The 'Gherkin' and Canary Wharf at sunrise in London. Stefan Rousseau / Press Association. All rights reserved.The secession of Britain from Europe by means of referendum has caused a big shock, not least in Britain itself. Various notables claim that the process is reversible. The IMF says that Brexit has set the whole world economy back a peg. The Europeans have been more sanguine: ‘let’s get it over with soon’ being the main idea.
Brexit is a very big deal. It will likely trigger the dissolution of the United Kingdom, which was in turn a vehicle for the largest empire in history, an organisation with a fifth of the world’s population and a quarter of its land surface. So many global institutions rest on an assumption of continuity – and Britain has been at the centre of it all for so long – that a sense of political instability is understandable. Rather than play down the hype, I wish to argue that the stakes are high indeed and the political ramifications serious.
The United Kingdom is on its last legs. Scotland will surely go it alone soon even if Europe is reluctant to accept a new separatist member. The two Irelands, with one half in the EU and the other out, will be under great pressure to reunify. We have already seen big changes in the British political parties: the Liberal democrats have been almost annihilated, Labour is eviscerating itself, the Tories have been reconstituted as a nationalist party. The assumption that the main parties are formed along class lines seems less and less tenable. The elephant in the room is London, no question. But what scenarios are there for London’s future? The elephant in the room is London, no question. But what scenarios are there for London’s future?
London is the City of London, which played a cool hand in the Brexit decision. It has been immune from legal constraint since splitting with Westminster 600 years ago. After losing a colonial empire, it built an illegal offshore empire on a rump of former island colonies. For some time now Europe's political leaders and financial cities have threatened to abolish the City's immunity. The Tory party has been in bed with the City for a century. It is not beyond belief to suppose that Cameron’s goal was always Leave while apparently leading Remain, starting from his bizarre choice of a referendum.
The City will find a more amenable political environment after Brexit. One City lawyer told the Financial Times that “We need a more friendly regime” (than Frankfurt). The British Empire may be a thing of the past, but the dream of financial empire lives on.
London is of course the main concentration of political, administrative, media, financial and commercial power in a shrinking UK. London led the Labour cities that voted for Remain (61%), along with Bristol, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. The right wing parliamentary Labour party then launched a coup against Corbyn for his ineffective leadership in the Brexit campaign! This rump of a once-great workers’ party has opted for a seat at the table of the UK in its decline, any seat whatsoever, even if the menu is Tory-lite.
Clearly many Londoners have a stake in their city’s ascendancy, especially real estate. There is a lobby for London to become the Hong Kong of the west, a city state. This would provoke fierce distributional conflicts with regions who feel they fed London’s rise to prosperity.
The great issue of our day is going to be devolution. There are plenty of regions ripe for it, with Scotland in the van: the West Country, Tyneside, Wales, Yorkshire. But the question is more profound than this. What will be the political motors of a post-class, post-national Britain and where will they find their roots in British history and geography? There is a strong decentralised tradition in Britain, the municipalities and shires. They may be ripe for a revival.
Institutionally speaking, the UK is a mess and there are many unresolved questions which add up to a creeping constitutional crisis that could get out of hand at any time:
- The European Union and national sovereignty (where we came in)
- The pound sterling versus the euro and the dollar
- Scottish independence
- The reunification of Ireland
- The concentration of power and wealth in London
- Regional devolution in England and Wales
- The monarchy and growth of republican sentiment
- The absolutist powers of parliament and an unfair electoral system
- The Lords: parliament, the law and feudal property
- The merger between church and state (Henry VIII and all that)
- Loss of empire and of global influence
- Racist paranoia over immigration
- The ‘special relationship’ with the American empire
- Corporate dominance and the evisceration of the public sector
- The rise of the internet with English as its lingua franca
No wonder the British people are confused and ignorant. There is too much to think about here, never mind do something about it. Brexit was never the main issue. Being in or out of Europe means little next to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
I was once asked by the American Ambassador in Paris whether Tony Blair would sign up for the single currency – it was around 1998. I replied that his first question should be whether he would have a unitary polity for long. The Ambassador laughed: “The Brits always condescend to us as ignoramuses. Now I can ask them how their creeping constitutional crisis is getting on”.
Brexit was an opportunity (taken only by a hair’s breadth) to plunge into unknowable regions of political culture. Because it entails the system of states of which Britain is a part, there will be external as well as internal pressures. Their outcome points in only one direction, to the end of the UK.
This piece was originally published on the Human Economy Blog on July 25, 2016.