Brexit vote is England’s parallel to Scottish independence referendum

Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, hopes to win Thursday's referendum on the back of English nationalism. (Telegraph)
Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, hopes to win Thursday’s referendum on the back of English nationalism. (Telegraph)

Imagine yourself as a typical, middle-class voter in  Northumberland.United Kingdom Flag Iconengland_640

Two years ago, you watched as your Scottish brethren to the north held a vote to consider whether to declare independence from the United Kingdom.

When they narrowly voted against independence, you watched as prime minister David Cameron renewed not only the Conservative, but the Labour and Liberal Democratic promise to enact ‘devolution max‘ for Scotland. He also declared, within hours of the vote, that he would seek to prevent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from voting on local English matters in Westminster, thereby correcting the long-discussed West Lothian question. (He managed mostly to annoy Scottish voters, pushing them in even greater numbers to the Scottish National Party and its talented leader, first minister Nicola Sturgeon). As the independence threat receded, however, Cameron failed to follow up on either the Scottish or the English side of the federalism issues that the referendum brought to the fore.

Now imagine that you feel like your fraught middle-class status is threatened — by the global financial crisis of 2008-09 or by the widening scope of inequality or even by the rising tide of immigrants to your community, making it even more difficult to compete for dignified and meaningful work.

Maybe you even decided to abandon the Tories or Labour in the 2015 general election, voting instead for the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as a way to send a message to Westminster about immigration or globalization. But with the first-past-the-post system, 12.7% of the vote for UKIP translated into just one seat among the 650-member House of Commons. Within England alone, UKIP won an even larger share of the vote (14.1%) than it did nationally. Again, you might have felt that your vote counted for little. Or nothing.

And so, as another referendum approaches this week on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, you might feel doubly disenfranchised. First, to the nameless bureaucrats in Brussels that you believe dictate too much in the way of the laws and policies that govern England. Secondly, within a national political system whose rules minimize third parties and whose leaders have devolved power to all of the regions except, of course, the region where nearly 84% of the population lives: England.

Leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign make it none too clear that, among their goals is this: Take. Back. Control. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that the parts of the United Kingdom with the greatest amount of regional devolution — London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — largely support the ‘Remain’ side in the Brexit referendum, according to polls. If ‘Leave’ wins on June 23, there’s a very good chance that it will do so despite the firm opposition of non-English voters.

Fintan O’Toole writes in The Irish Times over the weekend that a vote for Brexit is, ultimately, a vote for an independent England — that it will be English voters alone (as opposed to Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish voters) who could deliver victory to the ‘Leave’ campaign. That, in turn, would give Sturgeon and the SNP grounds for a fresh independence vote and who-knows-what would happen to Northern Ireland. O’Toole notes that, despite England’s cultural and literary hegemony across the globe, it has only rarely stood alone as an independent state:

Historically, England has been a political entity for only two relatively short periods. One was between the late ninth century, when the first English national kingdom was created by Alfred the Great, and 1016, when it was conquered by Canute the Dane. The other was between 1453, when English kings effectively gave up their attempts to rule France, and 1603, when James VI also became James I to unite the thrones of Scotland and England. And even then, in this second period, England included Calais (until 1558) and Wales (from the 1530s) and was increasingly intertwined with Ireland.

Otherwise England has always been part of something bigger. From the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the mid-15th century England was part of a larger political unit that included much of France. Then it was a part (albeit the dominant one) of a multinational kingdom that included Scotland, Wales and Ireland. And from the late 16th century onwards England was the centre of a global empire: its identity and system of government were imperial through and through. So out of the past 1,200 years of its history England has “stood alone” for fewer than 300 years – and none was in the modern age. England has no modern experience of being a bounded national entity that governs itself and only itself.

The steps between a successful Brexit vote and an independent England are, however, far from automatic. For all of the doomsday scenarios, there’s a realistic chance that the United Kingdom would finalize negotiations for a bespoke deal that permits access to the European single market in exchange for some ‘membership-light’ arrangement with the rest of the European Union. Continental feelings may be ruffled for months, or even years, but after a suitable period of British penance, Britain and Europe will find a mutually beneficial solution.

While it’s not surprising that Cameron called the EU referendum (and a year earlier than initially anticipated), it is surprising that Cameron didn’t pay any attention to long-simmering English nationalism and the problem of British federalism before doing so. By giving England the kind of devolution that Scotland and the other UK regions have enjoyed for nearly two decades, Cameron could have provided English voters more representation, potentially forestalling the current level of dissatisfaction that is fueling the close Brexit campaign.

The conceptual problem with federalism has always been that England is such a large region — with over 53 million people, a British supermajority — so it’s reasonable that both elected officials and the bureaucratic civil service would hesitate before devolving much of their power to another powerful ‘regional’ assembly.

From a policy and constitutional perspective, though, the creation of a new English parliament might easily have become duplicative of the Parliament that already sits at Westminster. Moreover, stripping non-English MPs of their rights at Westminster would have been an equally messy endeavor when so few policy questions implicate solely England.

One obvious solution would be some form of sub-regional parliaments across England. London already has its own assembly, and it’s not hard to imagine separate assemblies for northern England and southern England or on even more specific regional lines. Yorkshire’s population, for example, is around 5.3 million — that’s more than Wales (around 4.8 million) or Northern Ireland (around 2.9 million). Indeed, dividing England into sub-regions and giving each one its own assembly would have delivered to English voters a semblance of accountable local governance, at least without triggering a constitutional crisis about Westminster’s existential role.

To the extent that so many of Brexit’s English supporters are catalyzed by a sense that they have been too long ignored, perhaps the smarter move would have been for Cameron to spend 2016 working through a constitutional reform to find a way, through regional parliaments or otherwise, to devolve power to England in a way that restores some of the participatory democracy that English voters lack at both the national and supranational level. Of course, that might empower UKIP — and London elites on both the left and right might recoil at the thought of ‘English first minister Nigel Farage.’ But the corresponding point is that devolution would force UKIP to participate in governing England instead of forever sniping on the sidelines.

Instead, many prominent leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign have been able to use the vague notion of British sovereignty (and, between the lines, English sovereignty) as a platform for leaving the European Union altogether. But an effort earlier by the Cameron government to deliver more local and regional sovereignty to England, after two decades of devolution in the rest of the United Kingdom, might have gone a long way to relieve the notion that government is becoming increasingly less responsive to voters.

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