OPINION POLITICO EUROPE
Stand by for ‘Brexit’
The political destinies of Scotland, England, and London point in different directions.
The union of the United Kingdom is no more. And the union of the United Kingdom with 27 other European states now comes under serious question. Europe wakes up to its nightmare on Downing Street – the return of a prime minister who is committed to holding an In-Out referendum by 2017. That year sees key elections in Germany and France and, in passing, the 60th anniversary of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the founding moment of today’s European Union.
Will Britain still be in the EU to share the 60th anniversary celebrations? Or will 2017 mark the beginning of the end of European integration as the British turn their backs on Europe, thereby encouraging other disintegrative nationalisms to turn the EU into a giant centrifuge forcing its component elements ever further apart?
The British election is the triumph of three nationalisms. Scottish nationalism has destroyed all hopes of the Labour Party returning to power. Major Labour MPs, including the cerebral shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, have been defeated. Alexander lost to a 20-year-old student standing for the Scottish National Party, which has won nearly every seat in Scotland.
In England, David Cameron’s carefully crafted appeal to English identity has helped the Conservatives. Tory seats that had been won by the Liberal Democrat party from the 1980s onwards have now returned to the fold, and most Liberal Democratic cabinet ministers in the outgoing Conservative-LibDem coalition will lose their seats.
Cameron stole the flagship policy of the nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which has long campaigned for a referendum to allow Britain to leave the EU. After the Scottish referendum in September – a false dawn for what might be called “the Queen’s party,” those who believe in the sanctity of the union of the United Kingdom – Mr. Cameron insisted that non-English MPs should not be allowed to vote on the same basis as English MPs on legislation applying to England but not to Scotland or Wales.
What Cameron was suggesting was, in effect, dividing the House of Commons into English, Scottish and Welsh sections, signaling the end of a unitary legislature and the beginning of an English political identity in place of a British one.
London has been conquered by the Labour Party, which won Tory and Liberal Democrat seats in the city, small consolations for its wipe-out in Scotland . The ebullient mayor, Boris Johnson, has been elected to parliament, which will afford him time to prepare his bid to replace David Cameron after the promised referendum on EU membership. The next Mayor of London will almost certainly be Labour.
UKIP has not made any major parliamentary breakthroughs. The insurgent party has never claimed to be a party of government, always ruthlessly focused on finding new support for its anti-EU line. But it is expected to make gains among the ranks of newly elected municipal councillors, thus creating a full-time network of elected officials who can campaign for a Brexit.
Ed Miliband’s five weeks of campaigning were better than his five years as Labour Party leader. He sought to bring a post-Blair leftism to life, but in doing so, lost touch with millions of small business owners whose votes he desperately needed.
The big loser is Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democratic leader who led his passionately anti-Conservative Party right into a coalition with David Cameron’s Tories. The LibDems were the lipstick painted on the face of a traditionally right-wing government and have paid a price for turning their coats. “England does not love coalitions,” Benjamin Disraeli once said. The old adage still rings true.
The political destinies of Scotland, England, and London point in different directions. Cameron may yet have to find allies to create a working majority, but he, along with the SNP, are the clear winners.
The losers, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, were the flag-bearers of Europeanism in British politics. The SNP says it is pro-EU, paradoxically supporting the UK’s union with Europe while seeking to break apart from the UK itself.
Cameron will have to move forward with his referendum promise. Unlike many of his MPs, Cameron says he wants to stay in the EU but in a “reformed Europe.”
He has called for changes in existing EU Treaties, but European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has ruled out any new treaty this decade. EU Council President Donald Tusk is not likely to make concessions that deny the right of free movement to his fellow Poles.
Conservatives have called for Britain to be able to control the number of EU citizens living and working within its borders, and many pro-Tory business leaders insist that EU-wide social regulations should not apply to Britain. This will encourage Labour and trade union opposition to any deal Cameron brings home for ratification.
Cameron has already announced that he will stand down as prime minister after 2017. “I am more Euroskeptic than you imagine,” he told me in 2005. The top Tories, who have already started jockeying to succeed him, are overtly Euroskeptic. Mayor Boris Johnson boasts that Britain “will flourish outside the EU.”
The UK’s political jigsaw has broken apart and the new pieces have yet to be crafted. The rest of Europe, Washington, and Moscow should all begin thinking hard about the possibility, even the probability, that Britain will vote to leave the EU. The EU has not yet been able to find a solution to its Greek question, so how will it answer the English question?
Denis MacShane is a former British Labour MP and Minister for Europe and author ofBrexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe (IB Tauris).