Newton Emerson: Has the UK lost the will to live?

‘Far from having a deep state, the UK looks like a uniquely shallow state – not even summoning up the most routine of dark arts in the cause of its own survival’

David Cameron has been front and centre for the Remain campaign but a Brexit vote will mean another Scottish independence bid, probably within two years. Photograph: Getty Images

David Cameron has been front and centre for the Remain campaign but a Brexit vote will mean another Scottish independence bid, probably within two years. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Turkish politics is defined by paranoia about the “deep state” – a covert establishment of military and intelligence forces manipulating law and government to the country’s strategic ends.

In Northern Ireland the Troubles have come to be seen through the prism of something similar. Unionists and nationalists alike perceive a perfidious permanent government, lurking in unelected offices across London, plotting to either preserve or betray the union. Decades of violence and hundreds of deaths were supposedly permitted or even encouraged to one or other of these ends.

Even now, with the Troubles long over, the “deep UK” apparently continues to protect its reputation. In a 2011 incident the family of murdered solicitor Pat Finucane claimed prime minister David Cameron waved his hand about in Downing Street and said: “People in buildings around here won’t let [an inquiry] happen.” Cameron’s officials have denied this remark was made.

The UK votes today on EU membership. A larger strategic question could scarcely be imagined, polls are on a knife- edge and almost the entire visible establishment has lined up behind the status quo. The referendum has been a serious prospect since 2013 and became a scheduled certainty over a year ago. There has been time and need to prepare.

So where is the manipulation to make us vote the “right” way, whatever way that might be? Is it so ingeniously covert that it looks like panic, amateurism and ridiculous scare stories? That seems openly pointless.

Where are the dirty tricks? Of course such tricks should not be obvious, but nobody is even alleging to be a victim despite some colourfully fragile characters on the Brexit side in particular.

Influential ears

Where is the media bias, which might be a sign of whispering in influential ears? Newspaper groups are so firmly on the fence that they are endorsing both sides across their titles or even the daily and Sunday editions of the same titles.

There was the same strange absence of nefariousness during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. That posed an immediate, existential threat to the UK, including a totemic question about Trident submarines, yet even the most spittle-flecked Scottish nationalist could not say “securocrat” with a straight face. The unionist campaign seemed to be no more than it appeared to be – hapless, half-baked and thrown together at the last minute. A Brexit vote will mean another Scottish independence bid, probably within two years.

The Scottish and European referendums were both intended to be foregone conclusions, so complacency might explain any apathy.

But if “people in buildings” fret about the risk of Islamic suicide bombers, should they not have taken a furtive interest in even the slightest chance of their country breaking up? Incredibly, there is no sign that they did.

Dark arts

Far from having a “deep state”, the UK looks like a uniquely shallow state – not even summoning up the most routine of dark arts in the cause of its own survival.

A certain kind of British person likes to say, quite wrongly, that an empire was acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness. However, it genuinely appears that absent-mindedness would accompany the UK’s demise.

All of this raises the question of why any thought was spared for the North, in which the UK government has declared it has no “selfish, strategic or economic interest”.

This is not to deny there were dirty tricks or “deep state” agendas at work in the Troubles – that seems beyond doubt. But the contrast with present-day ambivalence on Scotland and Europe, even allowing for the passage of time, is absolutely remarkable. What can explain it?

Violence brought an army deployment and “counter-insurgency techniques” to the North, although unionists and nationalists have different theories as to why.

Political deniability

Following the Finucanes’ visit to Downing Street, Cameron commissioned the De Silva report. Its 2012 finding, echoing other reports into collusion, was of a deliberately absent state facilitating “political deniability” through a “wilful and abject failure” to provide a legal framework for agent-handling. Soldiers and special branch officers were left to their own devices, with predictable results.

This squares the circle. Nobody in London cared about Northern Ireland either, apart from making sure they did not get the blame for what they had unwittingly unleashed.

If “people in buildings” drew any lessons on that for Scotland and Europe, it may well have been not to intervene. Morally, this is commendable. Historically, it is the sign of a country that has lost the will to live. What a curious thing this shallow state has become – a nuclear power, a UN Security Council member, a linchpin of Western espionage and global electronic snooping, still an inveterate geopolitical meddler, yet consciously ignoring the sound of its own seams ripping apart.

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