Conservatives Have Neglected Their Responsibility to the Union

From the Brexit referendum to the deal with DUP, Conservatives have put party over country.

The flags of the United Kingdom and Scotland fly in Sumburgh on the Shetland Islands, July 3, 2014
The flags of the United Kingdom and Scotland fly in Sumburgh on the Shetland Islands, July 3, 2014 (Julien Carnot)

The full name of Britain’s ruling party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they have governed lately.

Most recently, they struck a bargain with the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland that has upset the balance of power in the province.

Securing £1 billion in extra funding and political influence in Westminster has given the DUP a leg up in talks with Sinn Féin, which seeks a united Ireland.

The two parties had until this afternoon to restore a power-sharing agreement that mandates the participation of unionist and nationalist parties. They failed and home rule could now be rescinded, which would make a bad situation worse.

Even if the deadline is extended and the parties do get back together, the next few years are going to be difficult as the Conservatives will be leading the whole United Kingdom out of the EU.

Gamble

David Cameron, the former prime minister, called a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in 2016, hoping to repeat the trick of the 2014 Scotland referendum.

By convincing a majority of Scots to vote against independence at the time, Cameron arguably took the sting out of the separatist movement.

But the gamble backfired with Brexit, opening up a can of nationalist worms.

Overruled

Majorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU, but they were overruled by majorities in England and Wales.

It does not appear to have whetted appetites for independence in Scotland, but the region does oppose a “hard” Brexit that would mean leaving the European Economic Area.

Even the Scottish Tories argue for a “soft” Brexit, although this implies reneging on the referendum’s promise to “take back control” of Britain’s borders.

Access to the European single market is conditioned on free movement for EU nationals.

Preventing the return of a hard border is even more urgent in Ulster, where the open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has helped keep the peace between Catholics and Protestants for twenty years.

Short of an imaginative compromise, that border is due to close in two years’ time. Communities could once again be divided. Calls for unification would grow louder.

Identity politics

The problems don’t end there.

Scotland and Wales complain that Northern Ireland has once again managed to blackmail the central government for extra funding. It already has the highest per-capita public spending in the union, 21 percent above the national average. If London can find £1 billion more for Northern Ireland, surely it can find extra money for public services in Scotland and Wales?

Such demands, in turn, fuel resentment in England, the largest and wealthiest part of the kingdom. It pays far more into the national treasury than it gets out yet, unlike Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it doesn’t have its own devolved authority.

A new English nationalism initially found a home in the United Kingdom Independence Party, but Theresa May’s anti-globalism — “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” she said — won over voters who crave a more intimate sense of belonging.

What she did not appreciate is that British identity is to many transnational as well.

Identity politics is never without risk. Conservatives are only just starting to come to terms with the damage they have done.