Boris Johnson may be devoured by the Brexit revolution
The British PM cannot control the forces in the UK that no longer recognise the state
Revolutions happen. They shape and steer history. They are remembered and talked about. Many begin in the most unexpected of circumstances; almost accidental revolutions, with one incident leading to another and then another until a point is reached at which everyone realises that something of enormous significance is under way. They won’t always know what it is, let alone how long it will take for the impact to work its way through. They usually won’t know how to control it. As the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai said, supposedly in response to a question about the significance of the French Revolution, “It is too soon to say.”
But is it too soon to say that what is happening in the United Kingdom right now is, in fact, a full blown revolution? I don’t think so. What began as a reasonably straightforward question in 2016 about the UK’s membership of the EU was actually intended to kill off a civil war in the Conservative Party. Instead, it has become a political, ideological, cultural and identity civil war involving and dividing the entire UK and raising huge, possibly irresolvable questions about national identity versus competing nationalisms, the potential break-up of the UK, the worst Anglo-Irish relationship since the late 1960s and sweeping changes through key institutions.
It is possible David Cameron believed asking the EU question by way of a binding referendum, which advisers and pollsters assured him would unite the country around a comfortable victory for Remain, would also soften nationalist voices in Scotland and Northern Ireland and force Nigel Farage’s Ukip and other elements of “English nationalism” back to the electoral margins. But the referendum result revealed that something much deeper, much darker, was in play.
What became obvious was that millions of people believed the problem wasn’t just confined to EU membership. They also believed that parliament, the legal system, the BBC, mainstream media, most political parties, quangos (packed with the “great and good”), liberal elites, multiculturalists, assorted apologists and do-gooders generally didn’t speak for them. They no longer recognised, let alone respected the views and agendas they saw around them. They felt disconnected, disengaged and sidelined. Their unofficial mantra: “We’re not allowed to have an opinion about what has happened to our country.”
The rise of social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, let them see that they weren’t alone. They posted politically incorrect views and received hundreds of thousands of “likes” and supportive comments. The year 2016 gave them the chance to have their voice heard; their opportunity to roar. It also gave some key figures within the Leave camp the chance to ask questions and create war-game theories about what sort of Britain (and they usually used that term rather than UK) these millions wanted post-Brexit.
The millions who voted Leave embrace all social and professional classes; they don’t look upon the state and the present political/civic leadership as theirs
Those voices and votes are not just white working classes in poorer areas. The millions who voted Leave embrace all social and professional classes; they don’t look upon the state and the present political/civic leadership as their state and leadership. Crucially, having tasted victory both small-n and big-N nationalists now demand their voices are heard, their opinions heeded and their votes acted on. So much so that a substantial majority seems prepared to sacrifice the UK in its present form. That’s probably why support for a no-deal is growing, even though many Brexiteers now supporting it (who didn’t necessarily support a no-deal in 2016) accept it would take a few years for the UK – or what’s left of it – to rebuild and prosper.
Revolution was always coming. It has been kept in check for decades but one issue was going serve as the final straw. It’s increasingly likely (with the emergence and success of the Brexit Party and the populism of Johnson) there is no solution which can bring both sides together; because this is not just about UK membership of the EU.
As the pro-royalist Jacques Mallet du Pan remarked of the French version in the 1790s, “Revolution devours its own children.” Again, it’s too early to say what the UK’s revolution will do to its children, but it’s already wolfing chunks of the Conservative Party and sniffing around Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Polls suggest a huge majority of English nationalists would be happy enough to wave bye-bye to Edinburgh and Belfast. Happier still to be rid of the whole 'Irish problem'
The softest of soft Brexits – in the next few weeks or months – would do nothing to silence or “buy off” Scottish or Irish nationalism. The events of the last three years have highlighted the mutual contempt in which “Celtic fringe” nationalism and English nationalism hold each other. I don’t see how that damage can be repaired; especially since polls suggest a huge majority of English nationalists would be happy enough to wave bye-bye to Edinburgh and Belfast. Happier still to be rid of the whole “Irish problem”.
The revolution could gobble up the DUP and Northern Ireland unionism generally. Its leaders may have been grateful to Arlene Foster and Co for standing shoulder to shoulder with Johnson and the European Reform Group (the latter-day equivalent of the French Revolution’s Montagnard faction) but not so grateful that they wouldn’t be jettisoned in the pursuit of a clean, pure Brexit. The North might, if necessary, be viewed as collateral damage. The rest of Ireland? They don’t give a damn about it or what happens to it. It’s not their problem.
Johnson’s problem is he didn’t lead the revolution. He has inherited it. He cannot control the Brexit Party or English nationalism. All he can do is try to work out what those millions of voters wanted in 2016, still want and will want if the UK leaves the EU. If he can’t deliver, they’ll eat him. If he does deliver, they may still eat him if he doesn’t create the post-Brexit state they want. That’s revolutions for you.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party