Saturday 17 August 2019

Mary C Murphy: 'Brexit is pushing divided Britain to the verge of a breakdown'

The UK could disintegrate if Boris Johnson fails to confront the deep political differences that are tearing it apart

'Brexit has already unleashed a series of trends and developments which hint at profound transformation.' Stock photo
'Brexit has already unleashed a series of trends and developments which hint at profound transformation.' Stock photo

Mary C Murphy

Brexit has divided the UK and those divisions are intensifying rather than abating. Boris Johnson's elevation to the position of UK prime minister marks a troubling stage in the ever-fraught Brexit process. Surrounded by his newly appointed pro-Brexit cabinet, the prime minister is insistent that the UK will leave the EU on October 31, with or without a deal. His readiness to contemplate a UK crash-out coupled with his outright rejection of the backstop sets the scene for a period of intense instability and volatility. The potential for UK constitutional change has never been higher.

Research demonstrates that political stasis and stability can be punctuated by severe crises - usually a combination of internal and external shocks - which in turn can lead to the breakdown of old institutions and arrangements. Social, political and economic conditions, when they change dramatically, can produce irresistible pressures which, when they reach a critical point, trigger fundamental political and constitutional change.

Brexit has the hallmarks of what political scientists term 'a critical moment', when the potential for substantial systemic change exists: the type of change with the capacity to propel the UK toward an altered future where the political and constitutional framework of state and government is fundamentally challenged.

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This kind of systemic and constitutional change is dependent on a series of economic, social and political conditions coalescing to generate the necessary pressure needed to support a transformation of this magnitude.

Brexit has already unleashed a series of trends and developments which hint at profound transformation. The new prime minister's hard-line Brexit position and provocative rhetoric have further upped the political ante.

Brexit has changed the entire British political environment and atmosphere and exposed deep divisions within the UK.

Although the UK's troubled relationship with the EU pre-dates the 2016 Leave/Remain referendum, the referendum brought the depth and intensity of societal divisions into sharp focus.

At its most basic level, the result exposed bitter differences between those who supported EU membership and those who opposed it.

But the vote also masked deeper divisions between places and people within the UK; between the UK and its neighbours; and in terms of the UK's conception of its place in the world.

The EU referendum vote reveals territorial divisions within the UK. Northern Ireland and Scotland chose to remain in the EU, England and Wales opted to leave.

The vote also points to demographic differences, with younger age cohorts much more supportive of the Remain position than older generations.

The socio-economic profile of those who voted Remain and Leave suggests that differences in relation to educational attainment, employment status and earnings influenced how people voted.

And politically, the referendum was not decided along typical party political lines.

Division at a societal level has been reflected and reinforced by changes within and across the political system.

The UK's political arena has shifted. Where once the key fault-line in British politics was the left-right divide, a populist-nationalist turn means that the party system is now increasingly defined by a new Leave-Remain cleavage where opposing, absolutist and purist positions on Brexit leave little room for compromise or conciliation.

On the face of it, the stability of the UK party system appears resilient. However, the politicisation of Brexit has spawned new political parties (like the Brexit Party), and it has also changed the UK's two largest political parties.

The Conservative and Labour parties are experiencing some realignment. They are less anchored to traditional left-right positions. Their identities are now shaped more by Brexit and the contested issues and values which underpinned the vote.

This changed political atmosphere has been accompanied by a coarsening of political discourse; a poisoning of the political narrative; and a tolerance of mistruths and misrepresentations. These have infected the quality of public debate and they potentially lay the groundwork for validating and legitimising more radical change.

The stability of the UK's constitutional settlement is also challenged by Brexit. A disorderly Brexit will see Scottish nationalists intensify their calls for independence.

In Northern Ireland, the possible erection of a hard border will fuel political discontent - particularly among nationalists - and calls for a border poll will likely increase. Unionist fears will heighten and tensions between the two communities will grow.

A severe Brexit-related economic crisis will further galvanise support for constitutional change. A deep recession is likely to see heightened support for the disintegration of the UK not just among Scottish and Irish nationalists, but also among English voters seeking to cut off costly peripheries.

We know that voters across England do not harbour deep-rooted loyalty to the idea of British unity. This is particularly marked in the case of Northern Ireland.

Economically, sterling is already showing signs of stress, and that will intensify particularly in the context of a no-deal exit.

The trickle-down impact of economic turmoil and currency volatility will pose a risk to UK competitiveness and put jobs and livelihoods at risk.

This in turn will put pressure on public finances and in this context, the ability of the British state to placate an agitated populace may be tested.

During this critical Brexit period, different possibilities of development emerge, ranging from the status quo to profound constitutional change, including the possible disintegration of the UK.

In the face of a series of powerful economic, political and social pressures, the maintenance of the British political and constitutional status quo is highly unlikely. It is not credible to think that the forces which Brexit has released can be reversed or even quieted.

It is clear that the UK's future has already been politically and economically recast by the very fact of Brexit, and the survival of the constitutional polity in its current form cannot be taken for granted.

However, support for a transformative process of UK constitutional change is not widespread. The politicisation of the constitutional question in the UK - and the politicisation of Irish unity in Ireland - has not been fully achieved. We are yet to see the polarisation or mobilisation of voters around this single issue.

There are signs of discontent and agitation among voters, but crucially these sentiments are largely restricted to the SNP in Scotland and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. And even here, polls suggest that majority support for Scottish independence and Irish unity is elusive. In Northern Ireland, unionist opposition to Irish unity is resolute.

And what of Ireland in this scenario? There is little political appetite for Irish unification at this juncture, and the depth of public support is also difficult to measure in the absence of a detailed vision for what a New Ireland might look like. Ireland is not a cheerleader for British constitutional change.

The potential for UK constitutional change has certainly heightened since the Brexit referendum. The election of Boris Johnson as prime minister has done little to arrest the trend. However, not all of the necessary conditions are currently in place and crucially, it is within Mr Johnson's power to calm the constitutional waters.

As he assumes leadership of Brexit Britain, his words, actions and decisions will be decisive in determining how political divisions and differences are confronted.

Mr Johnson has within his gift the ability to shape or shatter the UK's political and constitutional landscape.

The scale of responsibility facing him and the UK body politic - at this critical moment - is colossal.

Mary C Murphy is a senior lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork and the author of Europe and Northern Ireland's Future: Negotiating Brexit's Unique Case.

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