The Political Quarterly commentary published shortly before the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EEC was written by Bernard Crick. His summary of the political drama of the mid-1970s has an eerie familiarity:
“In wildest fantasy who could have foretold ten years ago that we were about to face a national referendum whether to stay in EEC or not on renegotiated terms which few people can understand any better than the original ones; a Cabinet that has had to agree to divide so that all can hold on to office, but which has already broadened the public disagreements into the whole field of basic economic policy; and, as if this were not enough, to have in preparation a bill for legislative devolution to Scotland and Wales which, if its political effect is misjudged … could lead to the unwanted dismemberment of the United Kingdom?”
In view of the subsequent euro-sceptic presentation of the 1975 referendum as essentially about a free trade agreement, it is intriguing that Crick observed that the campaign’s economic debates about Europe had in fact largely been displaced by an argument about sovereignty. As he put it: ‘Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Wedgewood Benn have somehow tried to build this most elitist of concepts into the pantheon of socialist ideas’. Crick’s view was that ‘national sovereignty is surely, as Harold Laski argued, the very antithesis of socialism’: ‘If economic forms are more important than political, then they transcend particular states; and if there is to be more democracy and equality, independent power must be exercised by primary groups within the state.’
Once the referendum was over, Crick even suggested in a subsequent Political Quarterly commentary that the victory of the ‘yes’ campaign showed the utility of referendums as a British constitutional innovation:
“Exceptional use of referendums could be a way of breaking out of deadlocks like the Scottish and Northern Ireland problems and present-day industrial relations, each of which have in common that the elected leaders are commonly more intransigent on key issues than the majorities who elect them.”
Few of Crick’s heirs on the intellectual wing of the British left will be as sanguine about referendums today. In the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, a discourse of national sovereignty – when yoked to the issue of immigration – prevailed, with momentous consequences. Yet the 2016 referendum result also shows that Crick was correct to see the concept of sovereignty in this context as a problematic one. Among the kaleidoscopic consequences of the ‘leave’ vote is that it has dealt the current form of the British state a wounding, perhaps even fatal, blow. The popular sovereignty that was asserted by the ‘leave’ campaign ultimately proved to be the sovereignty of the numerically larger English electorate, supported by Wales but not Scotland or Northern Ireland (in 1975 all four nations voted ‘yes’ to continued membership of the EEC). It is now an open question whether the Anglo-Scottish union, already in a rather delicate condition after the 2014 independence referendum, can survive the severe pressure that an English ‘leave’ vote has placed on it. Some left-wing commentators are too confident in their judgement that Scottish independence is now inevitable, since Scottish nationalists must still navigate their way through some difficult economic trade-offs, some of which will be exacerbated by the rest of the UK exiting from the EU. But if the last few months teach us anything it is surely that economic arguments are not necessarily electorally decisive when nationalism is on the march. There is no doubt that the result of the Europe referendum has made Scottish independence a live political issue once again and for good measure cut the ground from underneath the modest revival of Scottish Conservatism visible at this year’s Scottish Parliament elections. Scottish nationalists are quite correct to point out that an important unionist argument in the 2014 independence referendum was that remaining within the United Kingdom offered Scotland certainty about its membership of the EU. Self-styled British unionists campaigning for ‘leave’ have rather casually taken that argument back without any apparent thought about the consequences.
The most sophisticated intellectual argument for the ‘leave’ camp made from the left during the referendum campaign was Richard Tuck’s case that British socialism could only prosper once again when able to use the democratic sovereignty of the House of Commons, freed from the shackles imposed by the European Union. As Tuck put it: ‘The British governing class in the late twentieth century threw away the most valuable institution it had inherited … a House of Commons that was not constrained by a constitution.’
The restoration of the untrammelled power of the House of Commons, Tuck argued, was a precondition for any successful new left politics in Britain. Can we therefore now look forward to an ascendant post-EU left-wing politics in Britain directed from the commanding heights of the House of Commons? There are a number of reasons to think not, but for present purposes the most important is that the constitutional order Tuck harked back to – and which was used to decisive effect by the Labour Party in government after 1945 – has been rendered inoperable not by the EU but by largely desirable cultural and political shifts within Britain itself. One of the most significant changes in Britain since Labour’s high watermark after the Second World War is the heightened salience of the multi-national character of the British polity. Unlike in 1945, Northern Ireland and its relationship with the Irish Republic no longer lingers as a suppressed other on the margins of British policy-making but has rather been the subject of an explicit political bargain and a peace and reconciliation process. And unlike in 1945, the political cultures and voting patterns of Scotland and England are now divergent, with the Scottish Parliament offering a marked counterpoint to the House of Commons in Scottish national life. These distinctive national political cultures – starkly illuminated by the strong ‘remain’ votes in both Northern Ireland and Scotland – throw into doubt the workability of a unitary notion of British sovereignty embodied in the will of the House of Commons. A more pluralist approach to political power – in the tradition associated with Harold Laski and Bernard Crick – is now the only workable route to holding Britain together. But as a result of the ‘leave’ vote, centrifugal forces will inevitably assert themselves.
The SNP has been presented with a gift: from the point of view of party advantage, the situation is now win-win for Nicola Sturgeon. Sturgeon will only initiate a second referendum on Scottish independence if she thinks she can win it, but even if she does not in the end call one, the Scottish political dominance of the SNP will have been renewed. The next few years will offer the SNP ample opportunity to burnish its position as the party that speaks for Scotland against right-wing Westminster rule. Meanwhile the Scottish Conservative brand has been recontaminated by Johnson and Gove and the Scottish Labour Party will face an agonising and divisive internal debate about whether to prioritise the European or British Union. In Northern Ireland, much hinges on the precise nature of the deal eventually reached between the British government and the EU. But insofar as leading Conservatives have concluded that the message of the referendum is the need to constrain or even end European freedom of movement, then such a new approach to immigration will require a harder land border within Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement itself specifies that the EU serves as the umbrella under which British-Irish relations take place. It would on the whole be better not to have to discover whether revisiting these issues will unsettle the delicate equilibrium established by the Northern Irish peace process.
The purported defenders of the British Union, the Conservatives, have therefore unleashed forces that could plausibly lead to its dissolution. While a ‘remain’ vote would likely have exacerbated the split within the Conservatives over Europe, a ‘leave’ vote seems – at least for the moment – to have brought them back together in a posture of accepting the result of the referendum as binding. As the party closes ranks and coheres around a negotiating position that looks to be less amenable to continued British membership of the European single market than many commentators had initially expected, the lack of Conservative interest in Scotland and Northern Ireland is palpable. The Conservatives have in effect become an English sovereigntist party. Managing Britain’s exit from the European Union will provide an unforgiving test of how far it is now possible to reconcile such English sovereigntism with a viable multi-national British state.