Colombo Telegraph

What Could Save The United Kingdom?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

This is of course a speculative investigation, but not without any foundation. One may say it is already too late, but better late than never. The lessons even may shed some light on our own issues in Sri Lanka. At the Brexit referendum on the 23th June, the United Kingdom became badly divided. This may most likely to continue and exacerbate. One may say that all referendums of this type (“One Night Stand” by Dharmawardana, Colombo Telegraph, 25 June) tend to divide nations, but at least not at this scale or intensity. Therefore, there is something profound underneath.

When a similar referendum took place in 1975 to decide whether the UK should remain in the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor of the present European Union (EU), of course the people became necessarily divided on the ‘Yes or No’ issue. But the divisions were fairly even (except Northern Ireland being hesitant) throughout the country and it was not this close, dividing the country almost half-half. In 1975, 67 percent of the voters said yes, while only 33 percent saying no. The turnout was 65 percent.

Deep Divisions

But this time it was different. Unprecedented 72 percent of voters turned up. They were closely divided; 52 percent wanted to ‘leave’ while 48 percent wanting to ‘remain.’ It was rather close, compared to 1975. Most alarming was the divisions on ethnic, class, generational and regional lines. The deviations were large. England and Wales wanting to ‘leave’ with 53 percent in both, while Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to ‘remain’ with 62 and 59 percent respectively. Then what made the final result to ‘leave’ was the higher population concentration in England. Out of 65.1 million population in the country, 55 million or 84 percent is in England (8 percent in Scotland; 5 in Wales and 3 in Northern Ireland).

In a way, Scotland was consistent between 1975 and 2016, the same percentage of voters (62 percent) wanting to ‘remain.’ It was Northern Ireland which made a ‘volte-face,’ perhaps as a protest vote on both instances. Then what made the people in England, except the more urbanite Londoners, and those in Wales wanting to leave? It is explained as a “Victory for Nationalism” (Kamla Wickremasinghe, The Island, 29 June) but many others also explain the same phenomenon as a shift to the right, increasing xenophobia against the migrants and even rising racism in England and Britain.

To be fair by the Kingdom, it also should be said that the UK was a reluctant partner of Europe (EEC and EU) throughout. That is why a referendum was required in 1975. This reluctance was also there among many other members, leading to several referenda in Europe, and it becoming a ‘new’ device of public decision making, effectively or not. Even this time, it was the admission of certain disadvantages of the EU membership that prompted David Cameron wanting to have a referendum. It turned out to be suicidal for him at the end. Why?

Apart from a clear class polarization between the (service) middle class/s and the workers, a major gap of perceptions and priorities have become revealed between the intellectual elite/s (experts) and the ordinary masses. While the former are over enthusiastic about globalization, neo-liberalism and macroeconomic indicators, the latter are down to earth on job protection, welfare and day to day living. There were major economic grievances behind the decision. EU has benefitted certain sections, but not the general masses as such. Even the poverty has increased over the years. The welfare system has crumbled. This is one reason why even Jeremy Corbin or Tom Watson (Labour Party) were reluctant in campaigning for the ‘remain.’ Britain has been the mother of all welfare systems in the world. The EU has killed that mother. The verdict at the Brexit is not only against the EU, but against neo-liberalism.


The ‘downside of the situation’ (this is admittedly an underestimation) is that if not handled properly and delicately, the situation might exacerbate even in Europe creating a situation where the people might move very fast into right wing politics or even towards new type of fascistic movements. A cold war between Britain and the EU has already started. While the British leaders want to take time, streamline, and negotiate terms rather informally, the EU has become strict, dismissive and pungent. The EU Council President, Donald Tusk, and the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, have been uncompromising, perhaps Angela Merkel prompting behind. Firs they said ‘no negotiations without formal notification’ (the Article 50). Now Juncture says, ‘There is no free market ‘a la carte,’ to mean if no free movement, no free British access to the EU market. Free movement or migration was a key issue why people wanted to quit.

I am not taking the side of UK, but EU leaders also should understand the delicate people’s verdict if they are democratic. Obviously the EU leaders are also quite nervous. The hesitation on the part of Britain for the EU is long standing, Charles de Gaulle, the semi-dictator of France, initially blocking the Britain’s entry into the EEC. The Britain is the second largest economy in Europe, after Germany, but the EU has been undermining it. Most alarming is EU leaders’ behind the scene flirtings with the leader of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, although Spain has objected to her overtures. She has been trying to fish in the trouble waters even before the final referendum result was out, by declaring a necessary second referendum on ‘Scotexit.’

There are dangers of Britain becoming disintegrated. Nicola Sturgeon wants a second referendum for Scotland’s independence. The last referendum in September 2014 was a failure; 55 percent disapproving independence, while 45 percent wanting to leave. It has already been divisive. Sinn Fein also wants a referendum for Northern Ireland to decide on unification with the Irish Republic (an EU member) aftermath of the Brexit referendum. While it appears more logical than the Scottish claim, it is more divisive than the Scottish intention, as it would divide the whole of Northern Ireland along the Unionist (pro-British) versus Unificationist (pro-Irish republic/EU) lines.

There are so much of economic and trade matters to be sorted out by Britain as a result of this single referendum. If there are two other referendums for Scotland and Northern Ireland, the additional economic fallout could be disastrous apart from the political disintegration. To believe naively, that the Scottish or the Irish people would remain in the good kingdom, is an illusion. At decisive or controversial referendums, in highly charged atmospheres, people are usually driven by emotions. They may change their positions later, but then the situation might be too late. Didn’t a referendum allow Adolf Hitler to assume supreme powers in 1934? It is better to be cautious of referendums at all times.

Federalism as a Way Out

Then what could save the United Kingdom? The age-old British National Anthem says ‘God save our gracious Queen.’ Gracious or not, it is better to save the United Kingdom, for everyone’s benefit, if possible minus the Crown. The God is not going to save the Kingdom. If Britain disintegrates, it is most possible that Europe also might disintegrate. It may appear beneficial for the Orient or Asia, but it is not.

There can be a negotiated settlement for the present political predicament in Britain. I am not competent in suggesting economic solutions for the economic predicament. However, a political settlement can be on the lines of a Federal State, necessarily through a Written Constitution. When the United Kingdom emerged at the beginning of the 18th century, it had all the elements for a proper federal system, English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh peoples and their areas of habitation and some form of political/administrative structures. No federalism can emerge artificially, but naturally. In the case of Britain, the size of the country or the island/s and their constituent make up were well suited for a federal system, the England also having natural regional divisions. In other words, the United Kingdom was more suited for federalism than most of the other federal countries. I am also not the first person to say so.

There had been some discussions on those lines since late 19th century in Britain and F. S. Oliver and Lord Selborne were two of the first persons to advocate federalism (John Kendle, “Ireland and the Federal Solution,” 1989). However, the thinking later developed in the direction of devolution, Britain taking a zig zag development without managing to consolidate the situation. The ‘Empire’ prevented serious discussions on the subject thereafter, taking the situation into granted. If federalism was implemented as first contemplated, even the secession of the Irish Republic in 1922 probably could have been prevented.

The pride in the (former) Empire, undue influence of the aristocracy, obsession with an unwritten constitution and inflexibility to move away from the unitary concept prevented the adoption of a federal system. A federal system required the drafting of a written constitution and abandoning of the unitary concept. The post-Second World War situation was more opportune for its adoption but the opportunity was not utilized. The extensive devolution implemented in a piecemeal fashion thereafter, although at times appeared sufficient or effective, was utterly haphazard. Perennially asymmetric devolution created serious imbalances and instability. In the absence of elected body/bodies for England, the English representatives unnecessarily wanted to dominate the Westminster. The people in England also lacked their own elected body. It has also been a popular grievance against devolution (Bernard Burrows and Geoffrey Denton, “Devolution or Federalism?” 1980). Even devolution could have prevented the situation, if implemented in a balanced manner through a written constitution. But that was not the case.

Federalism or devolution is not a panacea for any country. But both can be effective constitutional mechanisms to resolve and/or mange intractable problems in diverse or divided societies, if implemented along with other political and public policies. What is suitable for a particular country would depend on the particular historical, social and political factors. In the case of the United Kingdom, however, federalism might be more suitable than the prevailing asymmetric and haphazard devolution to unite the country, to prevent secession and to put the country back on a sustainable economic direction. Even in a country where devolution is more suitable than federalism, asymmetrical devolution is not the way to go about it.

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