British voters have rejected the European Union, and voted to leave the organization irrevocably, as EU leaders have made clear will be the case. David Cameron, having recklessly gambled his premiership and his country on a risky and unnecessary referendum, has resigned in disgrace. He may well be remembered as not just one of the worst British prime ministers of the century, but very probably one of the last.
The Scottish National Party now has the perfect justification for a second referendum on independence, which they will almost certainly win. The Good Friday peace accord in Northern Ireland is threatened with collapse. Markets and the value of the pound sterling are in free fall. Euroscepticism has been vindicated, encouraged and inspired across the rest of the EU. The centrifugal historical forces that have been at work in the British Isles over the last half century are reaching their inevitable culmination; the end of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
An interesting side effect of the European Union and its promise of a federated continent of nations was the impact it had on the older multinational conglomerates of Britain and Spain. Both countries constitute multiple nations ruled by single monarchs, along the lines of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Separatist forces in Scotland and Catalonia, always present, have been emboldened by the rise of an alternative narrative for their existence: as European countries. Not subjects of ancient crowns.
Now, for Scotland at least, which decisively voted to remain a member of the EU, the time may have come to free itself from an arrangement that no longer suits its needs, wants, or aspirations. In their upcoming referendum on independence, they will decisively detonate the idea of a united Great Britain, consigning it to the historical dustheap, and dissolving the state back into its constituent elements of Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland.
What often gets forgotten in discussions of Britain is how very, very new it is as an idea. It isn’t even more than a century older than the idea of America. The Act of Union that united, for the first time ever in recorded history, the peoples of ‘Great Britain,’ was passed by the Westminster parliament in 1707. That’s only seventy years before the birth of American nationalism in 1776.
Scotland and England had dwelt before then in a highly uneasy personal Union since 1603, sharing a monarch after James VI of Scotland’s accession to the throne of England, but very little else. James and the kings who followed him, despite their best efforts, for the most part failed completely in their efforts to unite their Scottish and English subjects within one state. Both countries retained their separate parliaments, churches, and legal and educational systems. Even after the union of the parliaments in 1707, the kirk and the educational system remained distinctly Scottish. Canada owes its university system, to take one example, to Scotland, not to England.
Only when the Scottish state was completely bankrupted by a failed scheme to colonize the isthmus of Panama in the 1690s in the Darien scheme were the conditions for a political union between Scotland and England even remotely possible. And even then, it was more of a hostile takeover than it was a genuine coming together. England agreed to forgive Scottish debt, largely held by English banks, if Scotland surrendered its sovereignty.
Ironically, what the Act of Union ended up meaning for Scotland wasn’t all that different from what the European Union means today to Greece, Portugal and other ‘peripheral’ Eurozone economies. It meant shotgun marriage, into which the weaker partner was browbeaten and threatened by her domineering new partner.
The people of the British Isles had never, ever been a unified political entity before 1707. The Romans, the Saxons and even the Normans had all failed to subjugate the entire archipelago and bring it under one political system. So the Stuart dynasty’s total failure to create a ‘British people’ was really only to be expected. Throughout the personal union, and for much of the political one, the English continued to call themselves English, and the Scots Scottish.
The Irish, until the very recent past, were little more than subject peoples in the context of the British state; violently conquered and widely regarded as subhuman papists well into the nineteenth century. Ireland’s narrative of national struggle actually bears a closer resemblance to those former British colonies in India, Africa and the Middle East than it does to that of Scotland. It is one of the ironies of British imperialism that it was never more cruel than when it struck closest to home.
British identity first came to mean anything at all to those English, Scots and Welsh who set out for the colonies; for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and what would become the United States. When confronted with the French, the Spanish, or the so-called ‘savages’ of India and North America, the differences between Welshman, Scotsman and Englishman began to seem trivial by comparison. And as the Empire grew and strengthened, with many Scots in particular at the vanguard of its expansion, people began to take pride in their Britishness, and not in their peculiar old nationalisms.
All took pride in their destiny as ‘Britons,’ and aspired to rule the world forever as such. The late nineteenth century was the high point of ‘Britishness.’ It is in this period, and only in this period, that it was possible for a Scot living in Montreal named James McGill to found a university in his name, and on his tombstone, to refer to the city of his birth as Glasgow, North Britain. It was a sentiment that would have been laughable, if not unthinkable, in earlier times, and which has become so yet again today.
After the Empire began its long decline in the aftermath of two devastating world wars, British policymakers tried, at first, to salvage some remnant of the world order they had once headed by devising the Commonwealth of Nations, which is still attempting to continue by free association the processes begun by imperialism. To this end they attempted, in 1962, to free up immigration from the ex-Dominions in order to give practical heft to the fine words they were speaking.
In order for this to make any sense, these policymakers were forced to resort to some expedients that they found rather distasteful. Most importantly, as the Labour opposition incisively pointed out at the time, if the citizens of Canada, Australia, and apartheid South Africa were truly still members of some kind of glorious British world-order, then so were the citizens of Jamaica, Nigeria, India and Pakistan. What, then, was to stop them too from immigrating to Britain to claim the prosperity that the elite were telling them was their birthright as inheritors of the imperial legacy?
Nothing at all, was the obvious answer. And so the definition of Britishness was at last expanded to include the subject peoples of the former colonies, opening the doors to the mass immigration that is at the root of Britain’s current national anxieties. Though Enoch Powell’s famous analysis of the problems this would eventually pose was and is deeply distasteful, coming as it does from a place of deep racism and bigotry, it also wasn’t inaccurate, as the history of British race relations in the twentieth century has amply demonstrated.
Then in the 60s and 70s, a succession of British Governments (both Labour and Tory) began resolutely turning away from their imperial heritage and any attempt to make the Commonwealth a viable entity. It was Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath, with his famous 1971 white paper, who would eventually bring Britain into the EU, and decisively reorient Britain as a European nation.
This came as a deep psychological shock in the colonies. In the words of the famous Kiwi historian JGA Pocock, ‘Mother Britain ran off and joined the EEC.’ The former dominions felt quite betrayed by this at the time, and a great deal of Canada, Australia and New Zealand’s postcolonial search for identity in the second half of the twentieth century has indeed been largely a response to ‘Mother Britain’s’ total failure to reciprocate their deep interest and sense of connection with her.
Britain continually betrayed and belittled the feelings of English Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and repeatedly demonstrated how little they really meant to her. The mother country’s lack of interest forced the commonwealth dominions to try and find some kind of identity that wasn’t rooted in Britishness and Britannic pride.In that context, it was possible for someone like Pocock to anticipate precisely the problem that is consuming Britain right now: In his famous lecture, he incisively noted, during a discussion of fellow historian AJP Taylor’s attitude to Scotland, that
If it has been psychologically possible for [the English, Scots, Irish and Welsh] to annihilate the whole idea of the Commonwealth, white as well as non-white, it is not altogether beyond the bounds of possibility that “United Kingdom” and even “Britain” may someday become similarly inconvenient and be annihilated, or annihilate themselves, in their turn….It is not inconceivable that future historians may find themselves writing of a “Unionist” or even a “British” period in the history of the peoples inhabiting the Atlantic Archipelago, and locating it between a date in the thirteenth, the seventeenth, or the nineteenth century and a date in the twentieth or the twenty first.
He gave this lecture in 1975, but it was barely noticed outside of academic historical circles.
Now that Brexit has arrived, and Britain’s political and economic ties with the European continent are up for review, the UK Independence Party, and the British nationalists it represents, have touted the Commonwealth as an alternative security alliance and market for a post-Brexit Britain. They are remarkably blind to the fact that very few people in the rest of the world, including the commonwealth countries, remember British rule with any fondness. The history of the British state’s interventions in world affairs is one of arrogant meddling in other people’s affairs, blithe rhetoric about their own racial superiority, and outright violent subjugation and rule. Brexiteers are living in a fantasy world, where the grateful Commonwealth will answer the call to come to Britain’s aid with a loud ‘Ready, aye, ready, we stand by you.’
Outside a few paleo-conservatives, miles from the current of mainstream opinion on these issues, imperial sentiment in the former dominions has completely and utterly died. Even the Conservative governments of the recently deposed Stephen Harper in Canada, Malcolm Turnbull in Australia, and John Key in New Zealand, who probably do feel more nostalgia for the empire than most of the people they ostensibly lead, would find opposition totally insurmountable if they went too far in their efforts to restore their countries’ respective status as British colonies.
Stephen Harper, in particular, embarrassed himself with his ham-fisted efforts to restore the old imperial iconography here in Canada. Few people quite understand why he did it, let alone support the restoration of the monarchy and other British symbolisms to the Canadian state. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals almost immediately began the process of dismantling the old symbols upon their election last year.
If Britain really does decide to leave the EU and turn away from the European project, the question inevitable presents itself: to what precisely will she be turning? The old dominions are done with her, and have built postcolonial identities of their own. America has lost interest in any ‘special relationship.’ China, Russia and India are eager to humiliate her, and settle old scores.
Britain will likely discover that the era when it could go it alone, as a great power in its own right, is over. Maintaining the mere cohesion of the state itself will absorb most of a post-Brexit Britain’s energy. A robust presence on the world stage will be sadly beyond it.
The British state could only really have been preserved, like a museum piece, in the context of a united Europe. Together, Europe’s nations are the world’s largest economy and one of its most powerful diplomatic and military forces. Apart, and the ignominious exit of the UK from the Union may lead to still other countries departing, they are merely a squabbling collection of nineteenth century relics. The harsh winds of 21st century diplomacy and security realities will blow all the colder outside the warm, cosy confines of the EU; as Britain is about to discover.