The UK political class struggles to conceive of what a multinational state actually meansby Matthew O'Toole / May 21, 2019 / Leave a comment
The word “Brexit” has caused problems even as the act of Brexit has been stifled.The success of the mindlessly circular and self-defeating mantra “Brexit means Brexit” was the first sign that the mystical energy of the word would come to overpower the actual practice of leaving the European Union.
But worse than the riddle-like quality of the term is the deceptiveness of its component parts—Britain and exit. Especially the first part. As we know, Britain has not yet exited. The primary reason for this is a misunderstanding over what Britain is. Much of the discourse in London—whether in parliament or the media, among Remainers and Leavers alike—rests on the assumption of a coherent and unitary nation state named Britain. This entity is ascribed with qualities both negative and positive. Britain has always had problems with European integration, we are told. But Britain punched above its weight thanks to EU membership, it is also argued.
These sentiments may be true. But they usually ignore the single most distinctive thing about the state: that it is a union of nations with institutions and identities that are profoundly distinct from one another. No other EU member state fields multiple national football teams. None have multiple national churches. For anyone who thinks such matters of national identity are irrelevant to high politics, I have a movie I’d like you to watch: it’s called The Last Five Years.
It is now nearly half a decade since Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom. Having had roles in the UK government campaigns in both the Scottish referendum in 2014, and the EU referendum in 2016, I am often struck by how rarely the two are discussed alongside one another. The currents of identity and nationhood that inform both—in different ways—are linked because they share this island. But it is extraordinary how UK elites have become so blind to the ways their politics are shaped by the existence of separate national realities and psychologies inside the state they think they run.
If the Scottish National Party had not had a post-independence referendum surge in electoral support, it would not have been able to liquidate Scottish Labour in the 2015 UK general election. And David Cameron would not have been able to subtly appeal to English nationalism in that same election, with…