By Emma Duncan in THE TIMES, 15 February 2020
To lose one part of your country, Mr Johnson, may be a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness. I have been worrying for some time that the United Kingdom might come apart as a result of Westminster’s failure to pay attention to the needs of the smaller nations and my worries are sharper after the disgraceful way in which Julian Smith, the former Northern Ireland secretary, was treated this week.
Mr Smith took on the Northern Ireland office when there seemed little chance of putting the power-sharing deal back together but by dint of skilful diplomacy he managed to get it up and running again earlier this year. That prompted Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, to describe him as “one of Britain’s finest politicians”. Boris Johnson said nice things about him, too.
But on Thursday, when Mr Smith got the boot, it emerged that the prime minister felt he had been “blindsided” by the agreement, which contained a commitment to implement an earlier promise to set up a Historic Investigations Unit that would look into crimes committed during the Troubles, including by members of the security forces. That translates as “he wasn’t paying proper attention at the time and now that his more militaristic backbenchers have protested, he has come to the view that it is a bad show for British soldiers to be brought to justice for killing civilians”. Mr Smith is not the only victim of prime ministerial distraction: the fragile power-sharing deal is also looking shakier, and so, therefore, is peace in Northern Ireland.
Countries that fall apart normally do so in rancour and civil war. Look at former Yugoslavia or the mess that Spain is in. But if the United Kingdom goes, it will be not with a bang but a whimper, and it will happen not because of historical hatreds or communal violence but because England had other things on its mind and wasn’t paying attention.
The reunification of Northern Ireland with the republic seems increasingly likely. That’s not just because Sinn Fein, which unlike other political parties in Ireland fervently wants reunification, is now a power in the land. It is also because the Good Friday agreement requires the British government to call a referendum on the matter when there is reason to believe there is a majority for reunification, such as opinion polls that consistently show such a view. And opinion polls, which now tend to show a 50:50 split, are moving in that direction.
Had the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and the integrity of the Union been in the forefront of Mr Johnson’s mind, he would never have made this deal. But they weren’t, any more than the interests of Scotland have been in recent years. Brexit, which Scotland, like Northern Ireland, voted against, has exposed England’s real feelings about the Union.
Westminster hasn’t always been so careless of Scottish concerns. In devolving power to the parliament in Holyrood in 1999, Tony Blair was paying close attention to a widespread Scottish desire to have control over largely Scottish affairs. The problem with Mr Blair’s constitutional arrangement was that it paid insufficient attention to English interests, leaving festering an English nationalism which has been the driving force behind Brexit.
Despite the misleading name of Nigel Farage’s original party, “independence” from the European Union was never a project that appealed to the United Kingdom as a whole. Brexit is a Rorschach blot, that everybody can interpret differently, but to me it was driven by a specifically English sense of loss: loss of Empire to decolonisation, of sovereignty to the EU and of autonomy to global companies that evade any government’s attempts to control them. The smaller nations, which never had much power, were not much moved by the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar as it receded.
And getting Brexit done, it turned out, was more important to England than the Union was. In a poll in 2018, a majority said that the destruction of the Union between England and Scotland was a price worth paying for England’s departure from the EU, and nearly half would have sacrificed Northern Ireland’s peace process. Among Conservative voters, whose representatives will be running the Union for the next five and maybe ten years, three quarters agreed to both questions. Why, in that case, would Scotland or Northern Ireland want to remain within the Union? I wouldn’t stay with a partner who thought me of so little account.
Since England got Brexit done, Westminster has shown no sign of trying to heal the wounds. Last month the Scottish government, which rightly argues that its employment needs are different to England’s, came up with a perfectly sensible policy to introduce a Scottish visa as part of a post-Brexit immigration system. The Home Office rejected it out of hand. And now Mr Smith gets the push, because Boris Johnson wasn’t listening in the cabinet meeting when they discussed the resumption of power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
If carelessness destroys the United Kingdom it will be a great shame. It is not just that I, like so many of England’s residents, am not English, but a mongrel. Three of my four grandparents were born on this country’s peripheries, and I am proud of their origins and of the society that allowed them to get out and make good. It is also that our country has a job to do in the world — of promoting free trade, free speech, democracy and stability — and we will do that job better if we are a larger whole rather than small, splintered parts.
Sadly, though, it seems to me increasingly likely that Scotland and Northern Ireland will choose to part company with England within the next decade. And if they do, I will blame not them but Westminster.
Emma Duncan is Britain editor of The Economist