechtenstein? What kind of Britain will emerge from this, and will it be a shrunken country bereft of Scotland?
Nicola Sturgeon is so far playing an astute game. Not only is she speaking for Scotland, but she is doing so after an impressive 92-0 parliamentary mandate. And she is doing so keeping her options open, and allowing any momentum for independence to build due to events.
Scotland will face obstacles. There are EU problems such as Spain’s opposition to any deal allowing Scotland as a non-member state to begin negotiations and remain in the UK. The Irish Government, as has always been the case privately, is the Scottish Government’s main ally.
Two soft options are being floated. One is a quasi-federal UK with Scotland and Northern Ireland in an associate membership of the EU. That doesn’t deal with fundamentals. The other is for Scotland and Northern Ireland to be designated as special regions and nations of the EU, and remain as members.
The problem with such ideas isn’t the EU, but the British government. The rump UK is heading for a prolonged period of turbulence and disruption, as the Tories accelerate their right wing project of attacking public spending and services. They are going to be ill-disposed to any deal which diminishes the UK into a little England state.
The nature of Westminster and English Tory politics has been reduced to a parlour power game. This is out of place in the 21st century, and more akin to the 18th and 19th centuries. For all the ‘Take Back Control’ rhetoric, this is really about a right wing establishment riding a wave of popular indignation, to give cover to the maneouvrings of a court and courtier politics.
The academic Colin Crouch calls this politics post-democracy. This sees the manipulation of the democratic impulse by populism, and the decline of traditional political structures such as the older parties of centre-left and centre-right. A crony closed capitalism colludes with a political elite in a government of cosy deals.
This crisis has been a long time brewing. The inter-twinning of the right-wing remaking of Britain from high Thatcherism onwards has always been linked to how power is held at the centre of the UK, and its place in Europe and the world.
Scotland, Northern Ireland, London and the anger of the North of England and Wales – all of these relate to the territorial crises of the UK, driven by who has voice and influence in the corridors of power, and who has wealth and privilege.
Sadly, the main progressive force of the UK – the British Labour Party – along with most left-wing opinion from the Corbynistas to ‘The Guardian’ have never understood the connection of these crises and the reality that the economic, social and democratic deficits of the UK are all part of the same crisis.
To this day, many British left-wingers still cling to the illusion that everything will be alright if a Labour Government with the right policies is elected and can pull the levers of the British state. Now they are holding on to what increasingly looks like wreckage. These are, however, it ends, looking like the twilight days of Britain.