What happens in Great Britain after Brexit? Will it enjoy its sovereignty as the Brexit proponents promised? Is it going into stormy seas because the coordinates on the British map first have to be redefined with the fixed point Brussels? Will the Scots and Northern Irish, who wanted to stay in the EU, turn their backs on England and Wales? So what remains of Great Britain is just “Little England”?
A constitution or disintegration: That is the choice Vernon Bogdanor, the prominent professor of politics at King’s College in London, presented his compatriots in the Guardian at the beginning of the year. With every day that brings the United Kingdom nearer to Brexit in October, his analysis becomes more probable.
Dreaming of a past as the better future
For Bogdanor, the starting point is the Brexiteers’ promise that only by leaving could the country “take back control.” The Brexiteers dreamed of a return at least to 1972, the last year before joining the European Union, “when there was no Human Rights Act, no devolution, no Good Friday agreement, a world in which the referendum was thought to be unconstitutional. The past is indeed another country.”
Bogdanor said that the withdrawal from the EU would be implemented by a government that had lost a vote with the largest majority since the parliamentary sessions had been recorded.
He also refers to the shift back of legislative powers for agriculture, fisheries or the environment that had been in Brussels. The London government had tried in vain to take over these competences: Scots, Northern Irish or Welsh opposed it. Yet this makes the withdrawal a challenge for devolution. According to Bogdanor, this is most visible in Northern Ireland, where attempts are being made to save the 1998 peace agreement with Ireland.
Brexit as an English project
Andrew Blick, who teaches contemporary history at King’s College London, recalls that the Northern Irish were in favour of remaining in the EU with 55.8% of the votes in the 2016 referendum. At the same time, 85% of the Catholics, but only 40% of the Protestants, voted in favour. “In a sense, Brexit is an English project,” writes Andrew Blick. England voted 53.4% against 46.4% in favour of leaving the EU. “But England is not homogeneous,” warns Blick. In the Greater London area, 59.9% had voted to stay – Brexit has thus not only split the United Kingdom, but also England.
Which brings us to Fintan O’Toole’s captivating analysis, indeed psychoanalysis, of the British situation at the moment of Brexit. “It was never about Europe. Brexit is Britain’s reckoning with itself,” he writes in the Guardian.
An archaic political system had continued while its foundations had long since crumbled. After the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, deep doubts arose about the Union – not about the EU, but about the UK, the United Kingdom. A number of things had come together as a result – “the establishment of a Scottish parliament the following year; the consequent rise of English nationalism; the profound regional inequalities within England itself; the generational divergence of values and aspirations; the undermining of the welfare state…; the rise of a sensationally self-indulgent and clownish ruling class.”
All this had ripped the Union of the English, Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish apart from the inside. The problem with British democracy was not the EU, but British democracy itself. Which brings us back to Vernon Bogdanor.
Millions will have no say whatsoever
In the coming weeks, the Economist writes these days, 124,000 British citizens, all members of the Conservative Party, will decide on the next prime minister – “the rest of Britain’s 66m inhabitants will have no say whatsoever.“
A feat of the Brexiteers that hardly anyone can match – first they demand withdrawal from the EU with the battle cries “I want to have a say” or “Take back control” – only to scrap both demands immediately in their own country.
Never before has confidence in our politicians fallen so low, writes historian Robert Saunders of Queen Mary University London in April in the New Statesman. He, too, sees not only the personal failure of a political class (or rather a clique?) at work, “An unwritten constitution, once prized for its flexibility, has created a chaotic patchwork of competing authorities – including the referendum, an uneven devolution settlement and member-led parties with little consideration of how they fit together. Britain’s parliamentary democracy has rarely felt more under siege.”
With good examples, Saunders then pulls apart the fairy tale of the oldest parliamentary democracy, the “Mother of Parliaments”, and the Labour legend Tony Benn, who dreamed of a popular democracy with a voting knob in every household, or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who raved about a democracy of the market “in which people cast their vote, not once every four years, but every day as they go about their business.“
Saunders concludes that the idea of a democracy in crisis is not new.
“We risk losing our heads”
Yet what can we do about it? Conservative Development Minister Rory Stewart, one of the candidates to succeed the Prime Minister, wants to start at the bottom. “Britain’s national genius lay in moderation – now we risk losing our heads. We never needed a formal constitution to guard against extremism – but if we continue down our current route that could change,” writes the former officer, writer and teacher of Princes Harry and William in June in Prospect Magazine.
Disintegration or constitution: This alternative is also echoed here. Stewart scored in mid-June in the first television debate among conservative applicants for 10, Downing Street. The FAZ was deeply impressed: “Stewart enchants his audience with his passionate seriousness and his thoughtful integrity,” Jochen Buchsteiner wrote from London. However, this enchanted audience will not decide on the next prime minister, neither will the people do so, but 124,000 conservative party members.
Democracy? Parliamentarism? Or disintegration, even decline, after all?