A Union Without Faith or Law: Part One
The post Brexit Game of Thrones
17th February 2022
David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith
Far from seeing Brexit as an opportunity to reassert national sovereignty, the government’s pandemic response has strengthened calls for the dissolution of the union. In the first of two essays, David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith consider the state of the United Kingdom.
Whoever yet a Union saw
Of Kingdoms without Faith or Law?
(Jonathan Swift 1707)
The concept of the national interest is straightforward. In democratic societies like the United Kingdom, government exists to represent the interests of those who elected it to power, reflecting and promoting the values, traditions and aspirations of the wider population. The nation’s foreign policy should therefore serve these interests by engaging with the world in a manner that seeks to safeguard and maximise the well-being of its people.
After Brexit, government policy making was supposed to focus on securing the national interest. ‘Taking back control’ was the guiding principle of those who supported leaving the European Union (EU). The expectation was that the United Kingdom government would resume control of its territorial borders, reassert parliamentary sovereignty and return Britain to its historic role as an independent sovereign state with a commitment to a rule-governed, international trading order.
At first, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson seemed to be moving in this direction. It sought to re-establish the UK’s economic and political links with the world beyond western Europe. It forged ‘bespoke’ free trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand and Japan and has applied for membership of the Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP).
As a naval power, Britain has also shown a willingness to promote maritime freedom across the Indo-Pacific. The signing of the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) security pact in September 2021, evinced a welcome desire to form new and strategically relevant global alliances. The UK has also adopted, with some equivocation, a more critical stance toward China’s geopolitical ambitions.
From the perspective of ‘taking back control’ these are constructive achievements. Yet since Boris Johnson’s resounding election victory in December 2019, the much-anticipated global Britain project of a state at ease with itself and with the world remains, at best, a work in progress. More disconcertingly, there are also signs that the government is diverging from its vision of reasserting national independence and accepting instead the self-harming policies promoted by a still anti-Brexit establishment.
The paradoxes of the pandemic
Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic upset the new government’s plans to release the nation’s animal spirits after their long hibernation, shackled by decades of stifling EU regulation. The pandemic, of course, had a traumatic impact upon all the western democracies. In this regard the UK government at least performed no worse than its European counterparts. Indeed, in some areas it performed much better. It achieved a faster roll out of its vaccination programme, and a swifter exit from Covid inspired health restrictions, thus showing that, liberated from European controls, the government could engage in effective decision making.
Nevertheless, in common with most EU countries, Australasia, and many US state legislatures, the British parliament and the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, developed a dangerous penchant for lockdowns and quarantines at the slightest rise in cases or at the latest mutation of the virus.
Health bureaucracies, and vested interest groups, from media corporations to trade unions, and the pharmaceutical industry, became addicted to catastrophic projections. The scientifically questionable attempt to hold back the spread of a virus through lockdowns, social distancing rules, mask mandates, and school closures incurred huge economic and social costs. The great health disruption undermined the normal functions of democratic governance and the wider open trading order.
In the UK this dangerously valetudinarian policy response has created the deepest recession since the union’s formation three centuries ago. At the same time, the funding of Covid support programmes raised national indebtedness to levels only previously achieved in times of war and existential threat to the state’s survival. The lockdown induced recession and the uncertain economic recovery since September 2021 has seen supply chain disruption, labour and energy shortages, rising inflation, rising interest rates and the prospect of economic stagflation.
Whilst the UK shared its big state pandemic management strategy with most developed nations, it also revealed distinctive features that do not portend well for the once optimistic vision of a global Britain promoted by think tanks like Policy Exchange and elaborated in the government’s report, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in 2020, that was intended to chart the course for Britain’s foreign policy in the new era. Emerging from the pandemic starkly exposes the challenges to re-establishing a coherent view of the British national interest after forty years of submission to the demands of European supranationalism, and the fallout from two-decades of constitutional rationalisation.
It was immediately evident after the referendum on European membership in June 2016 that a metropolitan elite that dominates the mainstream media, politics, business and the civil service remained committed to the European Union, despite the democratic vote to leave it. Unwilling to abandon a cosmopolitan faith in ever closer European union, these elites shared a worldview with their European and North American confrères that sought to question, undermine and ultimately reverse Britain’s process of withdrawal from the European institutions. Between 2017 and 2019 the Conservative government of Theresa May failed to negotiate a withdrawal agreement that would satisfy a largely Remainer parliament or her own Leaver backbenchers. Immured in a constitutional deadlock of her own devising, May’s administration lost both authority, momentum and purpose.
Brussels, with the complicity of leading civil servants, tried to force the UK into a new referendum or a new treaty that afforded the worst of all possible outcomes for national self-determination. Only after Boris Johnson became leader of the Conservative Party in October 2019, was a dissolution of parliament achieved. Johnson’s overwhelming electoral victory in December 2019 based on a campaign to get Brexit done, gave the new Conservative government the legitimacy to negotiate a treaty that separated the UK from Europe whilst still maintaining a trading relationship.
Even so, the new treaty, rather than a clean break with European institutions left unresolved questions vital to parliamentary sovereignty. The UK still accepts the jurisdiction of the European Court, and the treaty left an unsustainable customs border in the Irish Sea between the province of Northern Ireland and the UK mainland. This together with disputes with the EU over the UK’s maritime boundaries created an increasingly fraught relationship that, without resolution, undermines the prospect of an economically integrated state.
In November 2021, Britain’s most effective Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost, resigned citing his difficulties with the ‘direction of travel’ the government had taken during the pandemic. Liz Truss, the new foreign secretary took responsibility for the border issue in 2022. Like Frost, she threatened to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol governing the UK and Brussels’ post-Brexit relationship with Ireland. However, the issue remains unresolved, and the EU’s intransigence has revealed that Brussels remains profoundly hostile to a unified and independent Britain. Moreover, in this, they receive overt and covert support from leading UK civil servants, business, academe and the mainstream media.
The inability of the Johnson government to address these burgeoning divisions between the United Kingdom’s elites and the revolting masses has hamstrung coherent foreign and domestic policy planning. This became increasingly manifest over the course of the pandemic that greeted the new government in its first months. Its viral response composed of lockdowns, furloughs and quarantines, not only damaged the economy and created the conditions for inflation and the impoverishment of the least well off, it also unintentionally gave credence to the demands for independence in the devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland.
The Celtic Costa Bureaucratica
The Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland and the Labour Party in alliance with Plaid Cymru in Wales have used the pandemic to implement notably tougher measures governing their respective peoples than those applied in England. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister and Mark Drakeford, her Welsh equivalent (Prif Wienidog Cymru), deliberately distanced themselves from the English government’s attempts to limit lockdown and quarantine measures. Entering Wales from across the Severn Bridge motorists were constantly reminded that different and stricter measures applied to those under the jurisdiction of the Welsh Assembly. Similarly in Scotland, the SNP enforced more draconian policing measures than those in operation across the border.
Somewhat surprisingly, Sturgeon and Drakeford drew plaudits from the media for their tough stance. Indeed Drakeford, despite unnecessarily reverting to much stricter measures that included fining people for going to work in December 2021, continued to receive far higher approval ratings than Boris Johnson who followed a more economically sensible approach to lockdown.
Similarly in Scotland, the SNP still enjoys majority support for its strict virus policy. Both Wales and Scotland benefit from higher government funding than England and have little in the way of a private sector. The public sector dominates the political economy in both devolved regions. This is particularly the case in Wales, which is a costa geriatrica in the North and a costa bureaucratica in the South. Consequently, outside tourism and hospitality, public sector workers have not been penalised by the lockdown. In fact, the dependent populations of Wales and Scotland have become more servile and more responsive to the devolved authorities in Cardiff and Edinburgh promoting a politics of fear. The different pandemic responses in Wales and Scotland have given these devolved governments an increasing appetite for independence by stealth.
This was not meant to happen. Westminster’s indifference to this growing appetite for self-governance without economic responsibility has reduced the United Kingdom to an implicit federation, the precursor to inevitable demands for full autonomy. Instead of taking advantage of getting Brexit done to reassert sovereignty and a common rule of law overseen by its highest court of parliament sitting in Westminster, the pandemic response strengthened those forces on the Celtic fringe working for the dissolution of the union.
Whilst there is disunion in Downing Street as the Prime Minister struggles to explain his cavalier attitude to lockdown rules that his government made and enforced, the de facto federation appears increasingly rudderless. The directional problem Lord Frost identified is not only a product of a critical mainstream media and a civil service, some of whose senior figures have much greater sympathy for a European union rather than a British one. It is also a product of the government’s propensity for self-induced harm.
Whilst the pandemic response destabilised the union, the Johnson government’s idealistic environmental agenda, which seeks to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to net zero within a decade, courts the approval of the green lobby, woke capitalists and investment funds, but imposes destructive economic costs. Driven by an apocalyptic vision of manmade climate catastrophe, this policy has increased energy prices to British manufacturing and domestic consumers at a time of rising inflation, whilst at the same time undermining Britain’s energy security and rendering the UK dependent on supplies from potentially hostile powers, notably Russia.
Eco-idealism has undermined the potential for national resilience and renders rebuilding the UK as a manufacturing base potentially unaffordable. With oil prices anticipated to reach $100 a barrel, the UK government and the Scottish Assembly regulate and restrict the extraction of North Sea oil and natural gas, as well as gas fracking, which would achieve the energy security the country urgently needs. A government sympathetic to an elite lobby of climate ideologists could ironically extinguish the United Kingdom as a sustainable body politic within a decade. As Clint Eastwood memorably put it, in a somewhat different context, ‘that’s one helluva price to pay for being stylish’.
The assault on history
If such a self-destructive energy policy were not bad enough, the elite’s pathological reaction to Brexit has also accelerated a wider ideological assault in academe and the mainstream media on the origins of the United Kingdom, its involvement in colonialism and slavery and the structural legacy it manifests in Britain’s institutions. It was no accident that, in the aftermath of Brexit, universities, the corporate media and even business elites supported an increasingly negative view of the nation state and its successful development into a modern, multicultural democratic polity.
The history of the development of the United Kingdom became the subject of an iconoclastic ideological assault both in the United States and in the UK in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the American city of Minneapolis in May 2020. Despite occurring over 3000 miles away and in an entirely different historical and political context, this event catalysed the woke campus left to expose the systemic racism that the democratic, constitutional and legal rights enjoyed by all citizens irrespective of creed, colour or sex had allegedly concealed. The Black Lives Matter movement exploited the pandemic to advance an anti-racist ideology that reversed the values and self-understanding of most citizens evidently lost in false consciousness.
For the woke ideologists who analysed this condition, the fact that most people imagined they inhabited a law governed and politically accountable democratic polity merely evinced their repressive desublimation. This transvaluation of political values required not only the recognition and cherishing of the victimhood endured by the UK’s minority populations, but the correction of the UK’s modern history to reveal its roots in colonialism and slavery. This further required the demolition and erasure of iconic imagery and heritage sites associated with the eighteenth-century slave trade, which according to this ultimately Maoist understanding, was not only the material, but the formal, efficient and final cause of the UK’s imperial success in the nineteenth century.
This progressive rhetoric of collective moral guilt required atonement. It entails not only the rewriting of the recent past but the demolition of statues celebrating the false memory of imperial glory. The progressive sensibility and its distinctive grammar of self-vilification deemed statues like those erected at the high-water mark of Victorian imperialism to Edward Colston in the city of Bristol, the seventeenth century British philanthropist and director of the Royal African Company who developed the Atlantic slave trade, particularly egregious.
The ideology of collective guilt
Black Lives Matter supercharged the campaign against the Colston legacy and justified the tearing down of his statue, which its perpetrators termed ‘a hate crime’. The Bristol experience is one instalment in the US movement with UK and Australian connections to remove the stigma of slavery, colonialism and racism by taking down statues, renaming buildings on campuses and in public spaces, and ‘decolonising’ the secondary and tertiary curriculums.
This anachronistic, misleading and guilt inducing interpretation of the history of the union since 1707 gained political traction in 2020 because it gave credence to the elite belief in a rationalist project of European integration that dissolved national pasts into a collective post-national constellation leading eventually to a borderless world and the end of history.
Such a cosmopolitan, anti-state and anti-democratic worldview, aligned to a progressive and increasingly woke ideology, generated a rhetoric that now dominates public life and the terms in which moral, historical and contemporary social issues are discussed. It generates a vision of modern Britain as a tangle of inherited injustices that demand both rectification and compensation. As Thomas Sowell, an early connoisseur of the politics of collective guilt explains, ‘political decisions about the future are made as if they were moral decisions about the past’.
In this regard, the particularly virulent response to Brexit and the assault on the UK’s past, which anti-racists contend continued into the present, reflected how the cosmopolitan elites saw in the utopian prospect of ever closer European Union, a source of relief from the moral treadmill of atonement, reparation and confession. The post-national constellation and norms of social justice that European rules offered intimated the prospect of release from the apparent burden of Europe and the UK’s past and a way to by-pass the menace of parochial populism: a project rudely interrupted by Brexit, which erroneously permitted the majority to have a say in the future being prepared for them.
The dashing of the hoped-for release from the UK’s guilty nationalist and colonialist past thus added to the division of the increasingly divided kingdom and fuelled its further retribalisation into minorities according to their ethnic, gender, religious, lesbian, gay and transgender identities. Notwithstanding the pandemic, the government has done little to redress the harm inflicted upon the union by its dissolution into tribal affinities whether Scots, Welsh, Irish, gay feminist, transgender or Muslim.
Why has the Johnson government behaved so ineptly and what does it mean for the idea of ‘global Britain’? It is to this question that we shall turn next week.
David Martin Jones is Visiting Professor in War Studies, King’s College, London. M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory at King’s College London. Their latest book is Terror in the Western Mind: Cultural Responses to 9/11, published by Academica Press.
Main photo by Lāsma Artmane on Unsplash.