Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The State of Britain

Journalist Fintan O' Toole calls it the unravelling of an imagined community.

He writes in the Guardian:

"Brexit plays out a conflict between Them and Us, but it is surely obvious after this week that the problem is not with Them on the continent. It’s with the British Us, the unravelling of an imagined community. The visible collapse of the Westminster polity this week may be a result of Brexit, but Brexit itself is the result of the invisible subsidence of the political order over recent decades...

It may seem strange to call this slow collapse invisible since so much of it is obvious: the deep uncertainties about the union after the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and the establishment of the 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 and its promise of shared citizenship; the contempt for the poor and vulnerable expressed through austerity; the rise of a sensationally self-indulgent and clownish ruling class. But the collective effects of these interrelated developments do seem to have been barely visible within the political mainstream until David Cameron accidentally took the lid off by calling a referendum and asking people to endorse the status quo...

It is time to move on from the pretence that the problem with British democracy is the EU and to recognise that it is with itself. After Brextinction there must be a whole new political ecosystem."

In England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, there has always been regional disparity and internecine sniping. Born of insular thinking, a ttribal culture has pitted the Church of England against Rome, Roundheads against Cavaliers, England against Scotland, Lancashire against Yorkshire, Manchester against Liverpool, North against South, Britain against Germany, and latterly UK against the invented bogeyman: Europe. All in good sport?

Tracing Britain's tortuous, tribal history back over seven hundred years:

1297 - William Wallace leads the Scotts in their defeat of the English. He is defeated a year later at the Battle of Falkirk.

1337 - The Hundred Years' War with France begins. It will last until 1453.

1455 - The War of the Roses begins between the families of the Plantagenets and the Lancastrians for the right to rule England.

1536 - England and Wales are joined by the Act of Union.

1588 - The English fleet led by Sir Francis Drake defeat the Spanish Armada.

The English Reformation is a series of events in 16th-century England by which the Church of England breaks away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church....

The break with Rome is effected by a series of acts of Parliament passed between 1532 and 1534, among them the 1534 Act of Supremacy, which declares that Henry is the "Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England".

1707 - England and Scotland are united as one country called Great Britain.

1776 - The American colonies declare their independence from Britain.

1801 - The British and Irish parliaments are joined by the Act of Union to create the United Kingdom.

1805 - The British fleet defeats Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar.

1854 - The Crimean War is fought against Russia.

At its peak in the 19th century, the British Empire covers over one-fourth of the surface of the earth.

1914 - 1918 World War I "The Great War". The United Kingdom fights with Allies against the Central Powers led by Germany.

1921 - Ireland is granted independence.

1939 - 1945 World War II. The United Kingdom joins the Allies to battle the Axis Powers. Under the leadership of Winston Churchill, the United Kingdom is the last western European nation to oppose Germany in World War II and plays a major role in defeating Hitler. 1940 - The United Kingdom is bombed by the Germans for months during the Battle of Britain but fends off land invasion.

1973 - "Brentry". The United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) joins the Common Market , or European Economic Community, with continued membership endorsed by a referendum in 1975. Upon the formation of the European Union in 1993, the EEC is incorporated and renamed as the European Community.

2016 - Brexit, a portmanteau of "British" and "exit", is the proposed withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (EU). It follows the referendum in which 51.9 per cent of those who vote support withdrawal. The years of full membership in the continent-wide union from Brentry to the presently-proposed Brexit mark a fraction (less than five percent ) of the time-frame in this potted history.

Britain claims to have once "ruled the waves." One would have thought that the diminishment brought by the end of Empire would have tempered the ambition to stand steadfast in isolation, or apart, from established allies. Yet, with such a convoluted history and radically-altered identity dynamic, fierce rivalries, disputes and deep-rooted concerns (local, regional, national, and transnational) persist and fester in this age of blocs, unions, alliances, pacts, and global competition. The country risks being left behind as a quaint anachronism, nostalgic for an evanescent glorious past.

Now we witness the petty shambles that is governance; the pathetic posturing and manouvering in Parliament; the fervid spouting of the myopic mainstream media; the squabbling amongst friends and neighbours; the growing exasperation of a collective shrug of stunned resignation. Direct confrontation usurps the politics of consensus. When you ask of a whole diverse populace this blunt question via referendum: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?", you are opening a can of worms whose contents are unknown, contentious, and subject to fudging and fabricating.

On the London School of Economics and Political Science blog, Thomas Colignatus writes:

"The question assumes a binary choice — Remain or Leave the EU — while voting theory warns that allowing only two options can easily be a misleading representation of the real choice. When the true situation is more complex, and especially if it is one that arouses strong passions, then reducing the question to a binary one might suggest a political motivation. As a result of the present process, we actually don’t know how people would have voted when they had been offered the true options.... 

In the case of Brexit, the hidden complexity concerned:

— Leave, and adopt an EFTA or WTO framework?

— Leave, while the UK remains intact or while it splits up?

— Remain, in what manner?....

When there are only two options then everyone knows about the possibility of a stalemate. This means a collective indifference."

Now that grievances have been aired and issues discussed ad infinitum, perhaps a second Yes/No referendum presents the best and last chance to avoid the country being driven over the cliff. The question is bound to further expose deep splits in the fabric of national unity. What was then Prime Minister Cameron thinking in betting the nation? Parliament should never abdicate its responsibility to govern. Who will have the vision to heal the wide-open rifts and clear up this mess? I would bet on it taking time, with no easy fixes in sight. The leaders and a highly disenchanted electorate are apparently not up to the necessary task of reconciliation. History staggers on regardless.

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