The prime minister’s triumph in the coming election could mean the country’s demise.
- By Peter GeogheganPeter Geoghegan is editor of Political Insight magazine and a journalist based in Glasgow.
As prime minister, Theresa May has been at pains — rhetorically, at least — to stress her commitment to keeping the United Kingdom together. In her inaugural public appearance on the steps of Downing Street last July, in the wake of the Brexit campaign that left the kingdom’s various nations bitterly divided, the newly minted premier declared that preserving the three-centuries-old union is “very important” to her. A few months later, at the Conservative Party conference, May doubled down on her commitment to unionism. “I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious union between the four nations of our United Kingdom,” she promised.
Stirring stuff. But for all the rousing rhetoric, May’s actions suggest a rather more ambivalent attitude to the United Kingdom and the threat of its demise. The latest signal that her priorities, in reality, lie elsewhere: this week’s decision to call a general election.
Viewed from London — or even Berlin or Washington — the British prime minister’s move makes cold, calculating sense. The Conservatives enjoy vertiginous poll leads over a divided Labour Party. May’s majority is slim. Now is the time — in the words of the Daily Mail — to “crush” those who oppose Brexit.
But viewed from Edinburgh or Belfast — both capitals of regions (Scotland and Northern Ireland, respectively) that voted to remain in Europe — the decision looks very different. The general election will take place at a time of almost unprecedented constitutional tumult on the fringes of an increasingly attenuated union.
Last month, Scotland’s nationalist-controlled parliament voted to demand the powers to hold a second independence referendum. The British prime minister has, so far, demurred, saying there was no mandate and such a vote would be “destabilizing” ahead of Brexit. That logic — somewhat strained to begin with — will be much harder to sustain in the wake of May’s decision to call her own vote. And it will become even harder still after June 8 — the scheduled date for the election — if, as expected, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) once more wins the vast majority of Scotland’s seats in Westminster.
The situation in Northern Ireland is even more fraught. The once restive region is now relatively peaceful, but its government collapsed this year amid much rancor and recrimination over a botched green energy-related scheme. The prospect of an imminent reinstatement is slim. The largest parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, must form a coalition under Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangement, but talks between the two have been at loggerheads since March’s snap elections.
The March elections produced a record vote for Irish nationalist parties — a sign of rising anger at the prospect of the province being dragged unwilling out of the European Union. For the first time since the foundation of the state almost a century ago, unionists — those who favor remaining within the U.K. — no longer enjoy a majority. The general election campaign in Northern Ireland will almost inevitably reopen contentious debates about identity and the past, making post-election compromise in Belfast even more difficult, if not downright impossible. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland will almost certainly begin the process of leaving the EU — with all the uncertainty around trade and the Irish border that it entails — without a functioning government.
For all her talk of the “special union” in office, May has displayed a remarkably tin ear for the differing demands of the U.K.’s constituent parts. Unlike her predecessor, David Cameron — whose patrician unionism was arguably outdated but sincerely held — the current Tory leader appears out of touch with the “regions.” It was noted, for instance, that the prime minister did not even visit Belfast during her most recent Brexit tour. In Scotland, May’s interventions have often managed to fan the nationalist flames. During a visit to Glasgow in March, for instance, with talk of independence in the air, May took the opportunity to declare that she would fight against further decentralization within the U.K. — that is, she would make sure, post-Brexit, that no powers went from Brussels to Edinburgh. Within days, SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to hold a second independence referendum.
In Scotland, the election will be fought on the independence question; there seems little doubt that the nationalists, who won all but three of Scotland’s 59 constituencies in national parliament in 2015, will once again take a commanding majority in the region’s Westminster delegation. The Northern Irish vote will also revolve around constitutional questions, with unionists looking to reassert supremacy after their recent bruising election results. Indeed, this election looks likely to confirm what has become increasingly clear for some time: There is no such thing as British politics anymore, only regional versions. The main British parties — the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats — hold just a single seat each in Scotland and none in Northern Ireland. This is unlikely to change come June.
May’s widely anticipated victory will come in England. Indeed, Labour’s weakness there is why this election has been called. But the price of an English Conservative triumph will be a deepening sense of detachment from Westminster in the so-called Celtic fringe.
Historically, the union has always been weakest when the political disparity between England and Scotland has been greatest. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was widely reviled north of the border; the Tory vote plummeted, and support for Scottish devolution grew. A decade later, Scottish support provided the bedrock of Tony Blair’s Labour successes; these years saw a Scottish parliament established in Edinburgh. But even in Thatcher’s heyday, the Conservatives held Scottish seats well into double digits. Now, there is a very strong possibility of sustained Tory rule in London with minimal Scottish representation and no realistic prospect of an alternative Labour government.
Even the coming campaign itself looks poised to add to English-Scottish tensions. During the 2015 general election campaign, Cameron aggressively played on English fears of a nexus between Labour and Scottish nationalism, running ad campaigns featuring then-Labour leader Ed Miliband literally in the pocket of former SNP boss Alex Salmond. Such hard-line tactics won Cameron a majority, and May is already using the same playbook, issuing dire warnings of Sturgeon propping up an implausible Jeremy Corbyn minority government. Playing on English fears of insurgent Scottish nationalism is smart party politics, in London at least. How it squares with the prime minister’s devotion to the “precious union” is another matter.
The United Kingdom is a construct from a different political age. The kingdom was a tool of empire: Ships that sailed the world were built in Glasgow, Belfast, and Liverpool. The threat of foreign invasion (and Catholics) forged a common sense of identity — “Britishness” — particularly among Welsh, Scots, and Protestant settlers in Ireland.
Those days are over. But in the right hands, the union could be repurposed, reimagined for the 21st century. Scottish and Northern Irish opposition to Brexit would have provided the perfect cover for a re-engineering of the U.K.’s own constitutional architecture. Instead, May has declared that there will be “no opt-out from Brexit” — the U.K. will leave the EU as a single entity.
The official title of the party May leads is the “Conservative and Unionist Party.” If she is to retain the second part of that title, the prime minister will need to show more than just rhetorical commitment to the union, and soon. Otherwise, she could easily find herself going down in history as the Tory leader who delivered a massive Conservative election victory — one that helped precipitate the end of the U.K. as we know it.