What is the name of your country? A simple question. To those citizens of the islands north of France there are now many answers – the United Kingdom, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, Cornwall? There are in fact two states as recognised by the United Nations – the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This pamphlet solely relates to the latter.
The reality is that most of the citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have no idea that this is the actual name of their nation state (you may wish to refer to your passport). The phrase “Great Britain”, which sums up the author’s most important building blocks of identity and belief, has almost disappeared from modern politics and culture. In September 2014 Great Britain came within 191,000 votes of ceasing to exist, even as a forgotten phrase on a passport.
This is not about whether Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland should be independent. No discussion here about who would be better off. Look elsewhere for details of how a divorce between the nations could be accomplished. The author was born and lives in England and it would be arrogant to suggest how others should vote on matters of independence. This is about Great Britain.
The decline of the national identity that so many of us took for granted and the erosion of the values that this nation has some right to claim that it represents will be one of the greatest mysteries that historians in future years will face. How did we come to a position where the existence of Great Britain as a political concept was decided by 0.4% of the UK electorate and does it matter?
We will see how MPs denied voters the right to consent to the most important changes in how they are governed. Parliament took an unprecedented step in authorising an independence referendum in Scotland without seeking a mandate from the British electorate. Unless challenged, Parliament now has a new power to bypass voters on the most profound changes. Whilst most of us would probably have agreed with Parliament’s decision, how many of us would have agreed that it was Parliament’s decision to make? A Parliament no longer restrained by consent is a development that undermines our democracy. The next change to how Britain governs itself may not be so popular.
Without debate on these issues, the country is unprepared to know or agree what process should be followed to enable a second independence referendum to take place. The solution is in the final chapter.
There is more at stake.
One hundred years on from when Great Britain ruled the waves, it is now in grave danger of sinking without trace. There are striking parallels and contrasts with that time which challenge our current notions of citizenship and society. There are present dangers in the world. And, where once the civilised world would look to Great Britain to be relied upon to do the right thing, the civilised world now looks to Great Britain in vain or, even worse, in confusion.
We will see that what began with noble intentions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo resulted in the loss of international credibility in Iraq. Having lost our grasp of right and wrong on the international stage, we have stood aside as the modern equivalents of the Sudetenland and Poland crises in the run up to World War II are being played out in the Crimea and Ukraine.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
If Britain does survive, there is the chance to rediscover and perhaps re-invent what Great Britain is and what it represents. There are powerful notions of sacrifice and decency from our relatively recent past that deserve to be dusted off and put back into the service of the nation. But the chance will slip through our fingers without a reconnection in our politics between the governed and those who govern. The essential first step – the recasting of our parliamentary system – is tantalizingly straightforward. This is the “Every Vote Counts” system. All it requires is imagination and for voters to vote for who they really want. All that is missing is for the public to know about it.
With a clear sense of who we are, how we govern ourselves and act responsibly in the world, we can truly hope to tame the raging tiger in our modern culture – cynicism.