by David Stuart in AMERICA, The Jesuit Review, 30 January 2020

You might not get excited about clock tower and church bells tolling and flags fluttering, but that is where we have got to in our public life here in Britain this week during the final countdown until the United Kingdom officially detaches its constituent nations from the European Union—two of them, Scotland and Northern Ireland, unwillingly. As a moment approaches that is certainly historically massive, one of great triumph or crushing disaster according to your Brexit leaning, Britons are winding ourselves up over a clockwork bell and getting into a flap about a flag.

Bells first. Recently elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson, basking in a parliamentary majority that looks unassailable for now, chimed in with a suggestion that bells across Britain should ring out at on the last day of January at the moment that Brexit would be official. As final proof that those appalling Europeans have been oppressing Britons all these years, the bells would sound at 11 p.m. U.K. time, continental Europe being mostly one hour ahead of us in Britain. The loudest “bong” of all would have come from Big Ben, at the Houses of Parliament in central London. But the 13.7-ton Big Ben, and the Elizabeth Tower that houses him, has been under repair for some time.

Big Ben’s restorers made it known that the one-off cost of making the famous bell serviceable for one night would be excessive; Mr. Johnson proposed crowdfunding the cost, which could reach 500,000 pounds. This notion met with howls of protest but not before over 270,000 pounds had been raised, despite the country experiencing a record number of appeals to food banks, increasing homelessness and low wages. Catholic and Anglican bishops and associations of bell-ringers refused consent widely, as the prime minister’s plan unraveled.

The current United Kingdom even after Brexit will remain a member of this bloc. Some argued that the E.U. flag should fly beyond 11 p.m. on the 31st, reflecting the substantial majority vote to remain in the European Union both among Scottish voters and in the Scottish Parliament. An attempt at a compromise suggests flying the flag on one day each year. After a fractious vote on Jan. 29, the E.U./Council of Europe banner will continue to yet wave.

Two constituent nations of Britain’s uneasy union failed to vote for Brexit; the largest, England, voted to leave. And as the actual day of departure loomed, three of the United Kingdom’s devolved legislatures, including Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly at long last reconstituted, withheld consent for the Brexit process. London simply ignored these votes.

In Scotland, just shy of two-thirds of the public had voted “remain.” As the end grew closer this week, many recalled how, at the first Scottish independence referendum in 2014, pro-union politicians were lining up to tell voters that the best guarantee for protecting E.U. membership would be to vote against separation from the British union. Now, that assurance having proved worthless before the reality of Brexit, new demands for a second independence referendum are being heard.

Unionists still try to claim that it was only the amalgamated vote of the entire union that counted during the Brexit vote, not the sentiment within the borders of the kingdom’s constituent nations. But Britain is not, and never has been in the slightly more than three centuries since the English-Scottish union, a unitary nation-state; nor has it been since the United Kingdom came into being in 1800.

Having seen how little traction they got from this flimsy claim, unionists have resorted to a remark made in 2014 by former First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond that the independence ballot represented a “once in a lifetime” or “once in a generation” vote. That was never official policy and was expressed as his personal view. Now Prime Minister Johnson has based his rejection of the Scottish government’s formal request for referendum-holding powers largely on this dubious claim.

David Stewart, S.J., a native of Scotland, lives and works at St. Ignatius Jesuit parish in North London and works in various Jesuit ministries across the capital and Britain.
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