There’ll always be an England

Published in Editorial, Issue 2 (March/April 2019), Volume 27


There are certain parallels between the present Brexit crisis and our ongoing ‘decade of commemorations’. Just as now, a factor in the Home Rule crisis of 1912–14 was the parliamentary arithmetic in Westminster, where Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power. That only lasted until 1915, of course, when Unionists (both British and Irish) were invited into government and Redmond was abandoned to his fate by his former Liberal allies. (Present-day leaders of the DUP, take note!)

Both situations involve(d) a ‘temporary’ border backstop. Partition itself, when first mooted at the Buckingham Palace conference in July 1914, was meant to be temporary, and under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 it was meant to be temporary—until its demarcation was determined by a Boundary Commission. And we all know how that one fared.

The most obvious parallel of all, however, is in the often messy and chaotic business of national self-determination—of ‘taking back control’, if you like. If we are currently commemorating—celebrating, even—the centenary of that process here, how can we deny it to the English in our own time? How, in turn, is their right to self-determination to be squared with those of the other nations of the United Kingdom, particularly Scotland and Northern Ireland, who both voted decisively to Remain? The precedents and mechanisms for such a resolution already exist: a re-run of the 2014 referendum in Scotland and a border poll, as laid down in the Belfast Agreement, in Ireland. And just because such fundamental constitutional changes are fraught with incalculable risks (like Brexit itself, hard or soft) doesn’t mean they won’t happen.

The ‘precious Union’ is a relatively recent arrangement in the centuries-long history of these islands; we may be witnessing the beginning of its dissolution, but the nations that make up its constituent parts will endure. In the words of Vera Lynn (and the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ is much in vogue across the water at the moment), ‘There’ll always be an England …’.

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