Like Banksy's artwork, the United Kingdom is shredding itself in public
Opinion Brexit Like Banksyâs artwork, the United Kingdom is shredding itself in public Ian Jack
Those who most loudly trumpet their patriotism would quite happily break up Britain â" just as long as they get their Brexit
Nearly two decade s after the American broadcaster Ed Murrow immortalised London in the blitz as a city of everyday heroism â" where people âstand very steady in their shoesâ â" he returned in 1959 to make a film for the BBC on how Britain had fared after the war. The film, After the Battle, can be seen currently on BBC iPlayer, and in it Murrow smokes tremendously (a 70-a-day habit that killed him six years later) as he asks a selection of Britons about class difference, industrial unrest and where they feel the country is heading. At last he reaches the climax: an interview of impressive verbosity with the Tory foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd.
He has one question, he says. Britainâs power has shrunk as a consequence of âthe great outpouring of men, money and metalâ incurred by two world wars. The Soviet Union and the US are the top dogs now. âIs this not likely to cause you [the UK] to contract out, to say you want no part of the great power struggle?â
Lloyd agrees, ju diciously, that the two superpowers are much bigger and more populous countries, with greater natural resources and far stronger armed forces, and yet: âIâm not quite certain that these are the only things that matter in the world we live in today. I think myself that influence [he stresses the word] is very much what counts.â Britain lies at the heart of the Commonwealth; Britain links Europe to âthe Atlantic communityâ; and finally â" he hopes the American Murrow wonât find him arrogant in saying this â" Britain has âmaturity and judgmentâ. No other great empire, he reflects, has ever handed over power âso deliberately and so willinglyâ to its constituent members.
I was 14 at the time. In terms of age, I am, if you like, an average member of todayâs Tory party. Research published last year by the Bow Group estimated membersâ average age at 72: people who, like me, were born in 1944 or 1945, and can recall the death of King George VI as well as more cheerful happenings such as Muffin the Mule, the coronation, Take It from Here, and steam-hauled expresses to the seaside. Only the hardest of hearts could be proof against the charm of these things.
On the other hand, Britain in the 1950s was a harder and less Enid Blyton-y place than a Cath Kidston shop window would have us believe. As well as Dinky Toys, it had atom bombs â" symbols of the widespread belief, shared far beyond Lloyd and the Tory pa rty, that Britainâs special history merited a special destiny. It could never be âjust another countryâ.
Throughout the years of imperial retreat and deindustrialisation, that belief has shrunk, though most people of my generation, including me, can still find some recalcitrant traces of it in our tastes, interests and prejudices. It persists at its most florid in the popular press and, more crucially, almost as a founding belief in the Europhobic wing of the Conservative party and throughout Northern Irelandâs Democratic Unionist party. These parliamentary groupings, with a total of no more than 50 to 70 MPs, at present seem to have the future of the United Kingdom under their thumb.
Until the referendum both groups looked to be in long-term decline, as representatives of generations and traditions that were dying. Tory party membership now stands at roughly 124,000, less than a quarter of Labourâs membership and slightly lower than the SNPâs. (The Bow Gro upâs estimate of the average age is contested; even so, most other estimates have it between 57 and 70.) About 1,100 people are thought to belong to the Democratic Unionist party (founded in 1971 by Ian Paisley). Their average age isnât known, but a high proportion of members and elected representatives belong to the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster (founded in 1951 by Ian Paisley) or the Orange Order, or both.
According to research in 2014, by Professor Jonathan Tonge and others, almost 40% of the DUPâs 175 local councillors were Free Presbyterians, and more than half its members belonged to the Orange Order. The 2011 census put the number of Free Presbyterians at 10,068, equivalent to 0.6% of Northern Irelandâs population; from which came a third of the DUPâs then 38 members of the legislative assembly at Stormont.
What did I know of Northern Ireland as a 14-year-old in 1959? Beyond the fact that the police carried pistols â" my parents had seen them on a holiday in Portrush â" almost nothing at all. Then, slowly, a picture emerged of flute bands and marches and a love of the union jack â" a theatrical patriotism that was already dying in the land over the water to which they were pledging their loyalty. They, or at least the majority population, were unionists. We in Scotland were unionists too.
Save for Northern Irelandâs Catholics and a scattering of nationalists in Scotland and Wales, everyone was a unionist; i t was a state of being that outside Northern Ireland needed neither thought nor description. How strange then that unionism should be threatened, finally, by the Orange halls of the six counties and Conservative clubs in the shires: the kind of places where people can still sing Land of Hope and Glory without any irony and believe Britain is a free country like no other.
The fact is that Brexit matters to them more. Polls conducted in June for the universities of Edinburgh and Cardiff â" the latest in a series known as the Future of England Study â" show, to quote this weekâs press release, that âself-professed unionists, most notably leave-voting Conservatives, were largely unconcerned about the risks to the union posed by Brexitâ.
If the price of Brexit was Scottish independence, 77% of English Conservatives would be willing to pay it. If the price was the collapse of Northern Irelandâs peace process, 73% of them would likewise be content; among leave voter s in Northern Ireland, who are overwhelmingly unionist, that figure rose to 87%, while 86% thought a yes vote in a second Scottish independence referendum would be a worthwhile price for Northern Ireland to leave the EU.
In the words of Ailsa Henderson, professor of political science at Edinburgh: âIf even unionists in Northern Ireland care less about the territorial integrity of the UK than pursuing Brexit, then it really raises questions about the type of union weâre in, and indeed what unionism means.â
Meaning is certainly hard to find. Unionism, like Banksyâs Girl With Balloon, is eating itself in public. In future, the burden of once-greatness will have to be carried by England alone.
â¢ Ian Jack is a Guardian columnistTopics
- European Union
- Democratic Unionist party (DUP)
- Northern Ireland
- Good Friday agreement
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