Brian Walker: One union lost to Britain. Can the other be saved?

Perhaps Brexit is the beginning of long journey of change not only for UK but EU

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon: “Economically the financial advantages of EU membership do not outweigh membership of the UK for as long as the block grant – that is, the transfers from HM Treasury – continues and Scotland remains a net beneficiary.”  Photograph: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon: “Economically the financial advantages of EU membership do not outweigh membership of the UK for as long as the block grant – that is, the transfers from HM Treasury – continues and Scotland remains a net beneficiary.” Photograph: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt

 

This was a referendum only the English right wing wanted and almost nobody thought would be lost. “England has collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically,” declared the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, at Tuesday’s meeting of European leaders. And he’s an Anglophile. David Cameron will go down in history as the most luckless prime minister since Lord North lost the American colonies. How has the Brexit referendum brought one of the most stable political systems in the world to the brink of collapse?

In the shock waves of the Brexit vote, nothing is quite what it seems. Boris Johnson at first cited “taking back control, a sense that British democracy was being undermined by the EU system” as the main issue of the Leave campaign rather than controls on the free movement of people, until his main backers abruptly corrected him.

Finding an acceptable balance between the two issues will be at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. “Taking back control” harks back to a traditional view of parliamentary sovereignty when the direct democracy of a referendum was unknown in Britain. The sovereignty of parliament remains the lynchpin for Britain which does not have a “written” or “codified” constitution, unlike Ireland.

For most Leave supporters however, there is no question but that the instruction of the people must be obeyed. However at its extreme edge, the theory of parliamentary sovereignty permits the argument that as the Brexit referendum was necessarily advisory, parliament has the right to reject it. That’s when it starts to appeal to zealots for Remain. “Take back control” caught fire when it formed an unholy alliance with a genuine people’s revolt against the general failure of all parties to satisfy the ever-increasing demands for more jobs, better services- and effective immigration controls.

Referendums are rare in Britain and alien to Conservative tradition. In 2011 the Tories sabotaged the referendum on changing the voting system from first past the post to the alternative vote, introduced by their own coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Ironically they did this in the interest of “strong government.”

It may have led a complacent Cameron misjudging how differently public opinion operates in referendums. Had the Liberal Democrats returned to government, they might have saved Cameron from himself and the country from the pain of this referendum. But by unexpectedly winning a narrow majority for the Conservatives last year, Cameron deceived himself into thinking that victory over Brexit was in the bag. After all, was not the cause of the EU supported by over two-thirds of all MPs? It was for this very reason that about 100 Eurosceptic Conservative MPs embraced heresy and demanded a referendum to break the Europhile stranglehold.

In his Westminster bubble, Cameron also underestimated how weak the two main party system had become. England is split between the Conservatives as the party of the shires and the suburbs of the south. The situation is very different in the midlands and the north. Labour’s strongholds there are vulnerable to Ukip, just as Labour bowed before the SNP storm in Scotland. A conflict is now raging over the Labour leadership between the representative democracy of Labour MPs elected by millions, and a far-left Labour party organisation created last year under Jeremy Corbyn to fill the hollow shell of Blair’s New Labour. For a £3 fee and a click of a mouse you can elect a potential Labour prime minister (but not it seems the lacklustre Mr Corbyn). At present neither the Conservatives nor Labour looks like winning an overall majority, but that may change if Labour descends into full-scale civil war.

The SNP or Ukip could be left holding the balance of power after the next election with perhaps the DUP having a look-in. The unintended consequence of the referendum is that the two main party system has been badly damaged and perhaps even destroyed.

On future relations with Europe, the ranks of Remain still dare to dream. Messrs Blair and Heseltine are among grandees thinking aloud about a second referendum, like Ireland and Denmark over the Lisbon Treaty. Their case is founded on the strength of their feelings and their belief in their own superior judgment. That’s elite democracy for you.

It’s tempting though, if you are convinced that Brexit is a spectacular act of self-harm and that Project Fear is already starting to come true. The problem is, a referendum on what? A change of mind if we’re faced with recession and the mass evacuation of the City of London to Dublin or Frankfurt? Or a splendid new offer from the EU to keep us all on board? Perhaps Brexit is the beginning of a long journey of change not only for the UK but the EU also, as the parameters of Remain and Leave begin to blur.

For the British for now at least, one union may have gone: can the other one survive? The shape of Britain’s future relations with the EU is now inextricably mixed in with the fate if the Union itself.

The SNP is the only major party to have anything like a stable negotiating position at the moment. It looks like win-win once again for Nicola Sturgeon in any early general election. Since Scotland’s two-to-one support for Remain, she has been bold about the destination – a second independence referendum – but circumspect about the speed and the route. She’s hedging her bets to cover all eventualities.

This week, the first minister went to Brussels to woo the EU presidents to preserve Scotland’s place within the EU, even as Cameron was bidding farewell. Neither was very successful. As a pre-opening gambit the EU 27 slapped down Cameron’s departing plea for immigration controls to accompany access to the single market. The beleaguered acting Spanish prime minister, mindful of Catalonia’s secessionist aspirations told Sturgeon: “If the UK leaves, Scotland leaves”. But her manoeuvres strongly affirmed Scotland’s Europhilia contrasting with England’s Europhobia, and reinforced the impression that they are already becoming different countries.

For Northern Ireland, there is no reason to panic. As Cameron said last week, immigration checks could be made at ports of entry into Britain rather than at the land Border. It’s unlikely that Louth or Letterkenny will become the new Calais for illegal refugees. Sinn Féin’s call for a Border poll suggests they too were taken by surprise by the result and were improvising a response to match Sturgeon’s.

It is ironic that only last month, a dip in support for nationalist parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections produced a rethink about the inevitability of a united Ireland. The impression of following the Scottish example was confirmed when Martin McGuinness changed emphasis to call on the Irish Government to explore ways in which Northern Ireland could continue EU association via Irish sponsorship.

There is no threat to the peace process in any of this unless somebody wants to make one up. There is every incentive for the local parties and the two Governments to work together to minimise the impact of Brexit in spite of the DUP’s perverse support of Leave. So far then, the desire to stay in the EU is not the game changer for the cause of Irish unity.

Scottish calculations about another referendum on independence are quite different. Failure in Brussels may give Sturgeon the alibi she needs to call a second referendum . . . If the EU were to reject the eventual UK position, the balance of choice between membership of the UK and membership of the EU could tilt decisively in favour of the EU.

Yet with all the trauma over the Brexit result there are economic factors which could deter a commitment to an early referendum, the creation of hard border on the Tweed and the abiding factors of the low oil price and Scotland’s choice of a currency among them. Sterling is still the no-brainer. The volume and balance of trade is formidable. Not including oil and gas, Scotland sold £50.5 billion in goods and services to the rest of the UK in 2013. The rest of the UK sold £62.7 billion in goods and services to Scotland. Economically the financial advantages of EU membership do not outweigh membership of the UK for as long as the block grant – that is, the transfers from HM Treasury – continues and Scotland remains a net beneficiary.

This is looking at developments economically. Viewed in terms of identity politics the outlook could be very different. Yet the Union has life in it yet, if the UK government fills the vacuum of power decisively and learns how to deal with the canny Scots effectively by drawing them closely into the politics of Brexit. If it is wise the new government will continue trying to take all parties along with them. And while the lawyers disagree over parliament’s precise role in it, the eventual decision to trigger article 50 to begin the negotiations will require parliamentary scrutiny. Parliament will soon come into its own.

Nevertheless, the main British parties have never looked so downright peculiar. The Conservatives are entering the Brexit world with a majority in favour of Remain, while Labour MPs have been trying desperately to dispose of a leader only a handful of them support. Labour could split and the anti-Corbyn faction could become the official opposition. If the Corbynistas muster more than 54 MPs the SNP would lose their privileges as the second opposition party at the worst possible time for political cohesion. There could be no more eloquent comment on the fractured state of British politics.

Brian Walker works for the Constitution Unit of University College London. He is a former BBC Northern Ireland political editor and a former editor of political and parliamentary programmes at Westminster.

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