Brexit is a tale of two unions. Attention has been on the first, the European Union, and attempts by Boris Johnson to engineer what tabloids in a different context would call a “messy” divorce. Thus free, he could consummate his latest infatuation with Donald Trump.
Johnson is busy painting himself as a heroic, resilient figure in the manner of Gloria Gaynor singing “I Will Survive”. But will our country survive him? For there is another union threatened by Brexit, the union between four nations which, in more innocent times, went by the married name of “the United Kingdom”.
At least two of those nations are falling out of love with the partnership. While England’s adultery with no deal will be cited in any divorce petition, the underlying cause of the rift – as in so many unsuccessful marriages – is neglect.
Scotland is increasingly aware that Johnson simply doesn’t care if it leaves. Indeed, members of the so-called Conservative and Unionist Party have expressly said that the end of our three centuries old-union is a price worth paying for their blind infatuation with Brexit. While the Scottish National Party (SNP) likes to fulminate against Johnson, privately Nicola Sturgeon must be dancing a jig of joy: since 62 per cent of Scots voters rejected Brexit, Johnson’s breezy, careless English nationalism is the greatest recruiting sergeant for Scottish nationalism since the Highland clearances.
In Northern Ireland, the Westminster government is planning to draft in mainland police to guard a border many thought redundant. Simon Byrne, chief constable of Northern Ireland, warns that republican terrorists will exploit Brexit: ten terrorist attacks have been averted recently. And support for a new referendum on prospects for a united island of Ireland, with Northern Ireland ceding from the United Kingdom, is now increasing.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has effectively offered the SNP a second referendum on independence if they help to instal him in No 10. We know Corbyn doesn’t really oppose Brexit, and suspect he secretly wants it – so he can blame the Conservatives for the resulting carnage. Now, it appears Corbyn doesn’t even care about the United Kingdom.
Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, is right to warn that Brexit threatens the very existence of the UK. And this, I believe, is what Remainers should now emphasise.
In any election, I’m confident the resurgent Liberal Democrats will prosper as the only major party fighting for Remain. But against a historically unpopular leader of the opposition, who still can’t answer whether he supports or opposes Brexit, Johnson and the Conservatives could still do worryingly well. Sure, opinion polls show growing opposition to a no-deal Brexit, but is that issue enough to be decisive? A sizeable section of the electorate has been assured by Michael Gove, the new architect of no deal, that there will be nothing more inconvenient than a few bumps in the crash-out road – in stark contradiction to the Yellowhammer report he himself commissioned. Nevertheless, the Conservatives’ poll rating has risen.
As the largest pro-Remain party, the Liberal Democrats will continue to call out the Brexit lies. But we need to recognise that a sizeable section of the electorate is Brexit-weary, wants it all over by Christmas and mistakenly believes that no deal offers an early end to this crisis. So we need to open up a second front: stop Brexit to save the United Kingdom.
Polls already suggest a sizeable minority of Conservative voters put keeping Scotland in the United Kingdom before Brexit. Even more might back a clarion call to “save the United Kingdom” if it also meant avoiding the real risk of a return to terrorist violence in Northern Ireland, and stopping the United Kingdom being reduced to the Union of England and Wales.
The union that is the United Kingdom has been extraordinarily successful. Our British family has cooperated brilliantly, working together with shared goals and values, to make a unique four-country multinational success. It is vital we save this union from Johnson’s Brexiteers, who clearly don’t value Britishness despite their protestations.
And our other union – the European Union – is remarkably successful too – in the terms it has been created, for international prosperity and peace. It’s a union highly valued in Scotland and Northern Ireland, if less so by English nationalists. Yet there are British people who are English too and who value being part of Europe.
Alone, outside the EU, our United Kingdom might just survive or, more likely, it might break up. Either way, it will be a less prosperous and less happy union. That’s why we should stop singing “I Will Survive”, in favour of another Seventies pop anthem: “Let’s Stick Together”.
Ed Davey is Liberal Democrat MP for Kingston and Surbiton. He is the party’s Treasury spokesperson
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