Goodbye Scotland, so long Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson’s victory is the end of the U.K.
World | by Gwynne Dyer
Down on the turkey farm, the Scottish and Irish birds noticed that the smiling man in the festive costume was holding a hatchet behind his back, and hid. The Welsh turkeys looked confused and huddled together squawking. But the English turkeys marched bravely up to the chopping block, confident that this would be a Christmas to remember.
Boris Johnson’s big victory in the December 12 ‘Brexit’ election was achieved almost entirely with English votes. Only 20 of the 364 seats won by the Conservative Party were in the other three ‘nations’ of the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom will continue to be called that for several years, but this election has sounded its death knell. It was the votes of English nationalists that gave Johnson his victory, and they don’t really care if the UK survives. Just as well, because it won’t.
The English have been nationalists for around five centuries, but they were also content to share a broader ‘British’ identity so long as it gave them bragging rights on the world’s biggest empire. Once that was gone, a specifically English nationalism was bound to resurface eventually.
The resurgence of nationalism in Scotland and Wales was also inevitable, and in Northern Ireland it had never gone away. All those nationalisms largely defined themselves by challenging the domination of the English majority (83 per cent) in the UK, but English nationalists obviously needed a bigger opponent to push against. They found it, inevitably, in the European Union.
The EU is not very credible as an oppressor, but it has been allotted that role by the Conservative Party and the right-wing, billionaire-owned media that dominate the English scene. From ‘Take Back Control’ to ‘Get Brexit Done’, the Conservatives’ slogans work in England, although they have almost no power in the other nations of the UK.
Three-fifths of Conservative Party members believe the break-up of the UK is an acceptable price to pay for leaving the EU. A smaller majority would even accept the demise of their own party if that were the price of leaving.
(The pollsters neglected to ask them if they were willing to sacrifice their first-born sons, but presumably their answer would have been the same.)
This unhinged English nationalism will hasten the departure of Scotland from the UK. Scotland will leave to get away from the English crazies and to stay in the EU, its path to the latter goal made easier because in 2017 Spain withdrew its long-standing threat to veto Scottish membership of the EU. A second and successful Scottish independence referendum is probably only two years away.
This election also revealed a majority for ‘Remain’ in Northern Ireland, and the shortest route to that goal would be via union with the Republic of Ireland (which remains an EU member).
That risks reigniting ‘The Troubles’ that ended 20 years ago, but the Protestant loyalists have been betrayed and abandoned by Boris Johnson, so it might work. All the options are now dangerous, and this one not necessarily more so than others.
As for Wales, it will unenthusiastically stick with England. After 600 years of being governed from London — twice as long as the other non-English parts of the UK — it has got used to it. Or at least lost the ability to imagine anything else.
And what about England’s future? It will formally leave the EU by the end of January, but this is just the start of Brexit Part II, the negotiation of a trade agreement with the EU. That would normally take many years, but Boris Johnson swears that he will end the negotiation with or without a trade deal by the end of 2020.
Maybe he’s bluffing again: he didn’t die in a ditch the last time he promised to do so if he didn’t get a deal in time. Besides, crashing out without a deal would be catastrophic for the British economy: half of all UK trade is with the EU. So many people think Johnson will make another sweetheart deal with the EU to save his skin, just like he did last October.
Not necessarily. Johnson pretends to be an amiable, scatter-brained clown, but he is actually a highly skilled political operator with close ties to hard-right British and American ideologues like Donald Trump. If he really shares their goal of opening the British economy up for asset-stripping, then crashing out is a way to achieve that goal.
On the other hand, Johnson is a man without fixed principles or ideology. His sole goal is the acquisition and retention of personal power, and that might require him to pay attention to the interests of the disillusioned former Labour voters who gave him this victory. He may not dismantle the British welfare state as far and as fast as his backers expect.
Don’t ask me which way he will jump. He probably doesn’t know that himself yet.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.