So we all get a break over Christmas, take a deep breath, and then throw ourselves into ‘Getting Brexit Done’. But ‘Getting Brexit Done’ really means getting it started, and the reality of it will likely be sobering.
The principle of Brexit intrinsically strains the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But that is already priced into the politics of 2020. The reality of facing the hard details of Brexit, however, and keeping the United Kingdom together, let alone ‘releasing its mojo’, will be won or lost in the ‘fifth kingdom’.
For in truth, the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, formed by the 1800 Acts of Union, is in reality now a collection of five kingdoms – all apparently heading in different economic and social directions; Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, London, and ‘England Outside London’.
As the squeaky wheel gets oiled, both the Scottish and Irish independence questions are familiar to all. And yet, far and away the most important of the kingdoms is the one that for years, until recently, has been hiding in plain sight – the fifth kingdom. And insofar as 2019 will go down in history as the year of the ‘Brexit election’, it may also be seen as the turbulent political awakening of the UK’s fifth kingdom – the England Outside London that contains 71% of the UK’s total population, large swathes of which feel angry at globalisation and alienated from mainstream elite politics.
Addressing the House of Commons in 1919, Sir William Adkins remarked: “We had the case of Home Rule for Scotland presented with great charm … The arguments for Home Rule for Ireland are familiar to all of us. Is it not time that England and the case for its Home Rule was considered with equal care?” A century later, it still echoes – and yet the political awakening seen in 2019 was not really apparent even five years ago. The Brexit referendum unlocked it from its twentieth-century slumber.
It is well-understood that the UK’s Brexit decision of 2016 was overwhelmingly an English Brexit vote. And it was determined by the voters in England Outside London. In the 2016 referendum, Scotland voted by a majority of 24% to remain in the EU; Londoners by a majority of 20%; and Northern Ireland by a majority of 5%. Wales voted to leave by a majority of 5%, and England Outside London – the UK’s fifth kingdom – voted to leave by a majority of 11%, creating a Brexit majority of over 2.5 million people, given the disproportionate weight of its population. Even the Welsh leave vote was decisively tipped by the English incomers who had settled in the Welsh borders. At the time, Eurosceptic campaigners could hardly have realised they were tapping into something so essentially English. In the event, although the official British decision was marginal (52% to leave, 48% to remain), the England Outside London decision was overwhelming and proved decisive.
The fifth kingdom is a curious place. It makes up close on three quarters of the total population of the UK but evidently doesn’t feel as if it is treated as the majority part of the Union. That population will keep growing relative to the other four kingdoms of the UK. The big cities of England are buzzing – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – but their hinterlands are clearly depressed areas. The South-East and East Anglia are the only two regions in the whole of the UK, outside of London, to be net contributors to the economy – all the others are net consumers. The hourglass shape of the UK’s employment picture, the north-south economic divide (on the British mainland, leaving aside the economic challenges of the Irish divide), the social tensions created by an unbalanced British economy which sucks in foreign labour, locks in low productivity and static wage growth, limps along on inadequate investment and declining social provision, are all felt most acutely – and by a lot more people – in the fifth kingdom.
In one respect this should not be a surprise. It has been evident across Europe and the US for over a decade that globalisation put greatest pressure on unskilled, semi-skilled and clerical workers in rich countries; pressures that were considerably ramped up in the UK by austerity policies after 2008. Well-intentioned regional development schemes to mitigate the effects invariably ran out of steam and could not reverse the momentum of globalisation that affected too many communities negatively. The coastal fringes of the fifth kingdom are in real trouble too – even the coastal communities of South-East England.
During this last three and a half years, when Westminster has resembled a political cage-fight and the UK as a whole has experienced a political nervous breakdown, the social, economic and psychological drivers leading the fifth kingdom to vote as it did, have not been adequately addressed.
In the election, the Johnson-led Conservative government certainly recognised the untapped political power of the fifth kingdom. It might be able to keep that power mobilised into a prolonged term of government. But a UK of five different, and barely stable, kingdoms will require some serious economic and constitutional change to keep it together. Until these underlying realities are seriously addressed, the Union is at grave risk in ways that are likely to increase during the coming decade.
The Brexit phenomenon and this ‘Brexit election’ that has so crystallised it is, at root, a crisis of English identity that poses a constitutional threat to the UK more worrying than the SNP’s secession campaigns or that of Irish nationalism.
The Conservative Party won 324 of the 533 seats – 61% – of the fifth kingdom. This is where a large part of Brexit came from. And this is where Boris Johnson’s new one-nation Toryism will have to work in the immediate future – not only to recalibrate Britain’s economy to its benefit but also to restore the belief of those living in the fifth kingdom in the desirability of the Union. This is where ‘Getting Brexit Done’ will somehow have to be successful – or at least made to look so. Otherwise, the country runs the risk of England Outside London seeing or feeling no point in trying to hold the UK together. The fifth kingdom could just become fed up with the United Kingdom.