Chris Yapp works on innovation largely within Government and Public Services, including Scenario Planning, Education, Health, and the Internet of Things. His main areas of interest revolve around Innovation, Creativity and Futurology.
The Blue British Passport has been one of the totemic “take back control” benefits of Brexit, even though the blue colour could have been chosen under the EU regime. It was Margaret Thatcher who chose not to have the current passport as the UK Blue.
My passport is for the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. What will it say in the 2030s? Above all, what will it mean to be British? If you believe in a “Global Britain”, it might be helpful if we try to get our heads around the notion of being “British”.
Compared to the time being spent on the Irish Border and what it means to be Irish, the lack of clarity on the “British Question” could, in my opinion, make for major problems over the next decades.
The notion of being British is actually very complex. There are 6 classes of being British, namely: British Citizen, British overseas territories citizen, British overseas citizen, British subject, British national (overseas) and British protected person.
These reflect the UK’s imperial past. We still live with a variety of anomalies today. We still award OBEs and MBEs though there is no “E” to be a member of.
There is, I feel, too much chasing of the day to day noise around Brexit and very little concern around where we think we want to be or could be once the dust has settled.
I have chosen to think about this in the context of a 20-year horizon, not because I claim any particular insight, but a lot can happen in that timescale that might seem unthinkable today.
In 1940, Churchill made one of his most famous speeches which included the line:
if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
Months short of 20 years later, MacMillan delivered the “Wind of Change” speech in Africa. The Empire was, in reality, gone, with tidying up of the independence treaties taking a few more years.
Inside that era, there was Suez. Suez was the last major crisis of the UK constitution. I am far from alone in thinking that the conduct of Brexit has many similarities to the run up to the Suez crisis. I will return to that later. Like all analogies it has its limits. However, I tend to believe that history rarely repeats itself, but it often rhymes.
My intention here is to explore some of the possibilities that may shape the “British identity” over the next 2 decades.
I have had an interest in Irish identity for many years, for personal reasons. As a student job, I worked in the “Tavern in the Town”, one of the 2 Birmingham Pub Bombings. Some of the people who died that night or were injured were people I used to chat to or served.
I have been travelling to Belfast and Dublin, for both work and pleasure, since the early 1980s. Dublin’s development as a global city, with a cosmopolitan vibrant culture has been a joy to observe. The transformation of Belfast has been remarkable and incredibly positive. My first visit to Belfast illustrates the transformation that I have seen. I flew over for a meeting in the Computer Centre of a Northern Irish Bank shortly after a serious terrorist incident. The meeting lasted around 3 hours. From landing in Belfast, it took me 4 hours to get through the multiple security points at the airport, on the road, at the Bank and then the Computer Centre. Today that would take an hour in the rush hour. To live under that environment for 30 years is beyond my comprehension.
As a visitor now culturally Belfast and Dublin feel closer than London and Edinburgh, or indeed Manchester and London. I don’t underestimate the politics but compared to what I experienced on my first visits that is remarkable.
So, consider the possibility of a United Ireland. If it were to happen under the terms of the GFA by the consent of the different communities, what happens to my passport? It would read Great Britain. So, all is well?
The United Kingdom is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. What happens to that position if the UK ceases to exist?
I think that the Irish American lobby, which is already threatening a veto via the Senate of a UK-US Trade Deal might have concerns if GB annoys a section of the Irish Community during reunification.
Anyone who has ever been in New York on St. Patrick’s Day knows that “Global Ireland” is a reality. I reckon that I’ve sat in an Irish pub in around 30 countries.
Similarly, if GB snipes at EU defence policy from outside, even as a member of NATO, the transition from UK to GB presence at the UN should not be assumed to be smooth and uncontested.
On a longer-term basis, sustaining the Common Travel Area, CTA, would be increasingly difficult so London-Irish identity could become a contestable topic.
The SNP representing Scotland, which like NI voted remain feel that they have not been consulted or treated with the attention that Ireland has believe that a referendum in the 2020’s on an “Independent Country inside the EU” is winnable. If Brexit is botched, they may be proven to be correct. If so, would my passport be the “United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland” dropping the Great?
What happens to the Union Jack?
My own view is that independence is the easier of the 2 parts. Spain, in particular, will not want to create an easy precedent given its own secessionist movements.
But there are many other matters to be considered here. There is a strong republican element within the nationalists in Scotland. SNP policy is also to rid Scotland of Nuclear weapons. What happens to the Faslane base after Scottish Independence?
Also, there could now be a border with the EU on the mainland of GB! For people living and working on either side of the border, there will be many issues of identity. Who in England could claim a Scottish passport and vice versa? For a few thousand souls the issue of which league Berwick Rangers will play in will be a concern.
We could see some people being entitled to British, Scottish and Irish Passports. Triple citizenship?
If Hadrian’s Wall is to become a Customs border, “alternative arrangements” may well be revived again.
Perhaps less so than Ireland “Global Scotland” already exists.
A significant majority of the world’s population was born after the dawning of the second Elizabethan era. That era will inevitably be over before 2040. So, how will Charles III, or indeed William V, be seen at home and abroad?
I have asked numerous Australians over the years if they believe that Australia will become a Republic. The stock answer has been that the issue would be divisive while the Queen lives, but Republicanism will try again in the years after her death. Australia has been changed by Immigration over the last 40 years. It is an Asian facing country. Much of today’s youth does not have a tie to the UK.
If Australia does become a Republic, how many of the other 14 might follow? Canada? New Zealand?
If you were an advisor to the next King, what would your advice be around creating a new Prince of Wales or a Scottish title be around 2030? Would such moves flame or assuage nationalism in the Celtic and Gaelic fringes of the UK/GB? It looks like Zugzwang to me.
England and Wales
A few years ago, I moved to a border County, Shropshire. The border historically was fought over for Centuries, but not for many now. As I have explored the area, I have gained some insight into border issues. The East of the County is very “English”. As you move West it increasingly feels Welsh. I know where the physical border is, but the identity border is far from clear. In recent road works, 20 miles from the border with Wales the temporary signs were in both English and Welsh. Welsh nationalism is where Scottish Nationalism was 40 years ago. Could Brexit see an emergence of a more powerful Celtic nationalism? How would Cornwall/Kernow react? What price would England be prepared to pay to “tame” Celtic nationalism?
In NI, one of the issues of the border that occupied the media for many months was ambulances facing checks at the border. In the local media here, the devolution of the NHS to Wales with different structures and tariffs creates administrative problems for hospitals near the border, such as Chester.
There are many who would identify themselves as “remain and reform” who include UK/GB reform as equally important to EU reform.
The notion of a radical decentralised governance model with strong regional identities, along the lines of Switzerland, that aspires to be a Republic and free of nuclear weapons is as enticing to the radical left as “Singapore on Thames” is to the radical right.
Putting these together
I am making no claim on desirability of any of the above but want to put the open question of how the notion of Britishness may evolve in what are, currently, the home countries. Also, I don’t want to make predictions. Around what combination of these potential trends may play out. From my perspective, even if all these issues were to come to fruition it is only on a par with the changes in the UK between 1945 and 1960.
Consider the following: Your name is MacDonald. You live in Dunedin in 2030. How do you react to Scotland, The Monarchy and Britain?
Similarly, what will be the state of the Commonwealth in 2030? Will the King of England still be the titular head?
The physical link of Pitcairn Island (one of the BOTC) is to New Zealand. How might that evolve?
The Isle of Man has cultural links through Manx Gaelic to both Scotland and Ireland. Will it see its view of Financial Services as best linked to Ireland, Scotland or Britain?
There are many other questions that I could ask but I think that these are a good subset.
While lacking in substance, lofty ideas of Global Britain are a strong part of the Brexit rhetoric. Allegations that the EU are Nazis, that Britain stood alone in the blitz, that we can reengage with the Commonwealth, referred to as Empire 2.0 are repeated often.
While Gavin Williamson was Defence Secretary he envisaged the UK reopening bases in the Caribbean and East of Suez. Since he left the MoD such ideas have faded, at least temporarily.
There are some more immediate concerns that may need to be addressed in developing the future relationship with the EU27. One obvious example is Gibraltar which rears its head from time to time.
British notions that the EU would throw Ireland under a bus to protect UK interests have been proven to be folly. Outside the EU, what leverage will UK maintain over Spain? If Spain asked for Gibraltar as a “win” for accepting Scotland as an accession state, how might that work out?
It has been said that NI is the only land border between the UK and the EU. That is not strictly true.
The two Sovereign Area Bases Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus area potential area of dispute. The two military bases were established by a 1960 treaty as part of the independence of Cyprus. Part of those treaties is that there would be no customs borders. Think of the headlines if chlorinated chicken entered the EU via Akrotiri! From time to time Cypriot nationalists have campaigned for a change to the status of these areas. In particular, the use of Akrotiri as a base for engagement in the Middle East has been a trigger for nationalist concern.
I suspect that Cyprus may make changes to the status of these bases part of its requirement for the Future relationship. Much of the UK debate on the future relationship with the EU27 is around trade, but the issues of security cooperation could bring out nationalist causes. Is it acceptable for the UK to engage in air action in the Middle East from a base inside the EU, especially if the EU does not approve? If Cyprus wants changes, expect Gibraltar to come back into play.
If the UK uses the threat of non-co-operation on security, could these bases be lost?
Again, these are far from complete. I offer them as examples of the challenges in trying to build a future of a redefined Britain. I would not dream of trying to put a limited number of scenarios for such a complex space.
Another thought experiment is worthwhile here. How does a sense of Britishness evolve in this era of great uncertainty? What will this do to our sense of our place in the world?
The UK has found it difficult to accept that Ireland has had more power than the UK in the negotiations so far. How would a realisation that this was true of Malta (Commonwealth) and Cyprus?
The Conduct of Brexit
In 1975, I campaigned against membership of the then EEC. I thought that our global links were worth protecting and developing. The world has changed in those intervening years. I don’t see a way back.
Regardless of how you feel about the Brexit decision, the conduct of the aftermath from the British perspective has been poor on many fronts. For some the language of wreckers and traitors is now normalised on both sides. That is not helpful. One line I here often is that our politicians and parliament need to escape the “yoke of the EU” because they and it have been enfeebled by 46 years of membership. Our democratic traditions can only be revived by leaving.
If you have sympathy for those views, I’d like to suggest a read of Barry Turners book “Suez”. I recently reread it. There are many echoes of Brexit, as well as some big differences. Turner describes Suez as a military failure and a political disaster. It ended the career of Eden.
Brexit handled badly could be a political disaster and an economic catastrophe. I’d like to illustrate the build up to Suez on the British side to challenge the notion that our politicians in the past were of a different league to today.
First, the UK planning for Suez was weak. The goals and objectives were rarely clear or communicated down the line. Cakeism was alive and well. The refusal to acknowledge or deal with trade-offs is eerily reminiscent of today’s unfolding events. Britain is described as going into negotiations with nothing but charm and character. There was almost a tragic-comic disdain that trade-offs were for lesser countries. There was a great belief that what ever was said that our friends and allies would always support our interests. In particular, the words of Foster Dulles, the American Secretary of State, were always interpreted as pro UK. Rereading those words with the benefit of distance in time, it is hard to believe how delusional that was.
One key difference was that in the run up to Suez, the political consensus was better than it has ever been over Brexit. The Suez group of Tory MPs look like the ERG of today.
Above all, the assumption of British power and influence, our capacity to act, never was challenged publicly. The newspaper split before and after the events look very like today.
Overall, I would argue that the failings on the UK side over Brexit look very similar to the flaws that lay behind Suez. Plus ca change?
To illustrate how unpredictable today’s events are, one final comparison stands out for me. It is argued that if the Tories do not deliver Brexit, that they are finished.
After the events of Suez, MacMillan won the 1959 election. Of course, he had no Brexit party to contend with.
What odds would you give on Boris Johnson revoking A50, saying we did our best and calling for the UK to embrace the EU? Nigel Farage already thinks that he has betrayed Brexit. Stranger things have happened. Read Boris’s other article, the one backing remain. Would you trust him not to do so to hold onto power?
Your guess is as good as mine. Best of luck. What will your passport(s) say?
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.