With Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the bitterly opposed contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party and the premiership of the United Kingdom, both declaring their opposition to any withdrawal treaty with the European Union that features the previously agreed backstop protocol, the chances of a no-deal Brexit in the UK are increasing by the day. Indeed this seems to be the growing consensus in London, Dublin and Brussels with previous hopes that a Johnson-led government would be willing to compromise on the peace-protecting clause once all the electoral grandstanding among Tory voters was out of the way now looking pretty forlorn. While the ex-Mayor of London and favourite to succeed Theresa May, the current incumbent of Number 10 Downing Street, is notoriously unscrupulous when it comes to politics – and much more than politics – there is every likelihood that he will stick to his public vows and march the British off the edge of a WTO-cliff.
This has led several leading figures in Britain to predict not just a looming economic catastrophe for the country but a constitutional one too, as highlighted by Nick Clegg, the former Deputy Prime Minister, in a magazine interview reported by PoliticsHome:
The ex-Liberal Democrat leader said “aggressive and regressive” English nationalism had taken over the Tories as they are forced to compete with Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage.
When asked how he expected the next few years to unfold, Mr Clegg told the New Statesman: “It seems to me that the clock is now ticking for the end of the union of the United Kingdom.”
“I am afraid I’ve sort of come to the view I think that is now more likely than not. I think the Brexit demon has unleashed such an aggressive and regressive right-wing English nationalism.
“And that the Conservative Party is converting itself into an English nationalist party.”
Arguably the Conservatives have always been an English nationalist party, even during the heyday of their regional branches in Wales and Scotland (and many people forget that at one time the Tories had a sizeable representation north of the English border). The UK remains a cohesive and well-functioning nation-state with a strong sense of institutional legitimacy but the passing of the age of empire and the growth of devolution on the island of Britain has challenged the political, social and cultural architecture of a country that for three centuries was more of a “Greater England” than a “United Kingdom”. The question now is, can the British – and the majority English above all – muddle on through for another century or two?