This month’s Platinum Jubilee was a celebration of permanence. Seventy years on the throne by the same Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Union Jack adorned the streets as an emblem of this Union, combining the crosses of the patron saints of England, Scotland and Ireland. There is no depiction of St David on the flag – a reminder that Wales was often also raced in the great UK constitutional debate.
The UK is still evolving today.
In Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, the ties that unite us are increasingly strained.
The national anthem hopes the Queen will be “long to reign over us” but there is no God-given reason why she or her heirs should end up reigning over the same geographic or political entity.
Queen Victoria was an empress. As the heads of government of this former empire travel to Rwanda this weekend for their biannual summit, they no longer attach the word ‘British’ to the Commonwealth and only allow Elizabeth II to be its nominal head by invitation. and not by right.
At this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, the nations that make up Britain’s Olympic team will compete, as they do in football internationals.
The UK and UK identities are relatively recent historical innovations. The Scottish and English monarchies combined in 1603. The Act of Union between the two countries came 100 years later. Northern Ireland came into existence a century ago when parts of the island of Ireland gained independence. Devolved governments were not established for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland until the Blair government at the start of this century.
From Owen Glyndwr and Robert the Bruce to the IRA, none of these changes have come without violence.
How Brexit has exacerbated divisions
The task of maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom falls to the government based in England and dominated by English politics because England eclipses other nations. The English electorate represented 83.9% of the UK total at the last general election in 2019. In the Commons, 533 MPs represent English constituencies compared to 117 for other nations.
The second referendum on UK membership of the European Union in June 2016, six years ago next week, was sparked by unrest in England’s Conservative Party and divisiveness on the political right English.
The desire was to regain control, reputedly lost to the supranational power of the European Union. England and Wales voted to leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by larger margins to stay. The UK “Brexit” of the EU.
This clear divergence of opinions has exacerbated the divisions within the Union.
This week the SNP and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon relaunched their campaign for a second independence referendum with an online video against “a damaging Brexit that Scotland overwhelmingly voted against”.
Meanwhile, the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland has come to a halt due to inherent contradictions in the protocol Boris Johnson agreed with the EU to ‘get Brexit done’.
The protocol problem
The Belfast Agreement was endorsed on Good Friday 1998 by the UK and Irish governments and most of Northern Ireland’s major political parties (the DUP did not intervene until later).
The US and the EU have been very active in the background as guarantors. By mutual agreement, the rapprochement between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland happened because they were both members of the EU. Recognition of the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights is included in the treaty.
The UK has withdrawn from the EU and the UK government is proposing unilateral changes to the implementation of the protocol and, now due to its difficulties in sending migrants to Rwanda, to the ECHR as well. This government bridles international agreements and arbitrators can influence its actions even when they cross international borders.
The Northern Ireland Protocol came about because the Westminster government paid little heed to the province’s demands during the Brexit negotiations. At the last minute, they attempted to square the circle.
Northern Ireland remains within the EU for trade purposes, thus obviating the need for a ‘hard border’ between North and South, but inevitably creating a sort of trade border with the island of Great Britain. Britain, as it is now in a different trading bloc (having chosen to leave the EU).
The Unionist parties are absolutely right to say that a border separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK is a breach of the Good Friday Agreement’s commitment to mutual respect for the two communities, which each could identify with Ireland or the UK without hindrance. But the practicalities of Brexit make that impossible.
Sinn Fein, representing a united Ireland, is now the largest party in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Both nations hold proportional representation elections – anathema to Westminster Conservatives whose majority hegemony depends on a divided opposition in a first-past-the-post system.
Meanwhile, the SNP argues that sticking to the small union of the UK, long stripped of the glories of empire, now deprives Scotland of the benefits of joining a larger union with the UK. Europe. His new campaign argues that smaller nations within the EU are wealthier, happier and fairer than the UK.
Boris Johnson’s ‘Project Love’ response is more government from the center and underlines that Scotland is doing relatively well with Her Majesty’s Treasury coffers.
Is patience in unity running out?
Opinion polls clearly show that there is not yet a majority for a breakaway in Northern Ireland or Scotland. There are good financial reasons for this, although minority separatist sentiment is also growing in Wales.
Meanwhile, English voters, especially the Tories, are losing patience; they tell the polls they are indifferent whether Northern Ireland or Scotland stay or leave.
Read more from Adam Boulton:
The slow death of Prime Ministers and what awaits Boris Johnson
When the UK was a member, the EU was a glue that held the Union together. It has always opposed separatist movements within its Member States, while encouraging a “Europe of the regions” and more than sixty languages, as a federal insurance policy.
There are no signs of practical action against the UK from the EU, but it is uncomfortable to see that supporting the Union is no longer in the EU’s strategic interest – especially if Scotland or a united Ireland, for example, are potential member states.
It would be unwise to bet on all the original nations still being part of this United Kingdom, as it is, on the platinum anniversary 70 years from now.
Adam Boulton writes a column every Friday for Sky News
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