Major catastrophes often arise out the disproportionately small. The First World War arose from a conflict between a second-rate power and a third-rate power over a tiny Balkan province. Some time before Britain’s referendum last year, I and some friends were speculating on the impact of a Brexit vote. I suggested that the it would be so far-reaching that some unforeseen complication might derail the whole process. Somebody suggested that the unforeseen complication was quite likely to come from Northern Ireland. I worry that she may have been right. It is not that I see Brexit being derailed, but I do sense that most people will deeply regret it. And I hope I am wrong.
What put me in mind of this was a bit of long overdue catch-up TV viewing, last week, of a programme broadcast way back in 2014: The Long Shadow. This was by Cambridge Historian David Reynolds, and it dealt with the legacy of the First World War on subsequent history. In this programme (the last of a series of three) he dealt with the unbottling of nationalism, and the attempt to create states based on a dominant nationality. By 1918 it was accepted that multi-national states, like the Austria-Hungary were doomed to failure, and, indeed, were undemocratic empires. Austria Hungary was carved up into supposedly coherent nation-states, as was the Ottoman Empire, and much of the Russian empire. But this had dire consequences. The nationalities that the people of Europe identified with (primarily based on language) did not fit into neat boundaries; minorities were everywhere. At first the small states, like Czechoslovakia tried to impose their own nationality on the minorities within their borders, by force if necessary. And then the Germans tried to impose their own idea of nationalism on the whole continent. Perhaps 40 million people were killed.
The European Union was created as a reaction to this. The feeling amongst its founders was that the idea of a nation-state was fundamentally flawed, and that states should be set within a transnational framework that fostered beneficial cooperation. The dilution of national sovereignty was not seen as a regrettable cost, but as the whole point of the exercise. For all its flaws, that remains the founding principle of the EU.
But it is not understood by the English, who have underestimated the European project at every turn. Before the First World War the United Kingdom, the state that the English dominated, was under stress. A highly controversial Home Rule proposition was in progress in Ireland, and the British government was consumed by the growing probability of a civil war there, as the Irish organised themselves into armed camps. So much so that ministers barely notice the emerging crisis in central Europe that was to bring the house down. Home Rule was also proposed for Scotland, and many Welsh were pushing for the disestablishment of the Church. The war seemed to heal these rifts in a common cause, as the nationalities fought side by side. And in Britain that is how things worked out; a Welsh nationalist (David Lloyd-George) became Prime Minister and talk of Scottish Home rule vanished. But in Ireland matters played out in a similar way to the rest of Europe. A civil war broke out, first as Irish nationalists fought for independence, and then within the new Irish Free State. And in Ulster, the Unionists set about imposing their will on the Catholic minority, much as the Czechs had done to the Sudeten Germans. 50 years later this blew up into the Ulster Troubles, in which thousands more were killed. This was brought to an end in the Good Friday Agreement in 1997, in part by using EU institutions to fudge the question of nationality.
The English never understood what was happening in Ireland, which so often upset their plans and their self-image as a democratic, peaceful nation. They just wanted it all to go away. To them the virtues of a nation-state were self-evident. The English had forged their own nation in the Middle Ages as a fusion between the French Normans and the Germanic Anglo-Saxons. The incorporation of Cornish, Welsh and then Scots into the national structure did not pose a serious challenge to their view of nationhood. The English assumed that these nations were assimilating happily enough into a new fusion: the British nation. The EU was looked on as a transaction of convenience, and when it trampled on British sovereign institutions, it rankled. And a so a majority of the English rejected membership.
But by then there was already trouble with this complacent outlook. The Scots increasingly resented how their own sense of nationhood was trampled on by the English. Devolution did not change English attitudes, which was the root cause of the trouble (though the English still think it is about obstreperous Scots). The SNP rose to power and only narrowly lost an independence referendum in 2014. That referendum only enabled the SNP to consolidate its power, as the Labour Party collapsed. The Scots were always more sympathetic to the transnational idea of the EU, and did not see the sovereignty of the British parliament as a sacred gift from God, or the pinacle of democracy, as English conservatives did. No doubt continued membership of the EU was one of the things that persuaded many Scots to vote for the union – and they strongly supported membership in the referendum.
Actually Brexit does not improve the transactional case for Scots independence. It implies separation from critical markets in England without the EU safety net, and at least a transitional period in a distinctly parlous situation. But there’s trouble. The genie of English nationalism is out of the bottle, and it has taken over the Conservative government, whose political future seems assured. This is an us-against-them world view, one of whose dominant concepts is “bargaining position”. Relations with the rest of the EU are seen through this lens; and so is that between the UK and Scottish governments. The English attitude to the Scots is “lump it, you have no choice”; the British government, which contains virtually no Scots MPs, makes no concessions to Scots sensibilities. Even further devolution to the Scots government is probably seen as a way of forcing it to take ownership of austerity. This complacency is not unlike that formerly shown by EU Remainers on membership of the EU.
But at least nobody is killing each other. The worrying thing about Northern Ireland is just how little the politics has moved on since the killing ended. The Unionist First Minister Arlene Foster’s attitude to criticism over some rather dodgy financial goings on is to distract attention by upping the ante on sectarianism; her cohorts are happy to let her do it. The Ulster Protestant working classes are as entrenched in their anti-Catholic attitudes as ever, and this is putting pressure on the Irish Republicans to follow suit. Now the Northern Irish government has fallen – and attitudes are polarising.
The crisis in the province is not about Brexit. But Brexit is making it a much harder problem to solve. Irish Catholics are finding themselves in a country less tolerant of multiple identities, where community relations are seen in terms of bargaining position and multiculturalism is a dirty word. Could a return to violence improve that bargaining position? Meanwhile, most English people would probably welcome a reunification of Ireland as a solution to the many border issues thrown up by Brexit. That could easily push Protestant Loyalists to violence. It’s a combustible mix.
And what makes me gloomy is that I see no political leader in Westminster or Belfast with the vision, stature and charisma to move the nations of the United Kingdom onto a more constructive path. Especially when that constructive path almost certainly requires that the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union. But I hope I’m wrong.