Britain - 2045: An optimistic piece for the New Year
100 years after the end of The Second World War will we, as a nation, have finally reached a point of consensus over the question of what sort of country we wish to be?
Professor Michael Wood, Professor of Public History at University of Manchester, writing in the current edition of The BBC History Magazine takes a somewhat pessimistic view of the answer, '...now anxious commentators tell us the postwar consensus is finally broken [I am not sure that that consensus ever reached beyond the Macmillan years], the government unable to express the values of our history and society - that sense of a shared past - in a way that is satisfying to the majority of the nation. Is that how it felt at the end of the Roman empire, one wonders?' [Personally, I don't believe that the Roman Empire ever held a common view of a shared past]. Le Monde, the French newspaper, proves far more down to earth, and in my view, more accurate when it recently wrote, 'The UK finds itself once again facing a question that was never resolved after 1945: its place in the world'.
Some see the implementation of Brexit, over the next five to ten years, along with PM Johnson, as both an end and a beginning. In Johnson's words we shall have become 'a sovereign coastal nation', or in the 2017 words of PM May, 'a great global trading nation'. In Johnson's phrase, 'sovereign coastal nation', it is the 's' word which has caused so much debate, often engendering more heat than light. It is unclear what this might mean in practical terms post Brexit. Yet clearly it will now have to work for its living rather than being a mere slogan thrown around. Ed Conway in a recent long piece in The Sunday Times wrote, 'But here's the thing....'sovereignty' actually has a number of different interpretations'. In short, it is a portmanteau word which when used in practical politics is almost devoid of real meaning. Conway went on to write, 'when I asked one Westminster insider to define sovereignty, he said: 'As that US Supreme Court justice once said: I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it. Same thing for sovereignty.' Conway further cites Professor Verovsek of Sheffield University, 'This notion of absolute parliamentary sovereignty - it's just anachronistic ....It's from a time before you had global supply chains. Today, sovereignty is about having a seat at the table.' Perhaps it would be best for all of us if we now allowed the word to return to its natural habitat - the lecture halls of legal academia.
Both May and Johnson have taken their vision of a post Brexit Britain further. May talked of creating a fairer and more egalitarian society, whereas Johnson has spoken of levelling up. It remains to be seen whether such fine words can be turned into a sustainable plan, and a plan that creates a national consensus around it, rather as The Beveridge Report did in the 1940s.
PM Johnson, in seeing this moment of change in our history as a 'new beginning', makes the assumption, shared with The Leader of The Opposition, that the question of our membership of The EU has been settled for all conceivable time. This is probably true as any campaign to rejoin is likely to remain on the fringes of our politics. Even more so if Brexit is made any sort of success (and in a real sense it cannot be allowed to fail), and if the EU finds it difficult to resolve its internal issues from budgets to democracy, which it may well might.
All the above leaves open the question as whether the heading to this piece is fundamentally flawed. Should it read, instead of Britain - 2045, read England- 2045?
Support for Scottish independence has grown since the Referendum and if The SNP can force a second referendum as soon as possible to cash in on Scottish opposition both to Brexit and Johnson's ' English Nationalism' (as defined by Chris Patten) then Scotland may well break the Union. All this despite economists doubts as whether the Scottish economy could sustain an independent Scotland. But sometimes nationalistic fervour, even hubris, can trump scientific economics.
As for Northern Ireland, unification with the Republic has been brought forward by the twists and turns of the Brexit deal. It makes enormous economic, and indeed political, sense for the two countries to become one and abolish the anachronistic and damaging border between them. Reality is bound to strike within the next five years in The North, driven by economic necessity if nothing else.
As for Wales, it is unlikely to make any serious moves towards independence given size, history, economics, geography etc. Henry VIII's settlement, together with Blair's, is likely to endure.
Thus the rephrasing of the title to this piece, viz England - 2045, is more than a possibility but less than a certainty. Michael Wood adds, 'How we understand and re-imagine England will be a key to the future.'
Politically and constitutionally there are big issues remaining for England,
Membership and composition of The House of Lords
Future direction of The Monarchy, after the death of the Queen
A written constitution
The role of referenda
Independence of the Judiciary
Relationship between Central and Regional Governments
The one question which has been resolved is the continuance of our 'first past the post' system in elections, the alternative of proportional representation having been decisively turned down in the referendum, held by the Coalition Government.
Although in these uncertain times the prospect of a revolution always remains a possibility, in reality it is a distant possibility and would only follow if there was a catastrophic economic implosion as a result of Brexit. Unlikely. Therefore it is a more likely scenario that England will remain true to its history and engage with evolutionary change over the coming decades.
The question remains, however, as to what sort of country do we wish England to become? Clearly the populist nationalistic noise around Brexit will dissipate like snowfall in May.
Way back in 1962 the American Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, remarked, ' Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role'. Well some thought when we joined The Common Market we had found a role; but that was a role that deeply divided Britain from the start. Now we are in search of a new role around which, hopefully, we can build a consensus. Surely we can do better for ourselves than the German newspaper, Der Spiegel, believes when it writes, 'The UK might need Brexit to realise how small the bit part it will play on the world stage will really be'. But, then, the Germans have historically always underestimated us.
One area which will require rethinking may well prove to be defence. Were the EU to create a European Army we could be left in the shade. However, it is worth bearing in mind that we have separate treaty arrangements with France over defence which are entirely separate from France's membership of The EU. The more pressing problem might be a United States retreating into its default position of isolationism, leaving NATO seriously weakened and the call for an EU Army stronger.
However, modern power politics will be played out using soft power as well as hard. In terms of the former we have the advantage of long established historical ties with the Commonwealth which gives us global reach. The present Government's cuts to the International Aid budget should be viewed perhaps as a sop to internal Party Politics in Britain rather than a fundamental change in international policy. As for hard power, this is increasingly technologically based, and that is one area in which Britain has considerable expertise.
Questions, of course, remain and none of us can claim to know the answers in advance. Michael Wood finishes his BBC History Magazine article with these words, '..now in 2021 we are again turning into a new people'.' I am not sure we are. We are just redefining ourselves, reinventing if you prefer. An action we have managed successfully in the past. For example, Elizabethan England redefined itself as a defender of Protestantism in Europe, and as a global trader across the oceans of the world, and Victorian Britain placed itself as the leading industrial and imperial Power.
The Empire has gone although divisions over its legacy continue to haunt us in 2020, highlighted by The Black Lives Matter Movement and the toppling of Edward Colston's statue in Bristol. We need a new national narrative to help redefine ourselves and to teach our children, whether we and they are white or black English. No longer the stories of Victorian 'heroes' that most of us were taught from Clive of India to Gordon of Khartoum, from Dr Livingstone to Cecil Rhodes.
It will not be easy to find such an historical narrative which gains the support of the overwhelming bulk of the population. But we have to find a way because if we don't know where we have come from we stand little chance of answering that must important question of all, where are we heading?
By 2045, when I shall be a centenarian, I am confident that we shall have found answers to these, and other questions, and will have learnt to live at peace with ourselves and the wider world, confident in our own values and prepared to stand up for them internationally. Why do I remain optimistic? Because, forget politicians, that is what the English have always done.