Brexit: Goodbye United Kingdom, hello dis-United Kingdom
Chaos everywhere, consensus nowhere has and continues to define Britain’s stalling and tortuous attempt to depart the EU in an orderly fashion. Such chaos should come as no surprise, however, because more than a harbinger of Britain’s departure from the EU, Brexit is a harbinger of the break-up of the UK.
Let me explain.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give the UK its Sunday name, is the epitome of an artificial state. It was and remains the product of the grafting together of divergent cultures, histories and national identities. At inception, this grafting together was undertaken not in the interests of its peoples but in the interests of national elites eager to take advantage of the commercial opportunities of a unified polity with added manpower and resources in an age of empire.
The venality, greed and corruption of the Scottish ruling class in the late 17th- early 18th century delivered the Scottish people into the arms of the union with England without their support, establishing thereby the Kingdom of Great Britain. This was reflected in the social unrest and riots that ensued in Scottish towns and cities both during the negotiations that brought into being the 1707 Act of Union, and upon its passage.
For the ruling elites of both Scotland and England the union of both parliaments into one had demonstrable commercial and strategic benefits. The former had been left bankrupt after Scotland’s failed attempt at establishing its own overseas colony in Darien, Central America (modern day Panama) in the late 17th century. In order to forestall national immiseration the need to gain access to England’s overseas colonies was thereafter considered essential.
Meanwhile the English were eager to prevent the possibility of Scotland being used as a staging ground for an invasion from the north by the French in the context of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).
Wales, the third nation that makes up the UK, had already been merged with England in 1536. Ireland on the other hand was a subjugated English (latterly British) colony, and was officially brought into the orbit of what would then be known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.
In 1922, after a prolonged national liberation struggle in Ireland, the 26 counties that make up today’s Republic of Ireland achieved dominion status before winning full independence in 1948, while the remaining six counties that make up the entire island, or Ireland, were partitioned to become what is now Northern Ireland: hence the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland of today.
This necessary historical detour out of the way, here is where things start to bear relevance to Brexit.
An unintended consequence of the Industrial Revolution that saw Britain (UK) go on to forge an empire which at its height covered a quarter of the globe, was the forging of a unified working class whose unity transcended national, cultural and regional differences.
This class unity was the product of the country’s heavy industries – coal mining, steel, shipbuilding, etc. – and was expressed in common economic interests and struggles against a common enemy, the bosses and owners of those industries, in the context of the trade union movement. It also began to manifest politically with the formation of the Labour Party at the start of the 20th century.
In tandem, forged over time, was a British national identity nourished by the countless wars the state’s ruling elite unleashed and waged over the centuries of an empire that existed not to spread civilization and modernity to the ‘dark peoples’ of the planet, as officially claimed, but as a juggernaut of exploitation, subjugation and oppression.
In those countless colonial wars working class men were used as cannon fodder in a dynamic that continues to the present day.
Margaret Thatcher destroyed this material basis of working class unity across the UK in the 1980s. Her free market counter-revolution and resulting deindustrialization of the nation’s economy turned Britain into what it is today – a service economy underpinned by financialized capital.
The country’s trade union movement, which once wielded considerable economic and political clout, is but a shadow of its former self as a consequence, while the Labour Party was gutted of its founding principles by Tony Blair and his execrable centrist crew in the 1990s and on into the first decade of the noughties.
It is the remnants of this Blairite crew within the Labour Party who have and continue to be engaged in a concerted effort to undermine the party’s current socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Such people, working alongside a reactionary Tory establishment, should be careful what they wish for. Because in 2019 it is only Corbyn’s socialist program, offering economic and social transformation, that provides any hope of repairing the regional, national and cultural fault lines that correspond to the breakdown of the 2016 EU referendum vote.
The post-industrial north and midlands of England, parts of the country virtually untouched by investment and left without hope after being decimated by Thatcher, voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in a veritable scream from the bowels of austerity Britain. Every one of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, meanwhile, voted Remain.
Wales, particularly post-industrial south Wales, voted for Brexit, while a five percent majority in Northern Ireland voted Remain.
It confirms that what was once the United Kingdom is now the dis-United Kingdom, with those previously mentioned national and regional differences informing its peoples’ identities and worldview over the identity of class to an extent previously unseen.
Brexit in this context is a sideshow, a pantomime largely being played out in parliament and the centrist mainstream. As Karl Marx put it: “To call upon people to give up their illusions about their condition, is to call upon them to give a condition that requires illusions.”
The illusion that Brexit is actually relevant to the needs of those who’ve seen their lives devoured by the beast of neoliberalism and bludgeoned by austerity must soon give way to the unvarnished truth that the UK as we know it, is past its sell-by date.
“A reactionary,” the great postwar Labour figure Nye Bevan once said, “is a man walking backwards with his face to the future.” Surveying a political class presently engaged in ripping itself apart over Brexit, who could argue otherwise?
Think your friends would be interested? Share this story!
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.