The diminishing post-war role of Britain on the world stage must have been evident to anyone who was a regular cinema-goer in the 50s and 60s, though the manner in which this message was received would have been unintentional. A fixture of the Pathé News bulletins for a good 20 years after 1947 was the independence ceremony; the sight of euphoric natives celebrating a colony finally standing on its own two feet was presented in characteristically jolly fashion by these optimistic interludes between the support picture and the main feature. The Queen’s presence implied a gracious acceptance of independence, even if the apparent benevolence of the mother country disguised relief at the breaking-up of an Empire it could no longer afford to run. Yet, for all the dressing-up of such events in a positive style, there’s no doubt the increasingly regular sight of the Union Jack descending down one more flagpole on a foreign field must have had a subconscious psychological impact on national morale – and one that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Bar the 1997 Hong Kong Handover, the last time an occasion of this nature took place was in Rhodesia in 1980. By then, the cinema news bulletin had long been superseded by TV reports reaching the nation’s living rooms via satellite; moreover, there were few people left in the country who clung to the image of Britain that had been inherited from the imperial forefathers. Even before Zimbabwe was dragged kicking and screaming from the Commonwealth womb, Britain had already reduced its global ambition and had settled for a future much closer to home – Europe. The continent had welcomed belated British membership of the Common Market, but the economic woes that plagued the nation throughout the first decade of so of Britain’s seat at the EEC table were something that seemed to give our neighbours a sense of superiority over the ‘sick man’; and the condescending perception of an incurably ill member state lingered.
Britain as a minor Brussels suburb was something the British public never truly embraced wholeheartedly, and it could be argued our mainland neighbours never really regarded us as ‘proper Europeans’ either. Middle-class Brits liked it because it fitted their image of themselves as sophisticated continentals a cut above the native yahoos; but for most in the UK, the Great European Project – especially when the organisation progressed from being a simple trading partnership to a reincarnation of the Holy Roman Empire – began to seem like an unnecessary encumbrance that made us feel like a naughty schoolboy permanently stationed outside the headmaster’s office. Yet, anyone observing the sudden rebranding by some Brits as instant Europeans in June 2016 may have thought otherwise. They reminded me a little of my cousin in 1977, whose bedroom wall became a shrine to Elvis Presley the minute he died, despite there being no sign of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll up there the day before.
England and Wales were the two constituent countries of the UK that sealed the deal in 2016, and will probably play host to the most celebratory reactions when the clocks strike eleven. Even here, however, I suspect celebrations will be muted mainly because the polarised fault-lines now run so deep. The recourse of Remoaners to lazy name-calling of the most basic nature – Nazi, Racist, Fascist etc. – evokes the way in which ‘Scab’ became the ubiquitous buzzword when one side verbally attacked the other during the similarly divisive Miners’ Strike of 1984/5; and just as there were ‘Quiet Tories’ not broadcasting their voting preference at the 2017 General Election, there’s no doubt there are ‘Quiet Leavers’ declining to be drawn into Remain-dominated discourse on the likes of Facebook today for fear of being cast out of the village.
North of the border, the EU has been adopted by the ruling party as a handy addition to the independence portfolio. Indeed, the most obstinate, head-in-the-sand English Remoaners took their cue from those Scots who never accepted the 2014 Referendum result when echoing their demands for a rerun because it didn’t turn out the way they wanted. The SNP promotional brochure that the rest of the UK receives glosses over the fact that during the 1975 EEC Referendum, the SNP was as virulently anti-Common Market as the Brexit Party is anti-EU today; the Salmond/Sturgeon incarnation of the SNP, on the other hand, makes the Lib Dems resemble UKIP. This curious juxtaposition of the desire to be an independent nation yet still chained to a Union that offers it far less leeway than the Union it has been part of for 300 years is not the only contradiction at the heart of Holyrood.
It’s no real surprise the EU is so appealing to Sturgeon’s tartan army. The SNP as a political force contains all the elitist ‘executive’ elements that so alienated 17.4 million voters when it came to the People’s Vote campaign – the same sense of sneering, superior entitlement embodied south of the border in the likes of Lord Adonis or Anna Soubry; it boasts all the worst aspects of Identity Politics that has cost Labour so much of its traditional support; and it has a finger-wagging tendency to persistently incur into people’s private lives by attempting to regulate what they eat and drink, how they chastise their children, and to punish them for smoking – to prioritise Nanny State interference over the far-from impressive condition of many of Scotland’s public services. Yet, like Labour in England, the SNP is keen to sell itself as a ‘party of the people’, picking up the Stop Brexit banner with far more success than any other political party in the UK.
Across the Irish Sea, the resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont comes at an opportune moment; the peace process, along with the province as a whole, finds itself at something of a crossroads. Many of those who played a pivotal part in the Good Friday Agreement and the crucial early days of power-sharing are no longer around. Paisley and McGuinness are both dead, John Hume is now lost to the No Man’s Land of dementia, and Seamus Mallon passed away barely a week ago. Enough time has now elapsed since 1998 to place the future of Ulster in the hands of a generation who weren’t manning the barricades at the height of the Troubles; and just as significant is the fact that December’s General Election saw Northern Ireland elect more Nationalist MPs to Westminster than Unionists for the first time ever. For those seeking a united Ireland, the prospects have rarely looked brighter.
Along with Scotland, of course, Northern Ireland voted Remain; the DUP may have been the cheerleaders for Brexit during the period when they made up the numbers for Theresa May’s threadbare Tories, but they were hardly representative of the majority in Ulster. The loss of Nigel Dodds at Westminster was an additional blow for a party that punched way above its weight when the British Government needed it; but the British Government doesn’t need it anymore, and one wonders how much longer Unionism can survive as a potent political force when the momentum appears to be with Nationalism. Belated alignment with the more enlightened social policies of the Republic has recently come despite DUP opposition, and it’ll be interesting to see how events develop at Stormont during the next twelve months.
Nationwide, the next twelve months will be just as interesting, if considerably less intense than the last three years. Wherever one stands, this was what the majority voted for and that should always have been reason enough for implementing it. It’s only taken us so long to get here because some just couldn’t accept it; and I don’t think they ever will. Some of us who voted Remain did. We might not have liked it, but hey, that’s democracy. Au revoir.
© The Editor