David Melding says his 2009 book ‘Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?’ is closer to the mark than most thought.
The British state has undergone profound and rapid change since the advent of devolution in 1999.
Until 2007 the transition from a unitary to a quasi-federal state seemed to be smooth. These were times of economic stability, generous public spending, and Labour control in Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The political weather was calm.
Since 2007 the UK has suffered the shock of financial upheaval, austerity politics, an SNP government in Edinburgh, and a UK government embroiled in and split by the European question.
The Scottish independence referendum was a watershed. It recognised the legality of secession (a remarkable principle, not accepted by many states) and produced a result which implied that Scotland’s place in the UK was contingent on, among other things, membership of the EU.
The Brexit vote will test the coherence of the partly reformed British constitution. One probably has to go back to the Watergate crisis of the early 1970s to find a similar example of a constitution in crisis in an exemplar democracy. Americans then, just like many Britons now, had lost faith in the integrity of government. It was not until Ronald Reagan’s second term in the White House that most Americans regained faith in the worth of the Presidency. Britain faces a similar test of endurance as it implements Brexit and attempts to manage the immediate aftermath.
The Celtic nations are awkwardly split. Scotland voted firmly for Remain and has a clear, if difficult, alternative to continued membership of the UK – independence. Many Leave campaigners were dismissive of the transitionary economic costs of Brexit and maintained a spirit of sunny optimism for a prosperous future freed from the shackles of Brussels. They added to this a most effective call ‘to take back control’. If we could blind taste political campaigns, these core arguments would be indistinguishable from those of Scotland’s ‘Yes’ campaign in 2014. This is a big cultural and psychological moment that will impress deeply on national identity: Scotland wants a profoundly different political association rooted in the EU to that chosen by England and Wales. The chances of Scottish independence in the next 10 years are significantly higher than they were in the run up to the 2014 referendum. A second referendum is certain if the Scots want it.
Northern Ireland also voted Remain and has for the first time since partition made a first-order decision that accords more with the preferences of the Irish Republic than the British state. The peace process utilised EU mechanisms and the European Convention on Human Rights extensively, and these twin pillars are now compromised. The likelihood of Northern Ireland leaving the UK is still remote, of course, but it is now a little more likely.
Wales stands apart from its Celtic cousins. It remains most closely bound to England by the huge forces of economic deprivation and voter preference. Despite being a net beneficiary of EU funding, Wales displayed little fondness for the European ideal. Similar sentiments were on display in Labour’s English heartlands. The major source of political instability in Wales is the future of the Labour Party. Author of devolution and the dominant party in Wales since World War I it can now take little for granted in the once ultra-loyal valleys. Constitutionally, Wales remains something of an epi-phenomenon with its fate being determined by the consequences of Scottish and perhaps now Northern Irish preferences.
One preference offered by the unionist parties in Scotland is super-federalism. Some even believe this could stretch to allowing Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in the EU, while England and Wales leave. This seems fanciful. It would certainly be a complete re-interpretation of federalism, the most radical since that espoused in Philadelphia in 1787.
A more likely scenario is some form of associate EU relationship allowing substantial access to the Single Market. If this compromise is not acceptable to the Brexit majority in England and Wales, then Scotland’s place in the UK will be one based on sufferance – there until it can leave with relatively little economic disruption. Although even this might not cause much pause, given the economic gamble taken by Brexiters.
There have been understandable but rather desperate calls for a second referendum from some Remainers. Buyers remorse could add strength to these calls should any recession caused by transition be more severe than anticipated. Yet democrats should surely feel queasy about a second referendum. The people were asked to make this momentous decision because we faced a basic choice between greater political self-sufficiency or the continued pooling of sovereignty where common cause is most apparent. While the noises off were loud, they always are in political campaigns, the basic question was well understood. I bitterly regret the result but I do not question its legitimacy. That said, it is anyone’s guess quite what happens if there is a strong and settled popular demand for a second referendum before formal exit. Here, like in the trade negotiations that now commence, politicians have limited control and would do well to remember the warning of Harold MacMillan who started our European odyssey, ‘events dear boy, events!’
In 2009 the IWA published my book ‘Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?’ Most thought me crackers or at least over anxious, but 2020 may yet prove close to the mark.