Sun, 16 Dec 2018
8
London

General election may be best shot for Theresa May

Ben Wellings - The Conversation
18 Nov 2018, 05:33 GMT+10

Behind the scenes at Westminster and the teetering fate of the British government lies an even more profound change in British politics: the very real possibility of the break-up of the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The publication of the Brexit draft withdrawal agreement - a hefty 585-page tome - has revealed what has been implicit in the British vote to leave the EU all along: that Brexit is an expression of English nationalism that will unwittingly lead to the break-up of the UK.

Behind the governments rhetoric of global Britain, there is no such thing as the British people in a political sense any more. The referendum revealed significant divisions between attitudes to EU membership in Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. While Prime Minister Theresa May tried to reposition global Britain in relation to Europe and the rest of the world, Britain itself dissolved from within.

Prime Minister Theresa May refers to the UK as a precious union. If only more people felt the same. An LBC-YouGov poll in March found that a majority of (mostly English) voters wanted to leave the EU rather than keep Northern Ireland in the UK.

In October, research published by the Centre on Constitutional Change showed that a clear majority of English leave voters would be happy to see Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the UK as the price of Brexit.

The irony is that it is the resistance of 10 MPs from the Ulster loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and about 60 hard-line English Conservative Brexiteersis most likely to plunge the UK into an existential crisis. Their intransigence will destroy the thing they profess to defend.

The text of the Brexit draft withdrawal agreement was at pains to appease concerns among the Ulster unionist community about maintaining the integrity of the UK (unsuccessfully as it turned out).

The prospect of the agreed backstop a single customs territory that the UK could not leave without EU consent and which would ultimately keep Northern Ireland in a special relationship with the EU after Brexit was not something Brexiteers and the DUP could stomach.

For them, the deal was a capitulation. It was a breach of blood red lines that invoked the prospect of a return to conflict in Ulster.

Across the Irish Sea, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, asked: if Northern Ireland got special treatment, why not Scotland too?

In fact, the withdrawal agreement made no mention of Scotland at all. This disregard for the overwhelming Scottish vote to remain in the EU has pushed Scotland closer to another referendum on independence.

Brexit has created a new and deep cleavage in British politics that cuts across old political divisions. Far fewer people identify as Labour or Conservative than identify as leave or remain.

Add the national dimension to this politics and some new options emerge. Some hard Brexiteers must be considering ditching Scotland and Northern Ireland as an acceptable cost for British (read English) independence from the EU.

The ghost of empire has haunted the Brexit imaginary from before the 2016 referendum. Its critics derided global Britain as Empire 2.0. But the memory of empire cuts two ways. Brexiteers see the EU as a threatening imperium. The withdrawal agreement would leave the UK as a vassal state - a state that is subordinate to another - and therefore must be rejected.

Brexit has also left unresolved questions about who is actually in charge in Britain. Calls for a second referendum have grown, suggesting the people rather than government or parliament is the ultimate source of authority on this matter.

A second referendum has the advantage of presenting the electorate with a concrete proposal for leaving. It would temper the unrealistic and downright false claims of the leave campaign in 2016. It might end the talk of respecting the wishes of the British people to leave the EU.

In truth we dont really know what exactly people voted for: only 6% of leave voters said they thought Britain would be better off economically by leaving.

But a general election would be a better bet. It would effectively be a referendum on the deal. It might also return a government with a majority something Britain has lacked since Mays miscalculation last year.

(The writer Ben Wellings is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Monash University).

The Conversation

More United Kingdom News

Access More

Sign up for United Kingdom News

a daily newsletter full of things to discuss over drinks.and the great thing is that it's on the house!