Conflict is at the core of the UK’s historical development, and bad government is nothing new. Throughout the nation’s history the same perennial bones of contention keep recurring, and successive Westminster governments have failed to settle them. This is demonstrated once again by the way the continually unfolding Brexit fiasco has reopened old wounds.
I don’t know when the myth arose that the UK is a ‘stable democracy’. It was probably during the 19th century and up to 1914, when the nation basked in imperial “glory”, while Europe was riven with nationalist movements that led to the break-up of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires; or perhaps later, during one of the two world wars.
But the UK is neither very stable nor is it fully democratic. A non-elected Upper House, the first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP) and abuses of the royal prerogative show that the democratisation process inaugurated in 1832 by the Great Reform Bill has not been completed. What is more, the Johnson government’s agenda features measures which will further weaken our democracy.
As to our stability, the UK or England has been at war with itself on numerous occasions. In the Middle Ages, under Norman and Plantagenet rule, brother fought brother or sister, cousin fought cousin, father fought son, then came the bloodbath of the Wars of the Roses (1455-87). A gigantic family quarrel within the reigning family that makes the spat between the current heir to the throne and his brother look like a bun fight.
In the 17th century conflict centered on two issues that have not lost their relevance today: religion and the rivalry between the crown and parliament. Starting in the second half of the 18th century, things got quieter on the domestic front only when the UK exported its violence to the rest of the world in the form of colonialism.
With decolonisation safely behind it, can it be said that the UK is at last stable? Not entirely: the arbitrary workings of FPTP mean that governments with overwhelming majorities are frequent. This has led to the unaccountability and arrogance of ‘elective dictatorship’, with such fiascos as the second Iraqi war, the Poll Tax and, of course, the mishandling of the Covid outbreak and of the Brexit negotiations.
Radical reversals in the political hue of governments have given rise to destabilising policy reversals, wasting enormous amounts of time and resources. The oscillations between nationalisation under Labour and privatisation under the Conservatives (and, sometimes, Labour) is a clear example of this. Brexit, reversing the referendum result of 1975, is another.
This lurching between opposing policies finds its pre-echo in the fate of England after the Reformation, whereby Henry VIII’s break with Rome was reversed when his daughter Mary became queen, after which his other daughter, Elizabeth I, reintroduced a moderate form of Protestantism, that was later reversed once again by the Catholic, James II. He, in turn, was ousted by a Protestant prince, William of Orange.
In all periods when the UK public has faced domestic turbulence, the same themes keep recurring: turf wars between the Crown and Parliament; the excesses of a widely detested favourite of the King (or PM); Anglo-Scottish tensions; the eternal Irish question and, closely connected, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. None of these conflicts has yet been fully resolved, a resounding indictment of how successive Westminster governments have failed to learn from their mistakes.
This explains how the conflict between Leave and Remain can contain within itself many of these all-too familiar themes, to wit:
Crown versus Parliament
Since its inception in the 13th century, Parliament has clashed with the monarchy. This led to civil war in the 17th century. Then the conflicts abated as the UK gradually evolved into an oligarchy presided over by a monarchy. The monarchy has retained much of its prerogative in theory, though nowadays this is wielded by the government on behalf of the sovereign.
This has led to abuses under the premierships of Theresa May and Boris Johnson, some of which were thwarted by the courts. In the UK there is no overarching constitution that governs the relationship between the crown and parliament. Instead, the business of governance is based on precedence and custom, ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ that work only if the political class is made up of gentlemen, which is no longer the case. Instead, unscrupulous politicians exploit the vagueness of our unwritten (recte: non-existent) constitution to satisfy their ambitions.
The medieval and Stuart monarchs often relied on advice from favourites who were unpopular in the country. Figures such as Dominic Cummings and Lord Frost belong to a line of unelected advisers stretching back to Archbishop Laud, Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford and George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham under the Stuarts; and Hugh le Despenser the Younger and Piers Gaveston under the Plantagenets. All were widely loathed but all, during their heyday, had the sovereign/PM’s ear, and all (with the exception, so far, of Lord Frost) came to a sticky end.
In the past, the fact that these advisers and favourites were unelected was not a significant factor in their unpopularity. Nowadays, however, when we at least pretend to be living in a democracy, we should be more concerned that an unelected official is allowed so much influence. Perhaps if the Upper House were democratically elected, the Brexit negotiations would have fared better?
Over the centuries, England’s relationship with its neighbours has been largely dysfunctional. Scotland, both then and now, has often felt closer to France and the continent than to its neighbour to the south. In Anglo-Scottish dealings, religion became intertwined with politics. The Civil War of 1642-51 was ignited in part because William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, attempted to impose a High Anglican version of the English Book of Common Prayer on the Scots, who responded by rebelling. Charles I then turned to the English parliament to ask for funds to finance a war with Scotland, but he was refused.
Brexit has likewise triggered a Scottish revolt. A majority of Scots voted in favour of remaining in the EU but have been dragged out of it against their will, thereby fuelling the Scottish independence movement.
Ireland: Catholic-Protestant rivalry
England’s treatment of Ireland over the centuries probably surpasses its treatment of Scotland in terms of brutality. In the 17th century Protestants in England hated and feared catholicism in a way that may seem to us exaggerated, but was understandable given recent events such as the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder plot. Today Brussels has replaced Rome as the favourite bugbear, but with less justification.
Undoubtedly, Protestants’ notion of their own superiority provided motivation and a pretext for the repeated attempts by England to subjugate the island of Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA), in which the EU played an indispensable role, promised to break a cycle of conflict that had dogged the island for centuries.
Then came Brexit. The end of freedom of movement and frictionless trade between mainland Britain, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has left politicians trying in vain to forge an agreement that respects the GFA in a manner consistent with a hard Brexit.
It cannot be done, and we must all wait patiently until Emperor Boris realises he has no clothes and either exits the stage, is ejected from it or dresses in full view of the public. However, the residents of Northern Ireland are unlikely to remain patient for much longer. The GFA is in danger.
Old wounds re-opened
Brexit has re-opened old wounds, reigniting historic quarrels which had been dying down. It has also divided families, as did the Civil War of the 17th century when, for example, different members of the aristocratic Verney family agonised about which side they should join and found themselves on opposite sides (Adrian Tinniswood, The Verneys: a True Story of Love, War, and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England.)
Brexit has dealt a hard blow to the UK’s reputation (not always well-deserved) as a pragmatic, sensible sort of place. Any future reversal of recent Brexit decisions will fail unless the UK can also fix the perennial issues that resurfaced with Brexit: the electoral system, the problem of unelected advisers, the role of the crown, England’s relationship with its neighbours and the political and religious problems in Northern Ireland. Can the UK learn to re-read its own history?
It is a tall order, but one that could be achieved if enough Britons can come to understand how all these problems are interrelated. The future wellbeing of the UK depends on its ability to join the dots and finally prove that it is indeed possible to learn from past mistakes.