By voting narrowly to leave the European Union, the theoretically United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has had only half a revolution this week. The second half may well sink into the swamps of compromise and inertia, which stretch in every direction. But if it doesn’t, then our ancient, turbulent country faces an adventure that could be dangerous as well as exhilarating.
First of all, this is mainly an English revolt against Continental rule. Wales joined in, but principally for old-fashioned class reasons—a large part of the exit vote was made up of blue-collar types, sick of being forgotten, neglected, and taken for granted, and sick of uncontrolled mass immigration. Scotland, whose religion, laws, customs, and traditions have always been more European than English, and which spent most of the Middle Ages allying with France against the old English enemy, did not join in. It voted decisively to stay under E.U. rule.
In the remaining British corner of Ireland, supposedly dominated by ultra-British Protestant Unionists, a clear majority, almost 56 percent, voted for continued subjection to rule from Brussels, capital of the European Union.
The alarming consequences of these very different outcomes will become clear quite soon. Scotland’s Nationalist First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has already begun to argue for a new referendum on Scottish independence, as she calls it. It will be hard for London to refuse this, and my guess is that the separatists would now win quite handily.
After all, what they actually seek is not real stand-alone independence. With a population of 5.3 million, they could only hope for a sort of Scandinavian city-state existence, if they are lucky. They seek “Scotland in Europe,” a direct relation between Scotland and Brussels, bypassing London.
Northern Ireland (as few on the mainland grasp) has been since 1998 a conditional and partial member of the United Kingdom. This is part of the peace agreement Britain made with the Irish Republican Army and its political front-men in Sinn Fein.
The national flag, the Union Jack, can only be flown on official buildings at certain limited times. The Crown of St. Edward, symbol of lawful authority in these islands, has been removed from police badges. And at any time a single, irreversible plebiscite may be called, to transfer this odd, anomalous territory to the sovereignty of the Irish Republic.
Martin McGuinness, the hardest man in Sinn Fein, is calling for such a poll. He may well get it, and if the province votes for Dublin rule it will at least spare the new non-E.U. Britain from having to maintain and enforce the wriggling, largely unmarked 310-mile border with E.U. Ireland. In truth, this would be almost impossible, leaving a back door into the U.K. through which illegal migrants could reach Britain through Ireland.
It will be hard enough trying to enforce the slightly simpler border with Scotland which, if it splits away, will almost certainly become a currency frontier, a tariff barrier, and (as in Ireland) a potential way in for undocumented migrants. Since the desire to recover control of our frontiers was a strong part of the campaign to leave the E.U., this is obviously a problem.
So this isn’t quite as simple as it might at first look. A serious push for British independence is such a challenge to the new, supranational Europe that it throws the whole system out of gear. Britain may have been, in the seventeenth century, the prototype of an independent nation in what was then a Roman Catholic Europe still under a supranational authority. And it flourished as a result, at least until 1914.
But the rest of the continent tried out the idea of the nation state, especially in the 1918-1939 period, decided it didn’t like it, and abandoned it in favor of a new supranational experiment, this time secular and bureaucratic rather than religious. In most cases it ended either with some hideous despotism, or with invasion. Britain, by 1945, was the only surviving virgin in a continent of rape victims. But, alas, it was also bankrupt and could no longer afford to keep itself in aloof purity.
So its long coquettish flirtation with the Continent did not leave it wholly untouched. This curious and rather insincere affair began in 1956 after the fiasco of the Suez invasion (dishonest and unsuccessful, a dreadful combination) exposed Britain’s post-imperial weakness.
If we try to break it off now, we will not emerge back into the world as pure and unspotted, or as secure, let alone as powerful and important, as we were when we began. Those who wanted to get out (and I am one of them) are going to have to accept that independence will not mean a return to the lost days of Imperial London, but will probably mean acceptance that England (with tiny Wales at her side) is on her own again for the first time in more than four hundred years.
Some would relish that. There’s a famous wartime cartoon by David Low, drawn after we were thrown off the Continent in 1940, of a British soldier shaking his fist at wind and waves from a sea-girt rock and proclaiming, “Very well, alone.” Dorothy Sayers, around the same time, penned the lines, “This is the war we always knew, … / When no allies are left, no help to count upon from alien hands, / No waverers remain to woo, no more advice to listen to, / And only England stands.” As it happened, we had a large and wealthy empire at our back, but these sentiments express a particularly English attitude to the world, which we can feel in exalted moments.
The trouble is that these days, only just above half of us feel this way. The rest are happier with the other, more comfortable, less thrilling path. Will we now finish the job we have started? I have my doubts. We are in the curious position of having chosen a policy by popular vote, while still being saddled with a government that disagrees with it. There are several ways out of this conundrum, and some of them may well involve new compromises which seem unlikely in this ecstatic moment, but which may come about, all the same.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday.