What a mess. Just when you thought that the governing class could do no more to fail in their custodianship of Britain’s political settlement, it surprises us all. And let’s not forget the role of “the people” in creating the current impasse.
The result of the UK general election has made it clear that the nation – the people, the politicians, the media, everyone – have surpassed themselves.
Theresa May, the prime minister, chose to go to the country in order to create “unity” in parliament and unite the country behind her diamond-hard Brexit strategy. That has not happened. The result reveals a country still divided along the lines of age, education, income and geography. Any hopes that people were coming back together after the division and unhappiness of last year’s Brexit referendum have been dashed. And, having squandered a working majority in parliament, May now seems prepared to put the whole Northern Irish peace process at risk in order to struggle on in a minority government with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party.
May’s arrogance and hubris may be the immediate cause of these troubles but what we are seeing now is the effect of many chickens coming home to roost. The UK is the creation of armed force, global expansion, and the projection of power around the world. It was the beating heart of a great empire that brought enormous wealth for the few and knitted a people together in a shared identity. That identity was underpinned by military prowess, material progress and a belief in the superiority of UK institutions, with a centralisation of power in one of the world’s great cities, London.
Today, the empire is long gone and so has the shared belief in the UK and what it means. The military prowess is not what it was, the nation’s material progress has been eclipsed by that of its trading partners, and the belief in the superiority of UK institutions has taken a battering.
Many of the drivers of this decline go back over a century but more recently to the impact of Thatcherism. Labour’s well-intentioned but ultimately fudged programme of devolution and constitutional reform has also driven the constituent nations of the UK apart.
In Northern Ireland, the Troubles may have ended but there is no agreement on the future of the province and a significant minority of its population wants to leave the UK. Despite the most recent electoral setbacks, it’s also only a matter of time before the Scottish National Party finds the opportunity to restage 2014’s independence referendum. And while there is currently no significant support for independence in Wales, Plaid Cymru pushes a strong cultural nationalist message that has been taken up by many in Welsh Labour as well.