Rarely has a state gathered such a broad opposition against itself. The situation is better understood when you consider that it is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Since Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, which has many parallels with Donald Trump’s election as President of the USA, Great Britain has lost support: in Europe, in the world, but also within the monarchy. Is the “perfidious Albion” approaching its expiration date?
The British ship leaves the European port
On June 23, 2016, 51.89 percent of British voters voted for the country to leave the EU, with 72 percent voting. This vote marked the end of an oppressive, sometimes disgusting and even murderous campaign: a week before election day, pro-European Labor MP Jo Cox was stabbed to death by a mentally deranged neo-Nazi. The third referendum in the country’s history struck Europe like a bolt from the blue; the polls had predicted a slight lead for “Remain”.
Negotiations on future relations between Brussels and London were now open, an endless, sad and sobering affair. One thing is certain: the United Kingdom will no longer be a member of the EU and will no longer be able to influence political decisions in Brussels, for example in the areas of finance and migration. David Cameron and Theresa May have already thrown in the towel, while their successor Boris Johnson seems determined to end the crisis – in case of doubt also against international law and without respect for the European neighbors. With dragging-on negotiations and a government that does not abide by international law or its own promises, the kingdom seems to be navigating a time of worry and uncertainty that is dividing the country in unprecedented ways.
Gibraltar resists the call of Spain
In the Brexit referendum, the position of Gibraltar’s 32,000 residents was clear. At the interface between Europe and Africa, with an economy that depends more on prosperity in Spain and on the continent than on London, more than 95 percent of voters have spoken out in favor of the EU. Therefore, the Spanish government has again expressed claims on Gibraltar. However, these were rejected very quickly: from London, Brussels, and… Gibraltar itself. In a referendum in 2002, only 187 people voted in favor of belonging to Spain. The government in Madrid finally announced that there will be a physical border again from January 1, 2021, another obstacle, especially for cross-border commuters from Spain.
Scotland dreams of independence
A great threat lies in the north of the kingdom. In bustling Scotland, plans are being made to throw off the chains of London and, for the first time since 1707, to take control of their own fate again. Britain continues to be divided through history, as well as various cultural customs that date back to the Roman conquest and the erection of Hadrian’s Wall. This quest for more freedom culminated in a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, which the British loyalists won with a slim majority. The decision for Brexit in June 2016 gives the nationalists new hope. 62 percent of the Scottish people voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU. Although Brussels cannot support the Scottish independence movement for political reasons, the EU remains a strategic ally of Edinburgh vis-à-vis London in the independence process. Economically, an independent Scotland would have a strong interest in joining the Union.
In the less and less united kingdom there is therefore a power struggle between the government in London and the nationalist Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is calling for a new referendum on independence. For the first time, the polls point to a victory for the nationalist camp. In the local elections next year, there are also signs of a clear victory for the Scottish nationalist SNP, which with three successes has visibly survived the country’s political crisis unscathed – another challenge for Boris Johnson.
A reunification of Ireland?
The other domestic threat comes from the northwest. The reunification of the Emerald Isle, a long-running political issue in Great Britain as in Ireland, seems closer than ever. The division of the island is based on the Good Friday Agreement signed in April 1998, which regulates the administration of the eastern part of Ulster and which ended interreligious tensions and violence on the island. Today Ireland is one of the most peaceful countries in the world, and religious tensions are increasingly being resolved by the decline in the number of believers on both sides of the border and the waning influence of the Church. This is particularly true of Ireland, which has legalized abortion through referendums over the past five years, introduced same-sex marriage and abolished the offense of blasphemy. The political earthquake that triggered Brexit is giving supporters of reunification additional tailwind.
Northern Ireland voted with a majority of 56 percent to remain in the EU, albeit with large differences between the border regions and the coastal regions, which apart from the capital Belfast, like England and Wales, voted for Brexit by a majority. The good results of the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin, who advocate reunification, have led to an unprecedented political crisis in Northern Ireland in which Belfast was three years without a government. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin in Ireland even exceeded its own predictions and became the strongest force in the general election for the first time with 24.5 percent of the vote.
The rise of the Republican Nationalist Party and Northern Ireland’s close ties to the EU suggest that the idea of reunification is becoming increasingly attractive, in Northern Ireland, where both positions are roughly balanced, but especially in Ireland, where seven of ten respondents support reunification. The proposal is therefore being discussed all over the island that the question should be decided by referendum in ten years’ time.
A monarchy in decline
In 1995, half of Britons believed that the royal family would be history in 50 years. In 2020, two thirds of the population are in favor of the monarchy, while 20 percent want to change the constitutional system, for example towards a republic. This number is particularly high in Scotland, where almost a third is in favor of the abolition of the monarchy. While this position is minority opinion in the UK, it is spreading throughout the Commonwealth of Nations, the organization made up of many of the former colonies of the British Empire. In this context, Queen Elizabeth II remains the head of state of 16 officially independent states. In Australia, the reason for the failure of the referendum on the establishment of a republic was less in the approval of the British monarch’s rule over independent Australia than in the indirect electoral mode intended for the future head of state. Today in Australia a large majority supports the idea of a local head of state.
In New Zealand, another national symbol has become the stumbling block for the government. In 2015, Prime Minister John Key made the proposal to remove the UK Union Jack from the New Zealand flag. The alternative presented, showing the Southern Cross and a fern, failed to convince the New Zealand population, who instead opted for a symbol of colonial rule. The flags of Australia, the Fiji Islands, New Zealand and Tuvalus have the same structure as the current British overseas territories, such as the Cayman Islands.
In view of the low popularity of Prince Charles, the designated successor to Queen Elizabeth, the question of the republic may arise with a different urgency in the future. The small Caribbean island of Barbados near St. Lucia and Martinique has already clearly decided this question: After five years of deliberation, Prime Minister Mia Mottley has announced the abolition of the monarchy on the 55th anniversary of Barbados’ independence on November 30, 2021. This future republic thus follows the example of Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Dominica, who broke away from British rule in the course of the 1970s, and could become a model for Jamaica, whose government sees the issue as a “priority”.
The sun never set over the British Empire. At that time, Britain was able to base its role as a world power on millions of square kilometers of land, on resources and on the populations of the colonized areas. The UK’s entry into the EU in 1973 was difficult, and its exit from 2016 is even more difficult. Brexit is like a political time bomb, the explosion of which could sweep the UK with it amid burning demands for independence or reunification that call into question the unified state. The commonwealth movement towards independent republics is anything but purely symbolic; it represents an indispensable further step in decolonization.