Make no mistake about it, the United Kingdom has now begun the process of breaking up. It may not happen today, it may not happen tomorrow, but it seems unlikely that the union that holds the country together will last another decade.
The election results show that Brexit has divided the country. In England, the Conservative Party rode pro-Brexit sentiment to a resounding victory. The only place that bucked this trend was London, which now looks set to become a sort of “Fortress Europa.” In Scotland the anti-Brexit vote enabled the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) to increase its number of seats from 35 to 48. In Northern Ireland the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost 2 seats—which were picked up by the republican party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). For the first time in history, republicans have more seats than unionists in Northern Ireland.
This is the lay of the land: a Northern Ireland that looks set to start the process of merging with the South—something admitted on national television last night by former Conservative Chancellor George Osbourne; a Scotland that will be truculent in getting another referendum on independence in the face of Brexit; and an England divided between poorer regions that supported Brexit and a London that remains dogmatically pro-E.U.
How does this pan out? We should expect the London elite to become increasingly sympathetic to Scottish independence; Scotland will become a projection screen for the pro-European liberal fantasies of the great and good. We should also expect all parties to become increasingly uninterested in Northern Ireland, which will have to forge its own path—one that risks leading to violence.
The hyper-liberal British elite is going to get increasingly claustrophobic given these new realities. The British Conservative Party is not all that conservative on social issues, but it is to the right of the liberals that dominate the professions and the media in London. Combine this with the loss of European membership—and with it free movement—and you have an elite that has lost not just power, as in the United States, but also the potential to get this power back, (not to mention access to what they have come to consider “rights”). The elite will dig in and wage a war of attrition. Expect the media to become increasingly shrill.
As the country tears itself apart territorially and culturally, it will face rapid and profound demographic and economic changes. Even conservative estimates show that the Muslim population is set to triple in Britain in the next thirty years. This would increase Muslims’ share of the total population from around 6.2 percent today to around 17 percent in 2045. Since most Muslims live in England, if Scotland and Northern Ireland left the union this would mean that almost 20 percent of the English population would be Muslim by 2045—and this will be heavily concentrated in “hub” cities like Birmingham and London.
Until recently, Muslims have been relatively alienated from the political process. But that appears to be changing: The Muslim Council of Great Britain held its first-ever National Muslim Voter Registration Day in the run-up to this week’s election. Present polling suggests that Conservative Party voters have a disproportionately negative view of Muslims, suggesting that Muslims will probably gravitate toward left-wing parties—although with such large numbers, they could easily set up their own party, as they have done elsewhere in Europe.
Economic changes will also be dramatic. Since 2008, Britain is one of the only developed countries in the world—the only other being Greece—that has seen a dramatic decline in living standards. This seems to be due to deep dysfunction in the structure of the British economy, which has shed its manufacturing sector and become reliant on the financial sector to allow them access to affordable imports. With sterling having seen two large declines in the space of only a decade, it looks like those imports are going to be increasingly unaffordable in the coming years.
Constitutional factors also seem frayed. The recent intervention by the relatively new Supreme Court to rout Parliament is rumored to have provoked a backlash in the Conservative Party, but given that the hyper-liberal elite has had the levers of power wrested from its grasp, it looks likely that this will not be the last attempt to grab at those levers by extra-constitutional means.
Meanwhile, it is hard not to think that the members of the royal family—who remain the constitutional heads of state—are tottering. Figures like Meghan Markle are divisive among supporters of the royals, but that pales in comparison to the underage sex-trafficking scandal that Prince Andrew has got caught up in recently. Under Queen Elizabeth II the royals chose to maintain their position not through the exercise of political power, as they had in the past, but instead through public relations. The Queen has managed that excellently, but the strategy only works if the royals remain popular—and increasingly, the royals only look as popular as their least popular members.
It may seem hysterical to proclaim the end to a country that has basically existed in its present form—minus the Republic of Ireland, of course—since 1707. But the evidence is building by the day. In thirty years, it is far more likely than not that the United Kingdom will not exist. What will exist is an England that will be poorer, fractured between the London elite and the rest of the country, and possibly subject to demographic factionalism. It is conceivable that the new political alignment could turn the ship around, but the ship appears heavy with ballast and the steering mechanism looks weak and flimsy.
John William O'Sullivan writes from Dublin, Ireland.
Our year-end campaign is underway. Please show your support today!
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?