Chris Farrands was my director of studies in the PhD programme at Nottingham Trent University, between 2006 and 2011. Our relationship meant many meetings in Nottingham, Izmir, Edinburgh or Bucharest. Chris is not only ”a great teacher”, but also a great friend. That is, until our conversations go into international politics, especially British and European Union politics. He knows so many details, deriving from such a vast personal experience that he overwhelms the audience. The interview with Chris, published by Veridica in two episodes, demonstrates all these aspects and it is, in my opinion, the richest and densest media text on Brexit published în Romania and, perhaps, beyond. The first part dealt with the economic consequences of Brexit for Britain and the second part explores the more delicate topic concerning Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in the context. (Dragoş C. Mateescu)
Veridica: One of the threats for London after Brexit is the possible end of the Union between England and Scotland inaugurated in the Acts of Union 1706-7. The Northern Ireland issue also remains sensitive. What are the implications of the issues Brexit raises in Scotland and the Northern Ireland for London and the cohesion of the UK? And what are the implications in Ireland for both the North and the Republic?
Chris Farrands: This question concerns the cohesion of the UK as a state. The Act of Union of 1707 followed a financial crisis in Scotland (over an imperial scandal, the failed Darien Venture, in central America). Scottish capital markets were undeveloped and not able to cover the huge losses, but London, with a newly created and resourceful Bank of England, was able to take over the debts, and in the process buy the Scottish Parliament’s support for a Union of the two countries which had been under the one Crown since 1603. When the new devolved Edinburgh Parliament met for the first time on 12 May 1999, Madame Speaker welcomed members to the ‘resumption of the session of the Parliament of Scotland’ following its ‘temporary’ suspension 292 years before. The fact is that the UK has always been a devolved state in law and in education policy, and that was further emphasised by the formation of a separate Parliamentary assembly in Northern Ireland on the partition of Ireland in 1921. But federalism as a system for managing devolution has been rejected by London, so there is a fluid relationship resting, like much of the British constitution, on unspoken assumptions.
The Union with Scotland, between the pro-independence movement and the old imperial ties
Brexit, as I think is commonly recognised, greatly increases the pressure for greater devolution or for independence in Scotland, and has strongly promoted pressures for the unification of Ireland for many people on both sides of the border. During the Brexit negotiations in 2019 and 2020, it was quite common for both ordinary and more influential Brexit supporters to assert that the break-up of the Union would be a price worth paying if it ensured that a complete break with the EU would be achieved. Letters in The Times, contributions to the right wing Spectator, and, even more, populist journalists in the Daily Express all made this point.
It is however also true that the Union has, however poorly defined, much stronger fundamental roots than this rather casual idea -or casual support for English ‘independence’- imagines. It was for the United Kingdom that so many people died in both world wars, it is to its flag that many people look, and it is its monarch that the vast majority of people respect and admire. This may be largely an emotional attachment, but it is deep rooted. And those attitudes are not limited to the English. Irish, Welsh and Scottish men died in numbers in all of Britain’s imperial wars as well as the great conflicts of the twentieth century. The De Valera government in Dublin may have tried to pretend it didn’t happen, but even after the Republic was formed, 56,000 Irish citizens joined the British armed forces in the Second World War, and participation in the armed forces among northern Irish Protestants was a higher proportion than any other part of the UK. These attachments are not dead or forgotten. But their current ramifications are difficult to untangle except to suggest that the Union is more resilient than immediate appearances and opinion polling might suggest.
All the same, the SNP are the most solidly established Party in Scotland, now polling either just above or just below 50% of all voters, and holding a strong position among the newly enfranchised 16-18 year old group. Alternate neglect and arrogant intervention from London has been the hallmark of government policy since the financial crisis of 2007. An independent Scotland would be roughly the same size, have the same resources (including energy production), the same population, and the same technological strengths as Denmark. The model is important -Denmark is often cited as one of the ‘happiest’ countries in the world, although its recent right-wing governments have done things the more leftish-inclined SNP might reject. Denmark has also dealt in relatively equanimous style with a much larger southern neighbour. More generally, we might observe that all of the UK is in important respects a Scandinavian country: its law courts, elections, juries, parliamentary practice and sense of voluntarism, as well as its claimed love of individual freedoms, have much more in common with Scandinavian tradition derived from Viking ancestries than with the inherited traditions of Napoleonic or feudal continental Europe. ‘Parliament’, despite the French origins of its title, was always rather closer to the Scandinavian ‘althing’ than Francophile historians admitted. That very British sense of (to quote a song from Groucho Marx) ‘whatever it is, I’m against it’ certainly underpinned some of the voting in the EU Referendum in June 2016, and it carries over to the Union in Scotland for many people. These values long predate Brexit, but they remain as a subterranean layer of belief which subverts both the claims of establishment politicians and movements for reform in the working of the Union.
Brexit, a threat for the Good Friday Agreement
I suspect, and you can tell that this is a more cautious assessment, that the Union with Scotland is more resilient than is sometimes seen, although it is certainly not unbreakable. Contemplating the difficulties of making an open border work between the two parts of Ireland does not make the prospects of a border at Hadrian’s Wall seem more workable for a start. But at the same time, I believe that the connection with Northern Ireland is much more vulnerable. Ireland has been subject to serious British government neglect since 1921. Having got over the previous century of bitter conflict, shrugging the Republic off seemed to Whitehall to have got rid of a problem. That the process condemned Eire to seventy years of catholic obscurantism and domination by a political elite of leaders who hated each other for reasons they could not describe coherently to anybody who had not lived through the civil war of 1922-3 which established the Republic simply didn’t matter in London. That the process also condemned the Catholic minority in the North to an Orange Supremacy which used legal and violent means to dictate inferiority in housing, education, access to jobs and access to civil rights mattered no more.
It was only when the civil rights movement, taking a lead from the United States, blossomed in the North in the 1960s, and then when EU membership and the immense scandals of Catholic child abuse brought the Republic out from obscurantism to new development and newly invigorated cultural growth, that this started to change. All this is to emphasise the historical importance of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998: it was not a short-term pragmatic sanction. It was a fundamental shift in pace, tone and scope of political and social arrangements on both sides of the border. The GFA was decisively not only a London-Dublin deal. It engaged all the parties in the North, of course; but it was also rooted in EU membership, and in a close cooperation with the United States. President Clinton provided a Senator and close colleague, George Michell, to chair the whole process, and at crucial stages of the negotiations both Clinton and senior EU leaders were continuously on the phone to participants in the talks working to promote and sustain the settlement. So the final deal absolutely depended on those EU and US roles. It opened up the society as well as the economy, and altered political and legal arrangements on both sides.
If Brexit threatens this, and especially if the consequences of the protocol break down still very tender forms of cooperation among communities in the North, Brexit will have unforgivably reopened raw wounds and undermined the prospects for prosperity. Those rest to a considerable extent on the ability to attract inward investment, which ongoing uncertainty and under-the-table violence repels. Underlying all this is the profound neglect and ignorance of Northern Ireland across much of the British elite, excepting just a few. In particular, former minister Rory Stewart and the recent Secretary of State, Julian Smith, who had both been soldiers, and Smith having as Conservative Chief Whip spent a lot of time talking to all sides in Ulster before he took office. Smith understood the complex tangle of issues very well. Smith was however sacked by Prime Minister Johnson precisely because his concern with the province was seen in some ways as an obstruction to ‘getting Brexit done’. The loud clucking of Smith’s chickens coming home to roost continues to resonate across Whitehall today.
The most important factor in Northern Ireland is however demographic. The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum on Irish unification if it appears that a majority in the province might support it. How that ‘appearance’ is to be assessed lies formally with the Secretary of State, although, of course, in practice that is to say with the Prime Minister. When the ‘Troubles’ started in 1969 (more truthfully, Ireland has not been untroubled for centuries), Catholics made up about 40% of the population, and the measures of the Orange Supremacy were imposed all the more strictly to keep that growing population down. The border of the six counties had been carefully drawn to enshrine a Protestant majority. The Catholic population has been growing, partly due to inward migration from the south in pursuit of jobs, and also because of migration from the north and differential birth rates. Census figures now estimate that Catholics make up around 49%, and it is accepted on all sides that there will soon be an outright catholic majority. Furthermore, the Protestant community is no longer absolutely unionist, and parties such as the Alliance Party have formed at the political centre of the Province who might well accept some form of unification with the South if it was negotiated by consent. The separation of 1921 was never assumed to be set for ever in stone, even among the most intransigent unionists. It now appears that although it might take some time, the unification of the two parts of Ireland by peaceful consent under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement is likely (which is why a few extreme unionists, including the paramilitaries and the new Traditional Ulster Voice Party, are anxious to wreck that Agreement). The effect of Brexit can therefore be seen as a further accelerant rather than a fundamental cause of final unification in Ireland, should it occur. It should be added that if Scotland does leave the Union, which would very much depend on whether or not London allows it to happen, since legally the UK government holds key cards in that process, that too will help promote speedier Irish unification.
Wales stays in the UK, for now
More as an aside, one might add that although support for Welsh independence has grown remarkably during the Brexit debate and the pandemic, it is not (yet) a major issue. Nationalists will tell us that support has trebled; but that is from 5% to about 15% in the last three years. Disentangling Wales from the English economy would be much more difficult even than Scotland. But the biggest problem is cultural. On the one hand cultural identity is the critical root of Welsh nationalism in a way it is not in Scotland, or even in Ireland. But at the same time, Welsh identities are torn for historic reasons reaching back into the post-Roman past. The division is three way: between the south, industrial, with much the greatest population, and now with some Welsh speakers; the west, largely agricultural, but with a fierce and deeply rooted Welsh language tradition; and the north, where a rather different Welsh is spoken (and pronounced quite differently), and with its own sense of identity. Nearly all schoolchildren in Wales now learn the language at school, but only about 30% of the population normally use it in daily life. The splits between the separate regions, the contempt of some patriotic Welsh non-speakers for what they see as the sentimental romanticism of their nationalist countrymen, and the economic and management issues of separating Wales from England (the formal connection dates legally back to the 1530s) all make independence unlikely and distant. The most likely cause of a change would be that continuing neglect and carelessness in London which has already driven the growth of Scots and Irish assertiveness.
Brexit’s impact on public administration
What has been the impact of Brexit on public administration? That is a question you have not asked, but since it shapes how the state behaves and what political choices are possible, I will comment briefly. Brexit has had a catastrophic impact on the tradition of professional civil service in the UK at national level and to a lesser extent at local level. ‘To a lesser extent’ at local level because central governments have progressively stripped local government of real powers and funding over the past twenty years of more. The impact of Brexit on the national civil service has been traumatic and difficult. It has come on top of other factors which together amount to a serial effort by political leaderships of all three parties (Labour; Conservative; but also the Liberal Democrats in coalition from 2010-2015) to weaken the traditional roles of a professional civil service which had been established in the mid 19th century. The increasing use of special advisors (‘Spads’) imported from outside, in the Tory case mostly from right wing think tanks in the UK or US, has been a key factor. So too the systematic use of media management and Cabinet committee structures to outflank what Michael Gove, then a leading figure in the Brexit campaign and now minister for, among other things, the civil service, called ‘misleading or unnecessary experts’.
The government has now become completely accustomed to ignoring civil service advice, as it did when told its legislation was unlawful (twice), when told its policies on Northern Ireland risked the peace settlement there, and when told repeatedly its migration policies were both unlawful and a breach of international agreements on human rights. In the process, Prime Minister Johnson has removed or forced to resign six permanent secretaries (heads of the civil service in respective ministries) including the head of the civil service as a whole. Lower down, many civil servants, notably in the Department of Work and Pensions, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the International Trade ministry have fled in the face of ministers’ intransigent demands to effect policies which would either be harmful or simply not achieve the outcomes at which they aimed. One friend involved in international trade negotiations described that department as ‘chaotic and dysfunctional’, with no understanding among SPADs of the issues they tried to dictate strategy on. The Justice Department has lost many of its legal advisors, who can easily move back into legal practice rather than serve a government with a deeply cavalier attitude towards following the law. These are issues virtually nobody cares about outside government, but it is important to note that the relationship between ministers and civil servants, once one of the proud standard bearers of the British Constitution, has partially dissolved. Specialist groups such as the Institute for Government have spent a great deal of energy studying and trying to understand the impacts on the culture of government as well as on formal relationships. Although there are certainly good reasons to bring more people from diverse backgrounds, especially scientific work, into government to broaden the competence of the officials, what is actually happening is more simply a politicisation of the administration of government on a quasi-American model. Although it does not go nearly as far as Washington habitually does, it is being done without serious reflection on its impact on the balance of responsibilities and roles in Whitehall. Beyond creating a very large number of unhappy officials, it is undermining the cohesion of government, especially in some ministries, but to some degree affecting all. It is pervasive, and there is no reason to think that it will slow or be reversed, and the process of organising and managing Brexit has been a key element of it.
Brexit and the erosion of social cohesion
Finally, I address what I think is the most profound impact of Brexit on the United Kingdom, although I rather hope my view is mistaken. Given that Brexit is not ‘done’ as the government had promised it was, what have been its impacts on society? This is not a matter of party politics. In the early 2010s, then-Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron pursued a liberal agenda (sometimes summarised in the cliché ‘the Big Society’) while setting a radical right wing economic agenda; the also Conservative Johnson regime has reversed those priorities, pursuing a liberal Keynesian economic policy while flattering more socially conservative voters.
The Liberal party has switched between the two, while Labour has failed to make up its collective mind. What Brexit has done is to promote a social conservatism that is ferociously against immigrants and foreigners of all kinds, and against certain social reforms, while at the same time fully accepting changes in the acceptance of liberal sexual mores, and living with an openness to online behaviour that previous governments of all colours would have stamped on. What has changed is social cohesion. Brexit is not the only source of culture wars. Trumpery in the US, changes in media ownership and media style, the impact of conflicts in social media and the failure of both Labour and Conservative governments to meet the expectations they created among more excluded social groups, especially outside London, have all been factors. But Brexit has certainly mattered too.
‘Culture wars’ have been used to condemn or exclude not just the left, but also the centre right, and it is noticeable that both the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties have so far failed to rise to this challenge at all. Beyond what may seem a rather superficial concern, Brexit has had the effect of increasing the number of street attacks on individuals including refugees from the Middle East and Africa. It has caused more virulent assaults on people overheard speaking a foreign language -almost any language- on a bus or train. It has given those who might previously have kept racist or extreme nationalist views to themselves to come out on social media and in whatever public forum was available, including especially radio phone-ins on stations such as LBC. The transition from verbal violence to actual physical violence seems to have become easier, and for both men and women. This is not just a concern of the supposed ‘woke’: the police and security services as well as the managers of online space and broadcast producers see it as an ongoing issue which is a significant social change.
Social cohesion and established values including mutual respect and the sense of ‘decency’ which George Orwell saw as fundamental pillars of British identity in the 1930s and 1940s have been eroded, although they can still be found, most notably in some of the reactions to the pandemic. More bluntly, Brexit has made the UK a less pleasant place to live. While that is most obviously true for people of minority groups subject to racist or discriminatory abuse on public transport or in the street, it reaches across the society as a whole. It is not at all clear how it might be effectively resolved, despite the efforts of various groups, most publicly sportsmen and women, to reverse it.
In conclusion, my assessment is that Brexit has had powerfully negative effects on the UK, notwithstanding that there are also some opportunities and benefits, and despite the fact that many ordinary voters are pleased that their original choice in June 2016 has apparently been implemented after a series of struggles they could not understand very well. The proposed alternative, that it would be possible to create a ‘Global Britain’ to replace the ties to ‘Europe’, has so far proved to be a vacuous slogan with little substance or clear meaning. It was this which made the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ so potent. How much self-deception lies behind that ‘achievement’, and what it will then bring, remains to be seen.