My first reaction on hearing about the Brexit vote was apprehension about the short- and medium-term consequences. My second was sympathy for the losers (but where was all that pro-European emotion during the campaign?). My third was the complete rescinding of the second and an onset of schadenfreude. They were such bad losers. During the campaign they had failed to grasp that the European Union is in essence unsustainable, insupportable and the source of misery for tens of millions of people. Certainly, the future is going to be a lot less comfortable than the immediate past, but that was going to happen anyway. Nobody in the ridiculously low-level debate was quoting the books I thought they ought to be quoting such as John Stuart Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government or Michael Hechter’s Internal Colonialism. Instead the pro-Europeans spent their time branding their opponents as xenophobes and reactionaries. They should have learned from Karl Marx’s rather sensible remark that in politics one should take one’s enemies more seriously than they take themselves. It was fun to see the chattering classes discovering that they didn’t really like democracy. And it’s going to be fun watching the European slush funds dry up: among the worst features of the decay of universities in my day was the prevalence of chasing various “research” (aka propaganda) money round Europe at the expense of doing any serious teaching or thinking.
The interesting issues, though, concern the fascinating and highly attractive possibilities that open up post-Brexit if we stop panicking and use a bit of imagination. Let’s start with Scotland: when I was growing up Scotland was more Conservative than England (look at the 1955 election results if you don’t believe me) and nationalism, as opposed to patriotism, was a joke. But now the two countries have grown steadily apart in almost all dimensions. We used to debate about devolution, “slippery slopers” versus “safety valvers”: total victory for the former. Scotland has turned into one of those incest-and-folk-dancing socially democratic places with which Europe abounds, whereas England hasn’t. Scotland has completely different needs from England: it is underpopulated and needs migrants (the population even dipped below five million earlier this century). England is very over-populated.
There is no reason why an English person should not welcome the independence of Scotland and support that country’s application to join the European Union. There would, of course, be certain provisions including a Government of Scotland Act parallel to the Government of Ireland Act of 1949 which allowed for dual citizenship and for Dr. Johnson’s “Scotchmen on the make” to take the road south. There would also be a joint head of state and a full defence agreement (remembering Neville Chamberlain’s appalling error in respect of the Irish Free State) and Scotland should remain a member of the Commonwealth. Of course, Scotland should be self-funding. Those conditions could easily be met and if they were what would there be to be sad about? The Union Jack? Fun flag, but it’s only a flag and flags are pathetic. The compensation would be getting rid of all that nonsense about British/English/UK.
Then there is the Irish question. I loathe Fenians, but have always thought that having an international border between Fermanagh and Cavan was pretty weird and stupid. This used to be a problem, but it is much less of one now. So – a united Ireland, complete with a proper defence agreement, Commonwealth membership and some properly consociational agreements about the representation of identity. Of course, this would be far more problematic than the Scottish arrangement, but at least the question of EU membership doesn’t arise. The Unionists already acknowledge that the Republic is not the priest-ridden hell-hole it used to be and they would have the consolation that it would be the end of the road for certain Fenians: nobody is going to “share power” with the likes of Adams and McGuinness in a united Ireland and it will be nice to see Unionists in power in the Dail (highly likely given their silly PR system). My main regret about a united Ireland would be the loss of the Northern Ireland football team, which I have always supported for personal reasons. (Rugby, of course, already operates on a united basis.)
The new and more natural relationships within what I will boldly call the British Isles should not be defined by some big treaty or constitutional definition. This was actually something Tony Blair was contemplating, though within the EU. Let’s get by on anomaly, contradiction, a wing and a prayer – something continental Europeans are very bad at and we have been historically very good at, the Government of Ireland Act being a prime example. It said that the 26 counties were not part of His Majesty’s dominions, but that persons born there were not foreigners. In a similar spirit I think that if there is any problem about travelling on an English passport pretty well everybody should have an Irish and Scottish one as well. I probably won’t live long enough to receive my Kingdom of England passport (please let it be white with a red rose), but who knows and maybe I’ll keep it in my safe while I travel on my Scottish one. At least a quarter of the English population are immediately entitled to an Irish passport. I don’t have a figure for Scotland, but I’m pretty sure that I personally am entitled to both. So best-case scenario: while independent England adapts to the global economy and makes its own arrangements free from “direct effect” laws and unchosen migrants and Europe rots away under the weight of its own contradictions individual English people have the benefits of European travel on a variety of passports. Perhaps we could print our own as a kind of naughty gesture.
Some would think that the flaw in my vision would be an open border with Scotland through which migrants would continue to pour. Part of the answer to this is that if we have a long enough and deep enough recession and the pound goes down enough there won’t be many people wanting to live here. But the longer term answer is about how you treat resident non-citizens and illegal aliens rather than how you patrol your borders. Here there may be nothing to learn from the USA, but quite a lot of lessons to learn variously from the UAE, Australia, Switzerland, the Channel Islands and others. These are societies with high levels of immigration but considerable control over that immigration and, to different degrees, differential rights for tourists, residents and citizens. National Service (not necessarily military, of course) should be an important part of the way we do things.
This article first appeared in Standpoint magazine.