Leader: How Brexit triggered the UK’s latest identity crisis

The union is far from secure, with Nicola Sturgeon expected to unveil a detailed new blueprint for Scottish independence.

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In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016, it seemed possible that the United Kingdom would not survive Brexit intact. The clear majorities for Remain in Scotland and Northern Ireland contrasted with those for Brexit in England and Wales. Just hours after polls closed, the leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, demanded a second independence referendum. The SNP had won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in the 2015 general election and the nationalist juggernaut appeared unstoppable. In Northern Ireland, the rancorous constitutional debate eased rather than settled by the Good Friday Agreement was given a jolt of energy. The unification of Ireland, for the first time in decades, became the subject of mainstream political debate.

Two years on, the rickety British state endures. The SNP suffered reversals at the 2017 general election but is regrouping. In Northern Ireland, there is no majority for the unification of the island of Ireland, despite republican calls for a referendum on the issue. Yet, as a hard Brexit approaches, the Union is far from secure: Ms Sturgeon was expected to unveil a detailed economic blueprint for Scottish independence on 25 May in the hope of regaining momentum.

Earlier in the week, in Westminster, a conference was held on the future of the Union by Policy Exchange, the right-leaning think tank. Its keynote speakers included Michael Gove, Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist Party leader, and Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader. There was no speaker or representative from the Corbynite left or from anti-Union groups or parties. Labour was represented by figures from the past: Jim Murphy and Alistair Darling.

Mrs Foster used her speech to describe nationalism as “narrow and exclusive”. This would equally apply to the hard-line Protestant unionist movement she leads. And Mr Gove’s speech was little more than an exercise in romantic grandstanding: fluent but empty. He said that Brexit had strengthened the Union and that Scottish nationalism was “identity politics”. He was wrong on both counts, as events in Ireland and Scotland continue to demonstrate.

Mr Gove’s rhetorical certainties reflect a tendency among Eurosceptic Tories to treat questions such as the future of the Irish border or the devolution settlement as merely a high-table debate or parlour game. Theresa May, in hock to hardliners in her cabinet, on the Tory back benches and in the DUP, would be better served listening to Ms Davidson, who in her fine speech warned against complacency and said that the Union must change in order to survive (a subtle allusion to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great novel, The Leopard). Her call to divest more powers from London to the nations and regions was also welcome. “We remain far too London-centric as a nation,” she said. “No other comparable developed nation is as dominated by its capital city quite as much as we are. The consequence of this is that the Union too often can feel like something done to people, rather than something they take part in.”

The fault lines and discontinuities in the multinational United Kingdom – characterised as being a “mini-English empire” by the Cambridge historian David Reynolds – have been exposed by the vote for Brexit. The UK is perhaps the most successful multinational state in the world: but it needs to be reconfigured if it is to survive its latest identity crisis. Brexit provides the ideal opportunity for far-reaching constitutional reappraisal. Would that we could grasp it.

Italian farce

Even by the chaotic standards of Italian politics, the coalition negotiations between the Five Star Movement and the Lega, the two parties that gained the most votes in the election on 4 March, have been farcical. On 22 May, it emerged that there were questions over the academic qualifications of the prime ministerial nominee Giuseppe Conte, an obscure figure previously known for being the personal lawyer of Luigi Di Maio, head of the Five Star Movement. As Jeremy Cliffe writes on page 20, Italian voters view their elected representatives “on a spectrum less defined by left-vs-right than by varying degrees of malevolence”. There is little appetite in Italy for greater European integration of the type espoused by France’s Emmanuel Macron; it is incumbent upon him and Angela Merkel to show that membership of the eurozone still has something to recommend it.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman