The Disunited Kingdom

Welcome to the Disunited Kingdom. The country formally known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has just voted to leave the European Union, whilst revealing in the process just how divided it has become, just how alienated its voters are from their elected leaders.

The problems confronting the victors are enormous.

First, there is the question of the transfer of government from David Cameron to a new prime minister who can undertake the incredibly complex actions required to disentangle forty-three years of accumulated legislation that binds the UK into the EU. Announcing his impending resignation on June 24, Cameron said that his party, the Conservatives, should elect a new party leader, and thus a new prime minister, by the time the party conference meets in October. Now the focus will switch to his succession, with Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, as the leading candidate from the Brexit camp; with Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Teresa May as a possible compromise candidate who could bridge the party’s rival Brexit and Remain camps; and with Brexit campaigner Michael Gove, the current Justice Secretary, as an outside possibility.

Second, there are the mechanics of Brexit. Cameron promised that if the UK voted to leave the EU, then he would immediately invoke Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which represents formal notification of any decision to leave. Once invoked, Article 50 provides for negotiations on Britain’s exit from the EU to be completed within two years. Given the amount of legislation that would be required to replace EU regulations and trade agreements with Britain-only rules, this may prove far too short a time. In terms of negotiating replacement trade agreements these are likely to take years to accomplish. Ironically, though not surprisingly, it was supporters of the Leave campaign who most wanted Cameron to delay invoking Article 50. Now they will have their way, with Cameron announcing in his resignation speech that it will be for his successor to invoke Article 50.

Third, there is the breakup of the UK. Overall, UK voted by 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the European Union. But Scotland voted by 62 percent to 38 percent to remain. This prompted Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, of the Scottish National Party (SNP) to declare that it is clear that “the people of Scotland see their future as part of the European Union.” Angus Robertson, the leader of the SNP’s fifty-three Westminster Members of Parliament, said it would be undemocratic for Scotland to be forced to leave the EU against its will.

The contrast between the vote in Scotland and the overall UK vote, which overwhelmingly means the vote in England which constitutes 85 percent of the electorate, means that almost certainly Sturgeon will quite soon set in motion preliminary preparations for holding a second referendum on Scottish independence, so that Scotland could remain within the EU, but as an independent nation.

Tensions in Northern Ireland can be expected to increase. Northern Ireland voted 56 to 44 percent to stay within the EU, not least because of strong Irish nationalist support. Now the UK government, in negotiating the separation of the country as a whole from the EU, will have to find out how to do so without creating a physical barrier between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. One key issue is that the presence of both the UK and the Republic of Ireland in the EU was one of the key underpinnings of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which ended thirty years of conflict between predominant Catholic nationalists who wanted to join the Irish Republic and mainly Protestant Unionists who wanted to remain part of the UK.

Declan Kearney, the chairperson of Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party, hailed Northern Ireland’s vote on June 23 as “as a cross-community vote in favor of remaining in the EU” adding that Sinn Fein would now press for a poll in Northern Ireland on union with the Irish Republic. The problem is that whereas the overall British vote to leave the EU has been immediately accepted as binding by the losing side, there is absolutely no guarantee that the losing side in any referendum in Northern Ireland on Irish unity would abide by the result rather than resorting to arms to fight it.

Fourth, and more important than all the others, is the division between voters and the establishment, between “them”—the elite— and “us”—the millions of voters prepared to defy their party leaders and the advice of countless international leaders and institutions from US President Barack Obama to NATO, the International Monetary Fund and all of the UK’s overseas allies to stay within the EU.

In voting for Leave, these voters were taking an opportunity to register their disdain for politics as usual. There is now a massive distrust of mainstream politicians accompanied by support for populists. The massive confusion as to what will happen next are epitomized by the extraordinarily shrill calls during the campaign for facts, but a near-total lack of faith that anyone who put forward a fact was actually telling the truth.   

There may well turn out to be no winners as a result of this vote. The pound sterling, the national currency, collapsed as soon as the first indications of a Leave vote came in, falling by more than 10 percent against the US dollar and hitting levels not seen since the great market crash of 2008-2009. The Bank of England will now have its work cut out trying to reassure investors that the UK is still a good place in which to invest. But the likelihood is that there will be little fresh foreign investment for quite some time, and quite a considerable flight of capital. Leave campaigners say there will be no recession. Time will tell.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will be seen as a failure because, until the final few hours of the campaign, he seemed to show only half-hearted support for the Remain cause. Corbyn now faces a vote of confidence from his own MPs on June 27, so he too could lose his job as a result of the referendum.

One of the biggest reasons for the Leave victory was the failure of Labour voters in blue-collar areas to support the official party line that Britain should remain in the EU. Already there are fresh rumblings within the party’s senior echelons that Corbyn may simply not be up to the job of leader. As things stand, in the next general election, which may now come much sooner than its previously expected date in 2020, there is a good chance that traditional Labour voters will turn to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the only party that wholeheartedly supported Leave and which currently has just one of the UK’s 650 elected Members of Parliament.  That’s largely a tribute to the constant focus of the Leave campaign on the issue of immigration, which, as the referendum result demonstrated, trumped the Remain campaign’s focus on the economy.

But the biggest loser is Cameron; and British politics can be ruthless with losers. When Cameron promised a referendum in 2012, it was to settle a dispute within his own Conservative Party. He gambled, and lost; he campaigned, and lost. He has little or no credibility and may, as this writer fears, go down in history as the man whose decisions not only led to Brexit but to the breakup of the UK itself.

Cameron’s chief lieutenant and the man who once hoped to succeed him, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, is fond of citing an aphorism routinely attributed to Lyndon Baines Johnson, that counting is the first rule of politics.

David Cameron miscounted and has now paid the price.

John M. Roberts is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and Global Energy Center.

Image: British Prime Minister David Cameron his wife, Samantha, walk back into 10 Downing Street in London after he spoke about the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union on June 24. He said he would step down in October. (Reuters/Stefan Wermuth)