So Brexit has happened. Fear, lies and stupidity won the day (although these were not only on the Leave side) and dangerous new forces of right-wing populism and English nationalism were unleashed in the British body politic. It was gratifying to see Northern Ireland voting by 56% to 44% to stay in Europe, which meant that a small but significant element of unionism supported Remain. However a large proportion of unionist-minded farmers voting to leave the entity which provides 87% of their income, and the DUP effectively campaigning for the break-up of Britain, defy all logic. But then Ulster Unionists have always had a deep nostalgia for a past of British imperial power, a great nation standing alone with a strong sense of its own identity, one that unionists identified with totally because their existence as a small, beleagured, colonial people depended on it.
The North is now left in a “horrendous bind”, in Fintan O’Toole’s words, “cut off from the rest of the island by a European border and with the UK melting around it. Its future as an unwanted appendage to a shrunken Britain is unsustainable.”¹
Many Irish republicans will rejoice in Britain’s difficulties, hoping in their hearts that the break-up of the United Kingdom will speed up an unlikely transition to Irish unity. If I came from the Bogside or Ballymurphy, which have felt the ruthless edge of British military occupation, I might be one of them. But I don’t and I’m not. I worry that this vote may signal the final end of a British social democratic consensus, now near its last gasp, which is 70 years old. I worry deeply about the rise of opportunistic and toxic figures like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, let alone some extremely unpleasant elements further to the right. The old British Labour values of solidarity, equality and decency have never been more in jeopardy.
Because I don’t hate Britain or England. I was born into Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan’s UK welfare state, son of a left-wing Czech refugee father and a Northern Irish mother. I was raised largely in England, cared for by a free health service – the marvel of the Western world – and prepared for adulthood by a free secondary education system. As a teenager I was out canvassing for a Labour Party which promised greater redistribution of income to people of modest means, free third level education for their children and the ‘white heat’ of Tony Benn’s technological revolution. That was in 1964, at a time when universal free second level education had not yet been achieved by the Republic of Ireland, which four decades earlier had opted for an inward-looking, impecunious and church-dominated form of limited independence rather than Connolly’s socialist vision. I believe that British social democracy in the 1940s and then again in the 1960s was as close to the ‘good society’ as these islands have ever come.
In a powerful short address from the stage of the Abbey Theatre in January 2014 at the end of James Plunkett’s play about the 1913 Lock-out, The Risen People, the historian of that emblematic event, Padraig Yeates (himself the son of poor Dublin working class parents who had been forced to emigrate to Britain), called for a return to the values not of 1913 Ireland, not of the 1916 Rising, but of late 1940s Britain and Europe. “I don’t believe we have much of a future unless we make our starting point the sort of social solidarity values that made post-war Europe a better place…Is it being too ambitious to hope that we can at least guarantee our children and grandchildren the same basic rights and opportunities I grew up with in post-war Britain almost 70 years ago? James Plunkett shared those solidarity values: what I suppose we can christen the values of the welfare state. If we are to challenge the rule of Murphyism [called after the 1913 employers leader, which Yeates equated with contemporary neo-liberalism], we have to have the courage to demand the basic requirements of any civilised society: free health care, free education, free childcare, a secure roof over our heads, decent job opportunities and a pension we can live on in old age. We also have to be willing to pay the price to achieve them. This is hardly Larkin’s New Jerusalem, but it would better than life in the cellars of the new Babylon.”²
For despite the large working class vote in England and Wales outside London for Brexit, the likely next prime minister, Boris Johnston and his ilk offer only an intensified version of this new Babylon. To quote O’Toole again:”Those who will take over from David Cameron will be right-wing market fundamentalists whose policies will deepen the very inequalities and alienation that have driven working class voters towards Leave.”³
I love Ireland – that doesn’t mean I have to hate England. I don’t want to see the far right in power in Britain. I don’t want to see the dismantling and privatisation of the National Health Service. I don’t want to see the decline of London as one of the world’s greatest and most successfully multicultural cities. I don’t want to see the British values of fair-mindedness and tolerance savaged by xenophobic nationalism. I don’t want to see these islands divided acrimoniously into a ferret’s hole of squabbling mini-states (ourselves included). In Europe I don’t want to see far right eurosceptic parties in France, Holland and Denmark following the UK’s example and demanding ‘in-out’ referenda. I fear all of these things may on the cards in the next decade following this fateful referendum.
PS Next month’s blog will be a little different. In the first fortnight of July (1st-16th) I will be walking from Belfast to Dublin, using paths and back roads, and talking to people along the way. Why? Firstly, I hope to write a book about my cross-border journey. Secondly, I want to raise funds for two charities working with homeless people: Depaul in Dublin and Belfast Central Mission(BCM) in Belfast. I will be giving my first impressions of this walk – starting eight days after the Brexit vote – in my July blog.
If you would like to support my walk by donating a small amount to either of these charities, I would be really grateful. If you want to donate to Depaul (in €), please use http://www.everydayhero.com/ie (find a supporter>andy pollak>give now). If you want to donate to BCM (in £ or €), please use www.justgiving.com (search for a charity, friend or project>andy pollak>donate). Many thanks to people who have already donated.
- ‘Brexit is driven by English Nationalism – and it will end in self-rule, Observer, 19 June