Recently, in a conversation with an old school friend, who is very much a nationalist and supports a united Ireland, told me that while he was voting for remain, if he were of a more cynical bent he’d be voting tactically for Leave, and speculated that there would be nationalists who would do so. I’ve noticed a lot of other people making similar comments, here on Slugger, on social media and in social circles. This led me to do something I haven’t done for a long time; think seriously about the union, and what the impact would be upon it if the UK left the EU.
On Northern Ireland’s interminable constitutional question I’ve been perched up here on the fence for around 15 years now, having vacillated a little in each direction before then. At the moment I see the respective cases for both the union and for reunification are very finely balanced, each with different pros and cons, and differing degrees of risk. The status quo sits easily as a comfortable default, creating space for us to sort out more serious problems.
I have to confess that I’m a little bit of a West-Brit. This is not a term used favourably by most nationalists, which reflects that there are probably more of us than they’d like to admit, and maybe suggests that they feel a certain degree of empathy for this perspective that they’re unwilling to confront. Historical events, and some not so historical, unpleasant and serious in many cases, cannot be denied, and nationalists are well rehearsed at rhyming them off. But when you look past these things you may conclude that we’re neighbours with a country that has a lot of positive aspects.
If you ask people, at home or abroad, to name the things that positively define the UK, many of them will mention the NHS and the BBC. The NHS needs no introduction; no politician dare be seen to express anything less than a desire to reinforce and strengthen it. I could spend all day talking about the BBC. When I think back to my earliest memories, snapshots I can remember of life before nursery school, I recall most prominently the sounds, music and characters of the BBC’s preschool television programmes at the time. Later, at school, the BBC took it upon itself to try to push forward computer literacy in the UK, specifying its own computer, encouraging its uptake in schools, and providing television programmes, books and magazines to help people learn how to use it. The BBC would later aggressively embrace the internet during its nascent period in the mid-90s. Far from a stolid, slow-moving state institution, it has embraced technology ever since it was established to try to find new ways of meeting its remit to educate, inform and entertain the public. It interprets this remit zealously, spreading the UK’s wide and deep culture in the arts and music, through events like the Proms, so that it is available to everyone.
Many of us did not have RTÉ and grew up reading British newspapers, listening to UK radio, watching UK television programmes, and following the UK political culture. The minimalist political system in the UK, a system which has been in a state of more or less continuous improvement for 800 years, which acknowledges its own imperfections and provides the political class and the public with the tools to reshape it, is something I feel instinctively drawn to. When I think of statesmen (and women) I think of people like Clem Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell, Jim Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Shirley Williams, Paddy Ashdown, John Smith and Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Clare Short, and even on the Tory side of the bench there are people like John Major, Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd and of course Chris Patten. On both sides of the argument, it’s a political culture that embraces reform, sometimes incremental, sometimes radical, on the back of a reasonable and fair debate.
The UK Parliamentary system is the original, and still perfectly good, way of representing people, discussing reforms, and appointing the Government. Reporting of local and international events is balanced by fine newspapers which themselves have histories stretching back a century or more, some for profit, others by trusts, such a CP Scott’s Guardian. I think of publications like The Economist, The New Statesman and the Spectator, and of the satirists at Private Eye – the British capacity to lampoon and send themselves up in print and on screen, masterfully blending satire, dry wit and sarcasm, all the while making a serious point, is something which must be fairly unique.
It is the outward facing, internationalist side of UK politics and the UK public that led the country to embrace EU membership four decades ago. The Conservatives were, as many of us know, torn apart under John Major over Europe, but then Tony Blair won an overwhelming mandate at the election in 1997 – the first I voted in – promising to sign the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty and put the UK “at the heart of Europe”; Blair was returned to office three successive times.
It is within the context of EU membership that the Good Friday Agreement was signed. As David McCann noted earlier, the European dimension is central to the Agreement. EU structural funding has been spent upgrading cross border roads and trains; while the absence of an effective border has encouraged co-operation and friendly relations between the two jurisdictions on the island – with Unionist hostility being notably absent. Aside from the peace, the renewed strength and dynamism in Anglo-Irish relations is something to behold; millions of Irish or Irish descendants work and make their home in Britain; and the two countries have settled into comfortable sense of mutual respect with plenty of co-operation and goodwill, underscored most recently by the Queen’s visit to Ireland, when she stopped to pay her respects at the Cenotaph, and offered a few words in Irish.
All of this has left us in a place where, for unionists, the union is very much a no brainer; where for nationalists, benefiting from the best of both worlds – a veto in power in a well-funded NI under an effectively neutral British government – they can’t quite work up the enthusiasm to really agitate or vote for Irish reunification; and where those of us in the centre find the case finely balanced. Maybe not British as Finchley, but British a bit like Finchley ? “‘spose it isn’t too bad .. ”
Enter, stage right, the campaign to leave Europe. Leave are a hodge-podge coalition of Flag and Family Tories – many of whom, in fairness, have a reasonable and relatively rational perspective on leaving – accompanied by an unruly rabble of ex-BNP, creationists, climate change deniers, chauvinists, people who vigorously resist gay equality (DUP, UKIP) people who want to bring back the death penalty (DUP, UKIP) and people who just don’t like those foreigners telling us what to do. But their hostility is not only directed across the sea; it’s facing inward as well, and directed against many of the rich aspects of UK culture and society as I briefly outlined above. The UKIP leader has gone on record supporting a two-thirds slashing of the license fee (the DUP have voiced similar views) and has spoken in favour of dismantling the NHS. Far from encouraging a reasonable, fair and measured debate, UKIP have suggested that violence is the next step and – perhaps unknowingly – used campaign messaging resembling Nazi propaganda.
Closer to home, Farage has also gone on record to propose scrapping the Barnett formula to introduce “fairer funding for England“; his characterisation of the existing funding arrangements as unfair could only mean that he envisages distributing less to the regions. Northern Ireland’s public finances are in delicate condition; the last thing they need are the UKIP leader’s bull-in-a-china-shop shock therapy.
The referendum debate has been characterised by unfriendly exchanges, claim and counter claim, misleading facts and sometimes, outright lies. But the aspect that really bothers me is the anti-intellectualism. With a few exceptions, the experts, academics and leaders right across British education, science, industry, business and finance are all in favour of remaining in the EU. This has presented a difficulty for Leave, which it has responded to by attacking the entire notion of expertise itself. This, for me, is tantamount to book-burning. It marked what may turn out, in the future, to be the turning point in British politics where we embraced the Gut, in the way that American politics did under the tutelage of Karl Rove, George W Bush and now Donald Trump.
The debate around Europe and the UK’s role in it that we are presently having is not just about free trade, money going to Brussels or the kinds of laws that come back. It’s about competing visions for what the UK is actually about; what its values are. One side of the debate is based around asserting and renewing, and hopefully expanding upon, the diversified, outward looking, participative kind of UK that enjoys broad national and international support. The other side of the argument proposes lobotomising the UK that many of us remember fondly growing up with, to see it retreat into a perpetually angry, fist shaking, one-dimensioned, self-satisified but ultimately weakened and unfriendly shell of a country.
If that happens, and the UK redefines itself and its relationship with the wider world by voting for brexit, suddenly the factors that make the case for the union start to become less clear-cut. If there is an economic downturn, as most economists and financial experts are predicting as a consequence of brexit, there will be less money to fund the regions. If Scotland leaves the UK, as is almost inevitable, the constitutional and practical arrangements for Northern Ireland become more difficult, not least because of the shifting balance of power in the House of Commons. This would come on top of uncertainly about the nature of border controls between us and the Irish republic.
If British divisions of global firms, especially financial companies, take the easy step of relocating to the nearest English-speaking EU member, namely Ireland, Northern Ireland could find itself tethered to a country which does not want it, while looking enviously past the customs posts across the border to where life is continuing much as it did before. Signs of this envy were fleetingly beginning to show during the RoI’s economic miracle during the mid-2000s. Its recovery from the serious mistakes it made looks not only more sustainable, but well positioned to benefit from bad decisions across the Irish sea.
It would silly to suggest that a brexit vote on Friday morning will see the creation of hordes of newly-minted nationalists desperate to leave the UK. What is not so silly is the beginning of an unravelling of what the Good Friday Agreement called “the totality of relationships” and the potential for Northern Ireland to do disproportionately badly as a result of any economic decline that the UK faces. It creates the circumstances for a step change in the way people think about what country they want to be part of.
I’m voting remain because while I’m neutral on the Union, I’m not neutral about the EU and how it benefits both the UK and Ireland, and I care about being part of it. Apart from all the usual reasons to like the EU, I believe I’m voting for the path which will keep the relationships between these islands, and between our communities, as stable as possible so that we can complete the difficult work of solving our deep seated problems in this place. Why put all of this at risk ?