And the English are OK with that
Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party have won an overwhelming victory in the recent elections for the British parliament. The reasons for it are varied: a deep animosity felt by many toward Jeremy Corbin, the perception that Labour has swung too far into Marxism and anti-Semitism, the sense that British politics has been grinding away without a resolution — any resolution — to the problem of implementing the narrow victory of the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. The resolution we now have, while in some ways better than the limbo everyone has been suffering through, will have consequences not only for the relationship between the EU and the UK. It threatens to wreck the UK, too. Brexit is a triumph of English nationalism, at the cost of the multinational identity of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Johnson campaigned under the simple slogan “Get Brexit Done,” and he will deliver on that promise. He produced a landslide by attracting the support of people in northern England who had been solidly Labour for generations. He did this by promising protection for jobs, an end to interference in British affairs by the “unelected bureaucrats of Brussels,” and a rebirth of sovereignty that would, in essence, “make Britain great again.” But a glance at the electoral map shows, even more than in the referendum of 2016, that support for Brexit is tied to English nationalism. And there’s an enormous difference between England and the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom includes the island of Great Britain, the northeastern part of the island of Ireland, and a score of smaller islands, including the Isle of Man, the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the Bailiwick of Jersey. The UK was assembled over time: Wales was conquered and annexed by England during the middle ages, Scotland and England alternated between brief attempts at union and long periods of war related to religion and national identity, ending with the 1707 Treaty of Union creating the “United Kingdom of Great Britain.” While it is a single state under international law, the UK still includes several countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It also included the rest of Ireland until 1922, when five-sixth of the island seceded from the UK. Thus, to be pedantic, the full name of the state is now the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
England has always considered itself to be first among equals. It was the center of power, the greatest population, and the economic backbone of empire. As the center, the loss of empire affected the English in ways that other nations of the UK did not feel. In a sense, every other part of the UK had already been conquered — at least once. Only the English had never had to bow to another power. As such, English sovereignty — the sense of being independent of all others— was and is central to English identity. Compare that to the rest of Europe, where everyone has, in living memory, felt a sense of immediate and total loss, either to the Germans, or to the Americans, or to the Russians, or to the English — and often to some combination of them. In a conversation with an EU ambassador, he confided to me that he thought “Americans could never understand the emotional foundation of the EU, because Americans didn’t know how it feels to lose.” What that Ambassador missed, or chose to overlook, was the same is true of England.
What Americans, with their weak of sense of history, generally don’t recall is that when the term “superpower” was popularized in 1944 in a book by an American professor of foreign policy, he wasn’t describing a bipolar world.
T.R. Fox titled his work The Superpowers: The United States, Britain and the Soviet Union — Their Responsibility for Peace. Great Britain, with England as its core, ruled an empire with one-quarter of the world’s population and about one-quarter of the Earth’s total land mass.
Even as the “losers” of the Second World War rebuilt and gained great power status, Britain was forced to recognize the loss of the empire it had fought so hard to keep. In negotiations to restructure the world’s political and economic order after the war, the Pound lost its status as reserve currency for the world and the United Nations came to be focused on transforming colonies into independent states. While the Americans became the clear leaders of the “free world,” Britain slipped in status. Only its willingness to spend lives and wealth to maintain its status allowed it to compete at all, and without the empire the resources simply did not exist to arrest its slow decline.
Britain was not the only country forced to deal with the shifting balance of power. (West) Germany was rehabilitated, largely at the insistence of the United States, to serve as a counterweight to an expanded Soviet Union. By the mid-1950s the idea was already being floated that fragmented as it was, Europe could no longer command its own destiny. The hope for a “Europe” that stood united, serving as a bloc to articulate and defend its own interests, slowly took form in a series of international organizations and “European Economic Communities,” leading to the creation of the “European Union” in 1992.
While the French looked for ways to gain a disproportionate voice in the EU, to maintain a power they on longer had the population or economy to afford, the United Kingdom was wary of the project. Then, when the UK did petition for admission, it was blocked for years by the French. Finally, the power of a “common market” was too obvious to ignore. The UK was admitted, because it could make a unique contribution to the market. The UK joined, because the people were told (or convinced themselves) the European project was “only” an economic one.
It wasn’t. It never was. Just as the power to regulate “interstate commerce” provided a Constitutional key to a huge federal government in the United States, with the power to regulate and over-rule the individual states, the “common market” and the “economic union” implied the power to regulate and overrule the governments of the EU. For the most part the European project was careful not to move too far, too fast. Expand membership, consolidate, wait until the system was the new normal. Expand powers, consolidate, wait until the system was the new normal.
The fall of the Soviet Union upset this careful approach. New states distanced themselves not only from Soviet domination, but the domination of Russia within the USSR. Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Georgia, Ukraine…it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand the territory of the EU. At the same time, the collapse of communism and the rise of capitalist globalization suggested a unique chance to reorganize the EU itself. A common currency was created — and rejected by the UK. Charters of human rights were extended across the Union, overruling national governments, and turned into conditions for new membership. Most of the newly independent states jumped at the chance to leave the “Soviet bloc” and become a full member of “Europe.”
Within the UK, the choice was not always so clear, or attractive. Scotland and Ireland were used to decisions being made by others: England had never hesitated to overrule local objections. They had learned how to function in that kind of an environment, and welcomed the opportunity to play Brussels against London. But England? As a member of “Europe” the English began to recognize that their national sovereignty — the core of their identity — was being threatened. At the same time that open borders facilitated a continent-wide trade bloc. it also meant that immigrants from Eastern Europe, and immigrants through the eastern and southern borders of the EU, could move unimpeded into the UK. For English workers, Thatcherism had already dismantled many of the certainties of the welfare state, and competition with new labor drove down wages and tempted businesses to move elsewhere. New people, with new customs, provided an easy excuse for an economic decline that was already well under way. The answer was obvious — get out of the European Union. After all, the advantages of Union and unrestricted trade were difficult to see, and tended to accumulate among the upper classes. The pain was at home.
So, it is not all that surprising that the “conservative landslide” was in fact a landslide of English nationalism. It was not mirrored in Scotland, where a 2014 “once in a generation” vote on Scottish independence had lost 54 percent to 46 percent, and where the vote against leaving the EU had a strong majority in 2016. In this most recent election the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats. The prospect of leaving the European Union has pushed the sentiments of the Scots to again assert their separation from England. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, followed the announcement of the election results with a speech about arranging a new referendum for independence. Mr. Johnson has already said that he opposes a new referendum, but clearly the choices for Scotland today are far different than they were in 2014. In 2014 the choices were to remain within the UK and continue to belong to the EU, or leave the UK, and with independence leave the EU — with the date (or possibility) of return to the Union unclear. Today, the choices are to stay with the UK (and lose the perceived benefits of the EU), or leave the UK and petition for a fast-track to admission to the Union.
In its election Northern Ireland, which Mr. Johnson has already agreed will maintain a “soft border” with the Republic of Ireland and who has imposed EU-style restrictions on trade and travel between Northern Ireland and Britain, chose to send more pro-Irish nationalists (Sinn Fein and SDLP) than pro-British Unionists (Democratic Unionist Party) to Westminster. By placing the border for trade and travel in the Irish Sea, not on the border with the EU-member Irish Republic, Unionists loyal to their British identity within Northern Ireland felt abandoned. A fragile peace in Northern Ireland that rested in large part on soft borders and common EU membership is now at risk. Young men are already approaching the veterans of the “troubles” to be coached in techniques and technology of terrorism. The number of police killed by terrorist attacks is already increasing. Without EU membership for the UK, violence in Northern Ireland is a growing threat. Given the economics and demographics of the situation, there is increasingly little motivation for the English to do anything about it, especially if they have already lost Scotland.
The United Kingdom will leave the European Union at the end of next month. That much has been settled. What has not been settled is the relationship between an independent UK and the remainder of the EU.
Details are important. That’s one reason why so many British politicians, facing the prospect of renegotiating 60.000 pages of agreements between the UK and the EU, worked to avoid the prospect. Now they have the months between the end of January and the end of December 2020 to work out the deals, or accept failure and do their best with the “no-deal” option. And whatever they work out, it will not satisfy the nations of the United Kingdom that are opposed to Brexit on principle.
Leaving the EU reopens old divisions in the politics of the UK. It undermines the Good Friday accords that provided the basis to the end of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland. It may well mark the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom. And if that’s the price they have to pay, so be it. “There will always be an England.” It was there before there was a Britain or an empire or a United Kingdom. It will still be there after all those things are gone, independent and proud.
The English aren’t stupid. They know all this, and more, is coming. That is why they describe the situation in terms of sovereignty, and refer to the sacrifices of the war (tinted and hazy with time) when they talk about surviving the transition. Especially among the older, the rural, the less educated, and the laborers of industries the last century, the independence to be won is worth the cost. That is why Labour collapsed, and Boris Johnson has consolidated his power by promising to “get Brexit done.” They know the transition will hurt, and they have chosen to accept it.
Milton put the ultimate declaration of sovereignty in the mouth of Satan, in Paradise Lost: “it is better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.” There are a lot of people in England who can sympathize with that. However, they may find it is worse to rule when nobody remains to take their orders.