This Island’s Nations
Stuart Millson believes that Brexit will rejuvenate Britain
In my anti-federal Europe days of 20 to 25 years ago, never did I believe that I would see a reversal of the European Union’s control of my country. Yet we are now at the exit door of the European project, an experiment that began for us back in 1972, when the then Conservative Government of Edward Heath effectively ended 300 years or sovereign constitutional self-government (not to mention the dissolution of our own economic single market – the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Commonwealth). Today, a Conservative Government is once again at the helm, but it is executing what, for the liberal establishment, is unthinkable: the wholesale rejection of a system of supra-national administration by experts, the great-and-the-good, the elite, the politicians and Eurocrats who always know best.
The breath of relief from ordinary voters following our vote to leave the EU, has, however, been tempered by a sequence of difficult events, which, whilst not derailing the Brexit process, have made our progress towards national freedom more difficult. The legal action brought by an investment manager (representing a group of offshore, pro-Remain business people) appeared to block the Brexit juggernaut – albeit temporarily. Counting on the Government to consult Parliament before any attempt to leave the EU, the litigants hoped for a dilution of Prime Minister, Theresa May’s Brexit agenda – and even a possible semi-reversal of the referendum result from last June. Remainers also hoped that the devolved assemblies of the United Kingdom, particularly the SNP-dominated Scottish Parliament, might be given some form of appeal against – or say in – Brexit. But their hopes were confounded: the Tory and Labour parliamentary parties (sensibly observing the rule that in politics you do not deny the will of over 17 million electors – the number which supported ‘Leave’) voted to give the Prime Minister full authority to implement EU withdrawal legislation. The Supreme Court also ruled that the Scottish Parliament had no competence in matters relating to UK foreign policy – Scotland, of course, having voted in its 2014 referendum to remain part of the Kingdom (by a convincing ten per cent margin).
And therein lies the next constitutional and emotional obstacle in the Brexit saga: the barely-suppressed anger and refusal by the SNP Government to accept the democratically-settled status quo – with Edinburgh’s First Minister even demanding another “independence” referendum (in truth, secession from the UK linked to a bizarre embracing of the EU, rather than any true vision of ancestral Scottish sovereignty). Although the Scottish Government is correct in observing that Scotland’s voters wanted their country (and indeed the United Kingdom, come to that) to remain in the European Union, the First Minister seems to believe that these voters – by rejecting Brexit – automatically constitute an anti-British, anti-Westminster popular movement. It is highly doubtful if Scottish Remainers (or indeed their English counterparts) are supportive of the EU, or that Scots have any real axe to grind against UK membership. There are also no definite signs (at least, at this stage) from tests of public opinion north of the border that Caledonia wishes to bid farewell to England, Wales and Northern Ireland – and head for the meeting rooms of Brussels and Berlin. But still there seems a tension between Scotland and the rest of the nation, a loss of familiarity and friendship. The time has come – and people of goodwill from the SNP surely have a part to play here – to resolve the unhappiness and disjointedness of our present situation.
As the whole country now prepares for what could be years of difficult and tedious negotiations with the (unelected) leaders of the European Union, and as we contemplate the zeal with which the Scottish Government adheres to its idea of “independence”, is it time to re-create the United Kingdom – in tune with the ideal, enshrined in Brexit, of individual nations achieving self-government? Unlike Scotland, England has no Parliament of its own – no “First Minister”, no political definition at all – save for the feeble idea, created by the Blair, Brown and Cameron governments, of “English regions”. Wales, too, a fiercely individually patriotic country (but strongly supportive of UK Brexit) has long felt ignored or subsumed in a Britain that takes little interest in either its struggles or achievements. Perhaps it is now time for England and Wales to achieve parity with Scotland – many Scottish Nationalists, perhaps, not realising how lucky they are to have the self-government that I, as an Englishman, do not have.
Cornwall has also recently flexed its muscles. Like a storyline from the 1960s’ film, The Mouse that Roared, the ancient Cornish nation has achieved, through its flag (the Cross of St. Piran), and through a revival of its indigenous language and proud County Council administration, an almost national status. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland remains Unionist, despite signs that supporters of a more political form of Irish nationalism, through Sinn Fein and the descendants of the old SDLP, could – over the generations – form a majority in the Province. Although a true Unionist, I would (in this short article) like to think that a way out of this problem could be found – and that is why I ask the question: is Eire, the Republic of Ireland, really a “foreign” nation? Or is it, like Ulster, or England – or Scotland – a British nation, simply with a different temperament and ideals – and national experience? Could Eire ever become part of a new Union of the British Isles, which is what the United Kingdom in a century from now could become?
The Brexit vote last year enabled us to find our will to self-government, once again. The vote symbolised an almost wartime image of the nation standing alone, refusing to accept any longer the threat (and reality) of rule from a foreign capital – in this case, Brussels. We voted in the June 2016 EU referendum as one Kingdom, and we must also remember how, in 2014, Scotland expressed its desire to remain in that 300-year-old arrangement. But Britain, although wrapped in red, white and blue, is the home of regional, localised identities – and the time may have come to create a federal (but still united) country: with English and Scots meeting at Westminster for foreign policy and defence, but governing themselves – taxation, transport, environment – within their own nations. One thing, however, is certain: the people of these islands will no longer be ruled from elsewhere. Brexit has ensured that we will remain Britons, rather than “citizens of the European Union”. Now – as masters of our own destiny – we can revive and embrace an even wider and more democratic vision of Britain.
STUART MILLSON is QR’s classical music editor