Brexit Day was a bad start to our search for a new place in the world
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Our rulers have offered bluster rather than vision. GAVIN ESLER asks what Britain stands for now.
At the heyday of British imperial power, our country was seen as useless at public ceremonials and celebrations. The Victorian era prime minister Lord Salisbury believed that "some nations have a gift for ceremonial… In England the case is exactly the reverse. We can afford to be more splendid than most nations but some malignant spell broods over our most solemn ceremonials and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous … something always breaks down, somebody contrives to escape doing his part…"
The historian David Cannadine suggests that as Britain lost power and influence in the world, we actually became better at celebrating our Britishness. Once the empire had gone, Royal weddings, jubilees, and the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony all suggested that our staging skills were not just improving but world-beating.
As professor Cannadine put it, our greater appetite for celebrations as British world power diminished was like "the premiere of the cavalcade of impotence" while at the peak of empire during the Victorian age, "the certainty of power and the assured confidence of success meant that there was no need to show off."
Well, there has been quite a bit of showing off in the past week. And you might wonder what the flag waving foreshadows about the difficult few years we have ahead - not because of Brexit itself, but as a result of the fault-lines that Brexit has cracked open.
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Historians may conclude that in February 2020, as Britain entered the twilight of the second Elizabethan Age, we ended the Battle of Brexit but began a new Battle of Britain, with British institutions, and even the existence of the United Kingdom itself now under threat. What, in other words, is the point of our United Kingdom now? What is our role in the world? Do we even have one?
Of all the challenges facing Boris "I'm A One Nation Conservative" Johnson, Brexit itself may not prove the most difficult. The limited B-Day celebrations of the formal exit of the UK from the EU offer some clues. Downing Street had a low key red, white and blue patriotic light show. There were fireworks in gardens across England. Brexit party MEPs delighted satirists all over Europe with their antics at their last sitting in the European parliament, behaving like the people you'd least like to have next to you by the hotel pool in Mallorca.
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The Brexit Party's celebrations really did have, in Lord Salisbury's words, "some feature which makes them all ridiculous" and also something which breaks down - the debacle of the Big Ben bongs being the most obvious example. But there was also the cabinet, dragged symbolically yet pointlessly to a photo-op in a place the chancellor of the exchequer Sajid Javid called "north England". There was the promise of new 50p coins with a vacuous message on one side promising "Peace, Prosperity and Friendship With All Nations" - leading some to wonder in the Times letters pages how it is possible to achieve "prosperity with all nations" while, in a very English fashion, others bemoaned the lack of the Oxford comma. And there was a celebratory gift symbolising Britain's future from the up-to-the minute modern thinkers of the Conservative party, a commemorative Brexit tea towel.
Yet beyond the contrived attempts at marking the big occasion there remains a big problem. What can we realistically now hope for post-Brexit Britain? The problem with that sentence is not just Brexit, even though we still have not a clue what it will realistically mean. The real problem is the word Britain. What do we mean by Britain or our United Kingdom any more? What do "we" mean by "we?" When Boris Johnson says he is a "One Nation" Conservative, in Scotland his "One Nation" is seen as England not Britain. Truly he is a 'One Notion Conservative'.
His only discernible 'notion' is to do what's best for Boris Johnson. And so beyond the ideology of ego, why will Britain as it is now configured continue to exist? Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon has made plain (repeatedly) that Johnson may have a mandate to take England out of the EU, but he has no mandate to do the same for Scotland.
The SNP took 48 of the 59 Westminster seats in December's general election. Mark Drakeford, first minister of Wales, said his country "remains a European nation". The Northern Ireland and Welsh assemblies plus the Scottish parliament have refused to endorse Johnson's Brexit. In Northern Ireland the Democratic Unionist Party and their supporters wave Union Jacks and paint kerbstones in some districts red, white and blue, but Johnson's decision to redraw the notional customs boundary with the EU down the Irish Sea leaves Northern Ireland no longer on the same side of the 'border' as the rest of the UK.
This has gone down like an IRA speech at an Orange Order rally. A Lord Ashcroft poll - admittedly one poll on one day - showed 51% of Northern Ireland voters at least prepared to consider the idea of a United Ireland.
And then there's the "levelling up" agenda within England itself. Javid's description of "north England" gave the game away. It was as if he was describing a foreign land.
And so despite the naffness of the celebrations and the clickbait and the photo-ops and Boris bluster, as 2020 unfolds we will need to think not just about the meaning of Brexit, but also about the meaning of being British. We know that Brexit divided us, but what unites us? Our British institutions? A love of parliamentary democracy? The Queen? What, in other words, are we?
The simple truth is that in recent years key institutions of Britishness have all taken a knock. Many have been hit by scandals. Many have lost public trust. Cambridge University's Centre for the Future of Democracy has produced a dispiriting but not entirely surprising report suggesting that more than half of British people say they are dissatisfied with democracy itself.
British politics has been blighted by two UK-specific, trust-busting experiences: the MPs' expenses scandal followed by the gridlock in parliament over Brexit. This disillusionment with democracy is less a result of Brexit than part of its cause. In September 2019 an ITN/Channel 5 poll found that fewer than one in 10 adults (9%) trusted politicians while seven in 10 (71%) felt MPs were untrustworthy.
There are geographical differences too. In November 2019 King's College London's UK in a Changing Europe project pointed out that "the further people are geographically from Westminster, the further they feel emotionally and ideologically". A cabinet away-day to some place called "north England" is unlikely to change this.
Among our major institutions which signify Britishness, the two which stand out are the British armed forces and the monarchy. The latter is an example of Continuity Britain. The strongest argument in favour of it is the sense of stability it brings in a changing world.
The Queen helped the UK navigate the shock of moving from empire to Commonwealth, going into the common market and now out of the EU just by being there. But the monarchy faces the obvious reality that it, too, will need to change. Inevitably there will be a new monarch from a new generation.
Buckingham Palace has prepared for that eventuality for years. Support for the monarchy remains high in Britain, despite all the froth and controversies surrounding some individual members of the Royal family. And if Scotland does achieve independence, the SNP plan was - and presumably will continue to be - to recognise the Queen and her successor as head of state. But when this extraordinary Elizabethan Age does draw to a close, there is no absolute certainty that the affection for the current monarch will easily pass to the next generation.
Even Queen Victoria was, for a time, not especially popular. The Times expressed "regret" at her continuing absence from public events and in 1864 a phoney advertisement was posted on Buckingham Palace: "These commanding premises to be let or sold in consequence of the late occupants declining business."
When Prince Charles becomes King Charles, continuity will be obvious. Popularity may not be. And that leaves our British armed forces among those most obvious projections of Britishness. But despite the two new aircraft carriers - or perhaps because of their expense - the idea of the UK with current levels of military spending being able to engage in force projection without significant allies in Europe or the United States seems unrealistic. Boris bluster about Making Britain Great Again or whatever engaging yet meaningless slogan he comes up with next, simply cannot paper over the cracks.
And so 2020 revives an old question, first posed with great clarity in 1962. That year the former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously observed that Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role. But other parts of his comments in his West Point speech are often overlooked: "Britain's attempt to play a separate power role - that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a 'special relationship' with the United States, a role based on being the head of a Commonwealth which has no political structure or unity or strength and enjoys a fragile and precarious economic relationship - this role is about played out."
Acheson was proved wrong in 1962 because throughout the 1960s Britain did actively engage with the idea of a new role - one within Europe. This was achieved by joining the common market in 1973.
Now as we separate from Europe's main political structure, Acheson's question has a new potency. And that is the heart of the real crisis we need to face. Johnson may well achieve some kind of post-Brexit deal with the EU. He did so very rapidly at his meeting with Leo Varadkar at the Wirral last October when, to the Irish Taoiseach's surprise, Johnson immediately rubbed out his red lines about Northern Ireland.
This could be described as flexibility, or simply weakness. Either way, conceding what the EU demands could undoubtedly result in a fairly rapid future UK-EU deal. But even if it does, to repeat endlessly the key question, beyond the vacuity of phrases like 'Singapore-on-Thames' what is a realistic vision of Britain's role in the world?
What are the answers to Acheson's questions? And even more pressingly, what is the compelling reason for the United Kingdom to remain united? No amount of Big Ben bongs, tea towels and day trips north of the Westminster comfort zone will answer those questions until someone in government has the courage at least to ask them.
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