The nation of England on the island of Great Britain has attained a special place in Europe. ‘The largest nation without its own political institutions.’
Since 1707 England has been in a political and economic union with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland known as the United Kingdom or more colloquially; Britain.
Until 1998, the British peoples were governed with the one Parliament from Westminster in London, a shared language, religion, monarchy, geography and history, uniting them.
In 1998 Parliaments with devolved powers were introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by the Blair Labor Government as a way to ‘kill nationalism and preserve Labor dominance in Scotland and Wales’, as well as ending the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
It has set in motion profound changes to the British constitution with the potential for even greater change, including the dissolution of the United Kingdom. This came close to fruition in 2013 during the Scottish referendum on independence, when Scotland voted 55-45 to remain in the Union.
It has also brought to the fore the so-called West-Lothian Question. Is it fair that English MPs refrain from voting on laws relating directly to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, yet Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can still vote on purely English laws?
The logical answer is of course no.
Following the Scottish referendum British Prime Minister David Cameron promised a new settlement in which ‘the millions of voices of England must also be heard.’ He was answering the West-Lothian question. Three years later, Britain is pre-occupied with the European question, a potentially fractious issue, with no decisive answer as of yet to its West-Lothian one.
What all this means for ‘Britain’ remains to be seen, but as Robert Tombs explains in this timely and lengthy work, English nationalism is a relatively unknown variable; a ‘splinter’. ‘England has long been a powerful, political, cultural and economic entity. But, oddly, rarely has it been a self-contained and autonomous nation.’ The English it seems are afraid of isolation. ‘Perhaps it is characteristic of an island nation…to have multiple but impermanent political relationships.’
It was these characteristics that lead Britain to join the European Union in 1973, or the European Economic Community as it was then known, fearing the rapid decline of its Empire and the subsequent loss of its prestige would render it a ‘greater Sweden’.
This contrasted with the opinion of French President Charles De Gaulle, who believed the British would never join the EEC because it was ‘too connected to the rest of the world….to ‘shut itself up’ in Europe.’ De Gaulle did block Britain’s entry into the EEC for other reasons, but his opinion is one that would resonate with English Eurosceptics.
Why, the Eurosceptics ask, remain a member of the European Union, an economic block that is shrinking, encroaching upon Britain’s sovereignty, when Britain could link through trade and shared history, with the rest of the world; India, America, Australasia, even China?
Euro-scepticism a ‘characteristic facet of English consciousness today’ derives from the level of global connectedness England developed through Empire, ‘its people (have) more intimate family and cultural connections with North America, Australasia or the Indian subcontinent than with Belgium, Luxembourg or Bavaria.’
At the same time, Europhiles oppose leaving the European Union concerned that it would see Britain become ‘little England’. Tony Blair, the staunchly pro-‘European’ Prime Minister stated that ‘Europe is today the only route through which Britain can…maintain its role as a global player’. Both sides seemingly fear the same thing, irrelevance.
It will come to a head on June 23, when Britain votes on whether to continue their membership in the European Union. The vote came about when the British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron promised in 2013 a referendum on membership. The Conservative Party who had traditionally supported the European project had shifted significantly over the previous years to become the mainstay of Euroscepticism in England.
Cameron himself is a strong supporter of continued membership and has campaigned vigorously on the issue, claiming that Britain is better in than out.
On the opposite end is the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who announced at the beginning of the campaign he would advocate a vote for Leave. Johnson known for his self-deprecating buffoonery is perhaps the most popular politician in Britain. His decision to back Leave was considered a significant boost to their campaign.
This isn’t a left-right issue necessarily. There are many Conservative MPs who want to remain in the EU and many Left wing MPs who are campaigning to leave.
The ramifications for the June vote are enormous. Should Britain vote to stay it would be considered implicit British support for the Union, ‘ever closer union’ an inevitability.
Should it vote to leave, then it could precipitate the collapse of the United Kingdom.
Should England vote to leave, but is kept in the Union by Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish votes then it may precipitate a constitutional crisis. The opposite is also true. Should Britain vote to leave but Scotland votes to stay, the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has declared it a trigger for another referendum on Scottish Independence.
The campaign has been marked by its passion and at times vitriol.
It is proving to be the decisive issue of modern British politics.