WHEN I was at the Edinburgh festivals in August 2018, everyone said the numbers were up on last year. They thought that foreigners were taking advantage of what might be the last year of free access in and out of Britain from the other countries of the European Union.
Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union, called Brexit, puts this free access in doubt. In fact, immigration was one of the biggest issues in the referendum debate.
I heard that there was already starting to be a shortage of labour in parts of Scotland where a lot of the young people had left, such as the Highlands. Replacement workers from Continental Europe — in cliché, the ‘Polish plumber’ — were starting to pack up and go home rather than put up with the uncertainty of what was going to happen under Brexit.
The most immediately worrying and thorny issues concern the long-term fate of Ireland: of its long-running saga of independence struggles and ethnic and religious conflicts that the Victorians dubbed the ‘Irish Question’, a question to which there was no easy answer.
The Irish don’t want a ‘hard border’ re-imposed between Northern Ireland and the South (which remains in the EU), as that would bring back all kinds of bad memories.
Bizarrely, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government depends on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This is a Protestant-backed party that favours close union with Great Britain.
Here’s a billboard for the Irish Republican Socialist Party, a Nationalist party, which means it is on the opposite side to the DUP:
The most logical alternative to a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is to put one in the Irish Sea instead, between the two islands of Ireland and Great Britain. That idea is backed by Nationalist groups since it is one step closer to a united Ireland.
The idea of a customs border in the Irish sea is resisted, for the same bundle of reasons, by the DUP.
Nationalist groups are often more or less revolutionary in a wider sense as well.
Before I went to Northern Ireland this year, I hadn’t known that Che Guevara was partly Irish too, his mother’s surname Lynch!
British journalists say that when the Brexit referendum was called back in 2016 none of the people promoting the referendum had thought about the Irish border issued. Nobody had asked the Irish question, in other words. This is pretty ironic really. For the year 2016 was the 100th anniversary of the so-called ‘Easter Rising’, the beginning of the armed struggle that led to Irish independence.
In 1916, many of the Nationalists were revolutionary in a wider sense as well. As things turned out, both parts of Ireland fell under the rule of highly conservative religious lobbies after the South won its independence and the North stayed with Britain.
The history of the revolution that began in 1916 was a bit like that of the Iranian revolution in other words. That is, a revolution that started out quite radical with landlords’ lands being expropriated, and the country then falling under the rule of conservative Ayatollahs who made the peasants give it back.
This is the aspect of Brexit that worries the Europeans the most. A revolution-prone nation on the doorstep of the rest of Europe, which is just being randomly interfered with by politicians based in London, who gave no thought as to what might happen even on the 100th anniversary of a revolution that left all kinds of unfinished business for future generations.
After having put sixty years of effort into a gradual de-emphasising of the historical borders across which European wars were fought, the mainland Europeans don’t want to approve anything that would restore old divisions in Ireland.
All those who didn’t think about the ‘Irish question’ before have to think about it now!
The Scots may well break with England too, since Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. Scottish Nationalists insist that Brexit puts the question of Scottish independence from the United Kingdom back on the table, even though an independence referendum was defeated a few years ago.
Here, too, there is a destabilising factor in the sense that the Shetland Islands, which sustain much of Britain’s present claim to North Sea Oil because of where they are on the map.
The question is, if Scotland becomes independent of England, who will get the Shetlands? The Shetlands used to be part of Norway and, in those days, the islands’ inhabitants spoke a Scandinavian dialect. The land was taken over by Scottish nobles (‘lairds’) and the native Shetlanders eventually ended up speaking English.
To this day there is some resentment of Scottish colonisation. And so the former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont, who was born in the Shetlands capital of Lerwick but who is really English, has proposed that the Shetlands could split from Scotland and become a separate British Overseas Territory (BOT), of which fourteen currently exist.
BOTs are the last vestiges of the old-time British Empire. One example is the Falkland Islands, known as the Malvinas if you are from Argentina. The emblems of the Falklands are like those of New Zealand, except that there is even more emphasis on sheep.
The nearest, approximate, equivalent of a BOT within hailing distance of the Shetlands is the archipelago of the Faroes, an autonomous outpost of Denmark.
A different form of autonomy called Crown Dependency is also being pushed for by a local lobby group called Wir Shetland (‘Our Shetland’).
Crown Dependency (CD) is the status of the Isle of Man, the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey. These are island territories of a different sort in British home waters. None of the three CDs is part of the United Kingdom. Their local institutions report directly to Buckingham Palace.
If BOTs are the last remnants of Empire, CDs are the last remnants of an older Feudalism.
Proposals for Shetland autonomy open a can of worms, as does Scottish independence itself.
If the Shetlands became a BOT but Scotland was no longer part of the United Kingdom, would this mean that a UK now totally dominated by England got first dibs on North Sea Oil while Scotland missed out?
If the Shetlands became a CD, would this mean that the oil would go to Buckingham Palace in a similar fashion to the revenues of the Duchy of Cornwall?
All in all, Brexit has produced a massive shove in the direction of what a Scottish political scientist named Tom Nairn once dubbed ‘the break-up of Britain’.
Back in the 1970s, Nairn predicted that at some time in the future, Britain might break up, thanks to a triple combination of economic strains, difficult relations with Europe, and the ramshackle nature of the British constitution — assorted CD Bailiwicks, a Scotland uneasily under England’s paw, the Irish mess and so forth, not to mention a few other dysfunctions that I haven’t mentioned.
Most of these problems were (and are) to do with a haphazard and oppressive relationship between the centre and the periphery: between a London that has often seemed to monopolise the nation’s wealth, and places distant from London that have often felt neglected: not just Scotland, Ireland and the Shetlands but parts of England and Wales as well.
Britain needed a more rational balance of powers between the centre and the periphery: something along the lines of the German Federal Republic, perhaps.
If Britain was not rebuilt along better lines, the country would eventually fall apart.
During the 2016 referendum campaign, Brexit’s advocates ran the slogan ‘We send the EU £350 million a week / Let’s fund our NHS instead’. The NHS is Britain’s National Health Service and many people thought that voting Brexit would mean another £350 a week for doctors, nurses and patients.
Er, no. A lot of that £350 million went on programmes that the UK government would have to take over if Brexit happened. The most that would be freed up in any genuine sense was £160 million a week, and even that was doubtful.
To put things in perspective, current UK public spending is more than £15 billion pounds a week, so even £160 million a week is roughly one per cent of the government’s budget, a small sum over which to Brexit.
Opponents of Brexit have charged that there is a hidden agenda to maintain corporate tax loopholes that the EU was cracking down on, and even to privatise the NHS. The fact that a free trade deal with Europe would probably be replaced with a free trade deal with the USA makes such outcomes more likely.
Northern Ireland consists of six out of the nine historical counties of an old Irish kingdom called Ulster, and the two terms are often used interchangeably today. In a certain context — such as the title of this essay — the expression Ulster Fry can mean something to do with modern-day Northern Ireland that’s a bit messy.
In real life, the Ulster Fry is the Ulster version of a full-breakfast fry-up with bacon and sausages. The Ulster Fry is served regularly at British Conservative Party conferences as a gesture of solidarity with Ulster Unionists, people who think Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK. For, Britain’s Conservative Party is more formally the Conservative and Unionist Party, meaning that it is in fact an Ulster Unionist party itself in addition to being Great Britain’s main conservative party. It has only a minor presence in Northern Ireland, and has long allied itself with local Ulster Unionists that have more chance of getting elected locally, such as the DUP.
This makes it all the more remarkable that the Irish border issue wasn’t flagged, from the start, as a major issue by the most energetic advocates of Brexit, who are mostly on the conservative side of politics or otherwise associated with the financial industry. This does support the view that that Brexit was rammed through by a business faction, in ways that were never properly debated in a wider sense.
In fact, the more chaotic the final Brexit rupture, the more likely it is that Britain would leave with ‘no strings attached’ in terms of barriers to tax havens and privatisation. That may explain why a hard line is being pushed even though a ‘no-deal Brexit’ has great potential to cause chaos in other sections of the economy, such as manufacturing industries that depend on the ‘just in time’ movement of parts through pan-European supply chains, and sell a lot of their final product in mainland Europe as well.
On Saturday, the 20th of October 2018, about 670,000 people joined an anti-Brexit demonstration in London, demanding a second referendum called ‘Final Say’ on the grounds that the first referendum and its slogans were half-baked, and that important knock-on issues like the Irish Question, the Scottish Question, the Shetland Question and the effects on manufacturing industry hadn’t been given proper consideration the first time around. The crowd was addressed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who called the march a “historic moment in our democracy.” I was in London on Saturday but didn’t take part in the demo as I’d only just flown in from Iran and was stuffed, frankly.
On current trends, Nairn’s break-up definitely seems to be the direction in which Britain is headed.
Still, it’ll be interesting to see what happens if Labour wins the next British general election, as Labour’s message is one of a Britain rebuilt:
British Labour Party 2018 Video ‘We’re Rebuilding Britain’
Will British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his party succeed in saving the country from imminent disintegration, like the mythological King Arthur?
It seems improbable. But then again, not many people expected Brexit to happen, nor Donald Trump to become president of the USA. Nor, save for Nairn and a few of his followers, did people expect to see Britain get this close to breaking up. Or at least not until recent times: times in which a great many things that had seemed far-fetched before now became possible.
Let’s see if Britain can be rebuilt. Or if it will indeed fall apart.
Postscript: an earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to free access to and from the UK as having been covered by the Schengen Agreement. That agreement covers many of the countries in Europe plus Iceland, but not the United Kingdom nor the Republic of Ireland.