The quivering projection of Big Ben onto the facade of Downing St accompanied by its tinny recorded chimes while the Brexit deliverer skulked inside, said it all. Boris Johnson did not want to be visibly identified with the big moment in case it all goes pear shaped. In former times retreats on such a scale were the result of war. That’s about best thing that can be said about Brexit; the worst is that it’s heading for a bigger reverse, the breakup of the United Kingdom, achieved like the rise of Empire “in a fit of absence of mind.”
In the interests of fairness, it should be said that an alternative version was brilliantly provided by the cosmopolitan novelist Louis de Bernieres.
Writing about his parents, “they felt outraged at having endured two World Wars only to end up being subject to laws not drawn up by our own parliament. It was easier for continental Europeans to compromise on democracy because they do not have the advantage of being protected, as we are, by the mere fact of being an island.”
The logic of Brexit should take us further. It has been increasingly obvious to me and fellow Leavers for many years now that the English would be better off on their own. It seems ever more likely that Ireland can be reunified, because all the very good reasons for the North resisting this have gone; the Republic is no longer a corrupt, backward country, it is an energetic, vibrant place where anyone would love to live, including me. We are an important trading partner; if Ireland were being strictly rational it would also leave the EU and opt for an Anglo-Irish economic zone.
England has no good reason for wanting to cling on to Northern Ireland, or to Scotland either.
I can hear a loud chorus of agreement for that. But quite a leap is involved here. How did an assertion of sovereignty translate into the possible breakup of the UK?
From the beginning of the century it began to dawn that breakup was implicit in devolution as the project’s momentous untended consequence. Sovereignty we began to realise was newly vested not finally in parliament, but in the people voting in the referendums of 1998 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England with 84% of the UK population didn’t get it and barely gets it now, although there are growing numbers in favour of an English parliament.
By the time the 2016 Brexit referendum asserted the sovereignty of the British people as a whole, it was already an anachronism. Sovereignty had already been devolving to the people of Scotland and Wales whereas in Northern Ireland it had already gone in 1973 after direct rule replaced the old Stormont parliament as the vehicle of self determination. Our Union was different from Scotland’s. It had never been vested in Westminster but in ourselves, one way or another. For our alternative had never been independence but unity with the south. And so unambiguously it was written into the Good Friday Agreement.. Scotland has to ask Westminster’s permission to hold a second independence referendum whereas NI does not. In the end the difference may amount to very little. With Scotland and NI defying the English and Welsh majority in the Brexit referendum the Brexit fuelled surges for UK secession may be hard to turn back.
Devolution in 1998 was a typically piecemeal project whose fatal flaw was that it produced little change at the centre. Had Tony Blair who had little interest in it reformed the UK constitution to complement devolution, the course of the last 20 years might have been different. An elected Upper House with weighted representation for the Nations and regions in separate lists and electoral reform for the Commons might have produced a more settled UK, less liable to reach for external scapegoats like the EU to express discontent.
So there is an irony in the Brexiteer claim that sovereignty has been re gained. Sovereignty for the English perhaps but not for the Scot Nats, whose idea of sovereignty has been denied.
The clash between popular and UK parliamentary sovereignty will be played out over the coming years. The majoritarian winner- take -all, first- past- the post electoral system is the pride and joy of the English in the two main parties. This majoritarian version of sovereignty lies at the heart of the Leave case rejecting the unelected EU institutions and reserving their particular bile for the European court of justice. The loathing of foreign “unelected judges” extends to our own judiciary, witness Johnson’s only partly suppressed rage at the Supreme Court’s overturning of his prorogation bid and the vows to curb judicial review of controversial government decisions. For the new Conservatives, decision making should be focused on elected parliaments rather than on rights which seem infinitely extendable and adjudicated on by the courts.
How do Northern Ireland’s unique constitutional arrangements figure in this? For the constitutionally conservative DUP, power sharing accompanied by the rights based regime they are required to operate offends their instincts. Both unionist parties have done little or nothing to disabuse their people of the notion that it is still “our state.“.We saw that so clearly in the “flegs” dispute. Many are angry and bewildered when confronted with the visible cultural expression of an Irish Language Act, and are hardly consoled by Ulster Scots. Their anger and low morale is described (or perhaps deepened) by the Newsletter nearly every day. They have been left defenceless and prey to mischief makers. If you live in an illusion you are likely to be depressed.
The unionist parties may need no reminding that it was majoritarianism quickly replacing PR that consolidated an uneasy supremacy for fifty years. It produced a small and deceptive late echo in the confidence and supply deal with Theresa May’s minority government. With its end, and in a remarkable role reversal with republicans, the self confidence that had made the DUP such effective challengers of the faltering Ulster Unionists has been replaced by querulous fear and drift. The loss of the unionist bloc majority is a harbinger. The same majoritarianism that consolidated the unionist hold on Northern Ireland in the early years of the state may take them into a united Ireland. As yet they have no strategy to prevent it.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London