I once feared Brexit would tear people apart

DOMINIC SANDBROOK: I once feared Brexit would tear people apart – but after Covid-19 it may be what saves our divided nation

For those of us who relish national stereotypes, the first days of 2022 have brought an odd sense of dislocation.

As the bells rang in the New Year last weekend, the streets of Edinburgh were deserted. Hundreds of miles to the south, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool were packed with Scottish partygoers, escaping the Hogmanay restrictions imposed by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Very soon, London may see its own Celtic invasion. On February 12, the defending Six Nations rugby champions, Wales, are due to play Scotland in Cardiff.

 But with Wales’s First Minister, Mark Drakeford, having banned crowds from sporting events, the Welsh Rugby Union is considering moving the team’s home games to London — sending tens of thousands of fans east across the Severn Bridge.

It sounds absurd, and in the long run I suspect the data will show that Boris Johnson was right to defy the pessimists and keep England open.

But the most compelling issue here isn’t Covid. It’s the devolved administrations’ persistence in using the pandemic to score nationalistic points.

When the Prime Minister unveiled his ‘Stay alert’ slogan, Ms Sturgeon could barely restrain her scorn. Then she produced her own: ‘Stay safe’

When the Prime Minister unveiled his ‘Stay alert’ slogan, Ms Sturgeon could barely restrain her scorn. Then she produced her own: ‘Stay safe.’

When he introduced a three-tier regional restriction system, she shook her head in horror. Then she produced her own, with not three tiers, but five!

All very obvious and, unfortunately, very effective. And where Sturgeon led, Drakeford has followed, consistently imposing more draconian restrictions on Welsh businesses than those across the border in England. Only yesterday, he attacked Boris Johnson, accusing him of ‘not taking action to protect’ the people of England, a statement that flies in the face of the data.

Covid has exposed all the weaknesses of Britain’s devolved political model. It has been a gift to the separatists, handing them the opportunity to define themselves against the supposedly wicked English Tories.

And where Sturgeon led, Drakeford has followed, consistently imposing more draconian restrictions on Welsh businesses than those across the border in England

Within England, it has acted as a kind of solvent, weakening the bonds between different classes and regions.

Just think of how Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, paraded his outrage for the cameras in late 2020, when soaring infection rates forced his city into a regional lockdown.

It was pure pantomime, but Mr Burnham got to see his name in lights, fighting for the common folk against the Westminster tyrants. Which brings me to his party leader, Keir Starmer, who delivered a much-trailed speech on Tuesday about Labour’s supposed rediscovery of British patriotism.

Much of it was the usual wooden waffle, but as my attention waned, I fell to musing about the two colossal Union flags selected as his backdrop.

Just a few decades ago, you would have been mad to doubt the enduring power of the Union Jack. When Britain’s Task Force returned triumphant from the Falklands in the summer of 1982, crowds on the quaysides waved those flags — just as fans did after England’s World Cup win in 1966.

But does that symbol have the same meaning today?

Covid has exposed all the weaknesses of Britain’s devolved political model. It has been a gift to the separatists, handing them the opportunity to define themselves against the supposedly wicked English Tories

Last spring, a YouGov poll found that one in five people actively disapproves of flying the Union Jack — perhaps because they equate it with the supposed ills of the British Empire.

And another poll in 2020 found that 33 per cent of Midlanders saw themselves as more English than British; only 18 per cent said they felt more British than English.

Where might this lead? For an answer, I turned to a chilling essay in the American magazine The Atlantic, by the British political journalist Tom McTague.

‘The grim reality for Britain as it faces up to 2022,’ begins McTague, ‘is that no other major power on Earth stands quite as close to its own dissolution.’

Britain, he writes, is unusual in being one of Europe’s last surviving multi-national states. Almost all the others — the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, even Czechoslovakia — have gone. 

Travelling the country, he is struck by the sense of a nation coming apart. In Scotland, ‘the only signs of the British state were the partially privatised Post Office, the pound, and the monarchy. Is this really enough?’

In one revealing anecdote, he gets his second Covid vaccine while he’s in Scotland, only to be plunged into a ‘bureaucratic black hole’. For five months he tries to get the Scottish NHS to provide proof of his second jab, but can’t get on to its website because he doesn’t live in Scotland.

Last spring, a YouGov poll found that one in five people actively disapproves of flying the Union Jack — perhaps because they equate it with the supposed ills of the British Empire

They won’t even post the evidence to him, because he has an English address.

As McTague observes, this could hardly be a more telling symptom of a state dissolving into its constituent parts. In Britain, he says, ‘something has died’: a sense of a collective story and united family.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I took Britain for granted: an unchanging landmark on the international map. But in political terms, Great Britain didn’t exist until 1707. It took Hanoverian politicians, writers and artists to ‘invent’ it, from the national anthem to the national flag.

For those first 18th-century Britons, the pillars of our national identity were obvious: the monarchy, the Royal Navy, Protestantism and a hugely profitable empire abroad.

Today, the Royal Navy is a shadow of its former self; few of us go to church; and the Empire has long since disappeared. Only the monarchy remains.

That doesn’t mean Britishness is necessarily defunct. Polls show that just under half of us ‘strongly identify’ as British — with ethnic and racial minorities leading the way. Even so, I think McTague is right. 

At some point, almost certainly in 2024, there will be a general election. If it’s close, the SNP will fancy themselves as anti-Tory kingmakers. If Mr Starmer is within touching distance of Downing Street, the price of their support would probably be a second independence referendum

As the devolved administrations’ Covid posturing shows, the threats to Britishness are greater now than ever before. In Northern Ireland, a majority of voters now think there should be a referendum on Irish unification in the next decade. 

In Scotland, the most recent major poll found that 55 per cent would now vote to secede. And even in hitherto quiescent Wales, there is a renewed national self-assertion — with support for pro-independence at 42 per cent, according to one poll.

At some point, almost certainly in 2024, there will be a general election. If it’s close, the SNP will fancy themselves as anti-Tory kingmakers. If Mr Starmer is within touching distance of Downing Street, the price of their support would probably be a second independence referendum.

So no matter how keenly he wraps himself in the Union Jack today, he could go down in history as the man who brought down the curtain on Great Britain.

But let’s be optimistic. The end of the pandemic, or at least the end of the worst of it, is surely not far away. Although many serious economic issues remain, Britain should soon be back at work.

A buoyant, booming Britain is a very different proposition from a divided, locked-down one. But the trump card for the Union may be Brexit — the thing I once feared might tear it apart.

A buoyant, booming Britain is a very different proposition from a divided, locked-down one. But the trump card for the Union may be Brexit — the thing I once feared might tear it apart (stock image)

If Scotland voted to leave tomorrow, it would find itself outside both the EU and the United Kingdom, with no viable currency, colossal debts and a hard border from the Solway Firth to the North Sea. By contrast, if we make a success of our future outside the EU, Britishness will seem a much more attractive proposition.

What’s more, all successful nations need something to define themselves against. As the years pass, the EU leviathan — with frequent riots and violent protests in Paris and Amsterdam, authoritarian regimes in Budapest and Warsaw, rows about borders and migrants and scandals about corruption and waste — may well become an effective Aunt Sally.

There is, after all, an unanswerable case for Britain, the nation that ushered humanity into the modern age, pioneered science and medicine, stamped out slavery and stood firm against the continental tyrannies of Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin.

And for millions of us, the Union Jack is more than a historical relic. It’s a symbol of the precious bonds that unite the people of our islands in friendship and fellowship.

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