The Story of the UK General Election is not Brexit, it’s the Coming Breakup of Britain

John Wight analyzes the now-shaken British national identity

By John Wight
in Edinburgh, Scotland

To grasp the real meaning of the Dec. 12 U.K. general election result is to understand the history of a state born in mercantilism and sustained by centuries of empire and colonialism.

Allow me to explain.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give the U.K. its Sunday name, is the epitome of an artificial state. It was and remains the product of the grafting together of divergent cultures, histories and national identities. At inception, this grafting together was undertaken not in the interests of its peoples but in the interests of national elites eager to take advantage of the commercial opportunities of a unified polity with added manpower and resources in an age of empire.

The venality, greed and corruption of the Scottish ruling and political class in the late 17th- early 18th century delivered the Scottish people into the arms of the union with England without their support, establishing thereby the Kingdom of Great Britain. This was reflected in the social unrest and riots that ensued in Scottish towns and cities both during the negotiations that brought into being the 1707 Act of Union, and upon its passage.

For the ruling elites of both Scotland and England the union of both parliaments into one had demonstrable commercial and strategic benefits. The former had been left bankrupt after Scotland’s failed attempt at establishing its own overseas colony in Darien (modern day Panama in Central America) in the late 17th century. In order to forestall national immiseration the need to gain access to England’s overseas colonies was thereafter considered essential.

Meanwhile the English were eager to prevent the possibility of Scotland being used as a staging ground for an invasion from the north by the French in the context of the War of the Spanish Succession that raged between 1701 and 1714.

Wales, the third nation that makes up the U.K., had already been merged with England in 1536. Ireland on the other hand was a subjugated English (latterly British) colony, and was officially brought into the orbit of what would then be known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.

In 1922, after a prolonged national liberation struggle in Ireland, the 26 counties that make up today’s Republic of Ireland achieved dominion status before winning full independence in 1948, while the remaining six counties that make up the rest of the island of Ireland were partitioned to become what is now Northern Ireland: hence the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland of today.

This necessary historical detour out of the way, here is where things start to bear relevance to Brexit.

Leave supporter near the Houses of Parliament, London, Jan. 29, 2019.(ChiralJon/Fllickr)

An unintended consequence of the Industrial Revolution, one that allowed Britain to go on and establish an empire which, at its height, covered a quarter of the globe, was the forging of a united working class whose unity was able to transcend national, cultural and regional differences. This working-class unity mirrored the unity of the U.K.’s ruling elites around the various semi-feudal institutions that underpin the British state — namely the monarchy, House of Lords, and a network of private schools that have reared and churned out succeeding generations of the country’s ruling class.

British working-class unity, meanwhile, was the product of the country’s heavy industries — coal mining, steel, shipbuilding, etc. — and was expressed in common economic interests and struggles against a common enemy, the bosses and owners of those industries, in the context of the trade union movement. It also began to manifest politically with the formation of the Labour Party at the start of the 20th century.

National Identity Nourished by Wars

In tandem, forged over time, was a British national identity that was nourished by the countless wars the state’s ruling elite unleashed and waged over the centuries of an empire that existed not to spread civilization and modernity to the “dark peoples” of the planet, as its proponents and apologists have always claimed, but as a juggernaut of exploitation, subjugation and oppression.

In those countless colonial wars working class men were used as cannon fodder in a dynamic that has continued to the present day.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began the destruction of this material base of working-class unity across the U.K. in the 1980s. Her free-market revolution and its de-industrialization of the nation’s economy turned Britain into what it is today — a service economy underpinned by financialized capital.

Today, now, in consequence, the country’s trade union movement, which once wielded considerable economic and political clout, is but a shadow of its former self. The Labour Party, meanwhile, struggled even under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to make a full return to the party’s founding principles after Prime Minister Tony Blair and his centrist crew in the 1990s and on into the first decade of the noughties had gutted them in favor of an embrace with the City of London and big business.

Scottish independence rally, May 5, 2018. (Azerifactory via Wikimedia Commons)

The remnants of this Blairite crew within Labour bear much responsibility for the party’s disastrous showing in the election, having acted as an anti-Corbyn fifth column, determined in alignment with the country’s Tory ruling media, political, and security establishment to prevent Corbyn entering Downing Street at all cost.

In so doing, they have only succeeded in ensuring that the breakup of the U.K. is now well-nigh inevitable, what with the SNP receiving a thumping mandate in Scotland and nationalism in the North of Ireland now a majority political current over unionism. In poetic irony, it was only Corbyn’s socialist program, offering economic and social transformation, massive investment in the de-industrialized Brexit regions of South Wales and the North and Midlands of England, as well as Scotland, that provided any hope of repairing the regional, national and cultural fault lines that correspond to the breakdown of the 2016 EU referendum vote.

The post-industrial North and Midlands of England, parts of the country virtually untouched by investment and left without hope after being decimated by Thatcher, voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in 2016 in a veritable scream from the bowels of austerity Britain. Every one of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, meanwhile, voted to Remain.

Both did so again in the 2019 general election, with Corbyn’s message of social and economic justice failing to penetrate the fog of emotion, rooted not in class but national and cultural identity, surrounding the Brexit-Remain divide.

The result of the election, which Corbyn fought in the teeth of an unprecedented assault by the British ruling establishment, confirms that what was once the United Kingdom is now the dis-United Kingdom, with those previously mentioned national and regional differences informing its peoples’ identities and worldview over the identity of class to an extent previously unseen.

Karl Marx reminds us that: “To call upon people to give up their illusions about their condition, is to call upon them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

The illusion that Brexit is actually relevant to the needs of those who’ve seen their lives devoured by the beast of neoliberalism and bludgeoned by austerity must soon give way to the unvarnished truth that the UK as we know it is past its sell-by date.

“A reactionary,” the great postwar Labour left icon Nye Bevan once said, “is a man walking backwards with his face to the future.” Surveying a political class presently engaged in ripping itself apart over Brexit, who could argue otherwise?

John Wight is an independent journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

This article was first published on Medium.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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20 comments for “The Story of the UK General Election is not Brexit, it’s the Coming Breakup of Britain

  1. André Brochu
    December 19, 2019 at 08:42

    I disagree with John Wight. The last UK general election is being called “the second referendum on Brexit”. The Labour voters of the
    Red Wall went to the Tories. Corbyn turned his back on “raw democracy” , a term used by John Pilger in his article after the referendum in 2016. Of course there is the national question in Scotland and the question is what independence would lead to.
    I would suggest to Consortium News readers to read Ewan Gurri’s article, “Meet the Scottish nationalists who voted Leave” which has appeared in Spiked, a digital magazine from London. Spike challenges many preconceived notions and brings the reader articles which inform and confront the establishment. One doesn’t always agree with articles in Spiked but they supply food for thought and controversy. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have come quite far in a process of devolution from Westminister. How far can the respectivce national assemblies go in obtaining a high degree of autonomy and self-government within the UK? I would hope as far as possible wihin the post-Brexit framework of the UK.
    Why substitute Bruxelles for Westminister. EU membership for Scotland would only place a neo-liberal yoke with fiscal discipline
    that would make impossible Keynesian policies for renewing infrastructure and increasing public expenditures. Many buy into the
    idea of a “Social Europe” but because of the structure of the EU it is a misleading illusion. An independent Scotland could negotiate a
    new relationship with what is left of the UK.
    If an independent Québec had been the result of the last referendum Québec would no doubt have celebrated independence but in the aftermath would have quicky sat at the negotiation table with the rest of Canada.

  2. rosemerry
    December 16, 2019 at 12:29

    Very interesting explanation unlike most of those I have read. The UK pretending to want “independence” away from the EU (with its safety rules!) yet chumming up with the USA with its greed, chlorine chickens and imperial measures (!) is going from the frying pan into the fire. You’ll see!!!

    • Josep
      December 17, 2019 at 16:06

      I’ve seen some Brexiteers say that the EU is “globalist”. Whatever misgivings I have about the EU, I have yet to see what makes it “globalist”, as the name implies that any expansion of the EU beyond the European continent would be unthinkable.
      Even then, it’s rather telling how these said Brexiteers act as if the USA is any less “globalist” than the EU.
      * the USA has military bases in over 80+ countries.
      * English is the “international” language in international commerce even in adversaries like Russia and China.
      * franchises like McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Coca-Cola and Pepsi abound.
      * the US dollar, not the euro, is the global reserve currency.
      * with the exception of Russia and China, aviation elevation is done in feet instead of meters.
      To these Brexiteers, it’s as if globalism is fine and dandy as long as the USA and the UK are doing it.

    • Josep
      December 17, 2019 at 16:08

      Re: imperial measures (it’s actually ‘customary’, but yeah),

      Nice catch! It’s rather ironic for a republic like the USA to be the first English-speaking society to use a decimal currency system of 100 cents to the dollar (thank Thomas Jefferson for the Coinage Act of 1792) and at the same time the last industrialized, developed economy to continue using measurements based on the body parts of dead English monarchs – from whom it declared independence in 1776. Early on, Americans such as Thomas Jefferson were advocates of metrication. The USA was also an enthusiastic attendant of the Meter Convention of 1875. But ever since the USA and the UK “won” both world wars and the Anglo-American bromance came along, dissing the metric system has become ingrained into the American identity. I’m surprised the USA continued to use English units even as they fought against Britain in the War of 1812.

      (During the 1790s, Jefferson even requested a copy of the meter and kilogram from France with the intention of metricating the original thirteen colonies, but the attempt failed after the French sailor was captured and killed by British pirates.)

    • thomas ellingwood fortin
      December 18, 2019 at 10:51

      Well said rosemerry! As a N. American “colonial” I will back up what you said.

  3. pasha
    December 16, 2019 at 09:46

    “Neo-feudal” is an exact description of the UK’s socio-politico-economic system, and with the Tories now in full control, this will be intensified. It’s so Orwellian it’s unreal, and with as little possibility of its overthrow as Orwell predicted. Especially when Scotland and Ireland peel themselves off.

  4. Calgacus
    December 16, 2019 at 00:51

    The illusion that Brexit is actually relevant to the needs of those who’ve seen their lives devoured by the beast of neoliberalism and bludgeoned by austerity must soon give way to the unvarnished truth that the UK as we know it is past its sell-by date.

    But Brexit is relevant to their needs. Separating the beasts of neoliberalism and austerity from Brexit makes no sense- the EU treaties mandate neoliberalism and austerity as a matter of law. The EU is not the common market of old. It is a monster serving only the rich. Britain is spared the lion’s share of the EU’s economic destructiveness, as it still has its own currency. Ireland, an EZ member was not – and still suffers from the crash of 10 years ago.

    • nondimenticare
      December 16, 2019 at 13:29

      But it depends on the motives of the Brexiteers. Is it a move to autonomy or to voluntary subservience (delusionally thought to be alliance) to the US? Considering Boris Johnson and his cohorts, that is a rhetorical question.

  5. Dan Anderson
    December 15, 2019 at 22:46

    Reading that makes me feel like the UK should not have ever existed and had been, instead, remained disjointed island nations of little world importance or wealth. As for the here and now, from afar, I saw Brexit as being autonomy vs economy. I can see Ireland wanting to be united as an island nation, if they can bury hatchets and stop using religion as a defining dividing line. As for Scotland and its proud nature, I wonder how happy they would be subservient to the greater EU, namely France & Germany especially. Why not be an independent Scotland instead? Again, it’s autonomy vs economy.

    Because of the great influence Great Britain, the British Empire has had in history, I find it all interesting but I don’t care what happens as long as the people decide for themselves in a civil manner. In the USA, when some of the States wanted to leave the Union, 600,000 Americans had to die before it was decided secession was not allowed. I would not wish that on anyone. My view is that when a nation divides, eventually they will make war on one another. That’s one of the premises for the EU (look at WWI & WWII). I can envision a future EU that won’t allow exit. Wars created the Empire, and wars took it away. As for that, the demise has been steady since WWII, and maybe Hong Kong marked the end, but especially Scotland would be a death knell heard at right at home.

    Thanks for an interesting read even with the slanted view.

  6. John Kirsch
    December 15, 2019 at 16:58

    This is the only article I’ve found that actually explains what happened in the election in a way I can understand. Either the elites who engineered Corbyn’s defeat expect to profit off the break-up or they are even more stupid than I thought.
    In any event, thank you CN for publishing this sort of vital journalism.

    • Zhu
      December 16, 2019 at 02:09

      Never underestimate stupidity. It explains far than conspiracies do.

    • OlyaPola
      December 16, 2019 at 03:24

      “Either the elites who engineered Corbyn’s defeat expect to profit off the break-up or they are even more stupid than I thought.”

      Binary perception is a form of blindness.

      Among the opponents’ Achilles’ heels are their purpose to maintain their social relations in modulated form within linear frames/spectrum , consequential resort to linear thinking including but not limited to time horizon precluding lateral strategies, and the consequences of their social relations.

    • T
      December 18, 2019 at 12:47

      > Either the elites who engineered Corbyn’s defeat expect to profit off the break-up

      But of course they do! It’s no secret — that is why they were and are so hot to have a “no-deal” Brexit, so they can install a complete tax haven and cheap-labor paradise for the mega-rich. They even hope to benefit in the crudest way by currency speculation etc.

    • December 18, 2019 at 13:12

      Speaking of ‘vital journalism’, you may wish to see John Pilger’s documentary on the NHS.

      See: thedirtywaronnhs(dot)com

      It’s an eye-opener.

  7. Nathan Mulcahy
    December 15, 2019 at 15:23

    Empires are created to exploit other countries and people. And when that exploitation becomes difficult or impossible, then an empire DOES NOT shy away from exploiting its own people. After that, the progressive degeneration and disintegration cannot be far behind. I am looking forward to getting a big bucket of popcorn and enjoy the show. Good riddance to the formerly “united” Kingdom and the formerly “great” Britain.

  8. Reginald Bowler
    December 15, 2019 at 14:47

    Blow off the froth. It is a good thing that the UK is leaving the eu, it’s a good thing that democracy is now going to be done, after the huge sins against it these last couple of years, and it is unlikely to lead to any break-up of the UK. Most Welsh and English voted leave, nearly 40% of Scots did too, and 45% of Northern Irish also did.

    The problem seems to be the undemocratic segment of “remain” that refused to acept the result, and now they cannot stop the UK leaving the eu seem determined to do as much damage to it as they can. Cutting off their nose to spite their face.


    • John Pretty
      December 15, 2019 at 15:47

      Seems a reasonable point. Mr Wight has written previously that he opposed Scottish independence in 2014.

      I don’t really see how he can say that the break up of the UK is “well nigh inevitable” on the basis of a Tory election win or that a win for Corbyn’s Labour would have prevented such an eventuality.

      I do not agree that independence is universally desired by Scots. My understanding is that it is around 50/50. Craig Murray has previously written that he believes that the Tories will not grant another referendum, but can independence really be achieved without one?

      Interesting to note that two of the post election post morta published by CN thus far have been penned by people who identify as Scottish and the other by an Australian.

    • Dave
      December 15, 2019 at 17:31

      OK, then leave. No problem. But don’t expect the USA taxpayer to take up the slack of the UK ratepayer to further engorge the filthy rich SOBs (expand the B to the feminine gender) and so-called “Christians” in The City, Buckingham, the Zionist alliance(s), et al. If BoJo England wants to go it alone, so be it. Keep me out of the circle. I am concerned, as a USA citizen (my ethnic background is UK), with my pension, my medical policy, my quality of life. To hell with the ultra-capitalist b******** who seem to want to run the world according to their and your standards. Enough.

    • Frank Titterton
      December 16, 2019 at 23:50

      Democracy will not be done with Brexit, as it is no longer the “will of the British people” as has been shown in countless opinion polls. While older mainly people voted leave, Young people mainly voted remain. As Brexiters dies of old age, remainers are gaining the vote. Only 45% of those who voted in the last election voted Tory or Brexit, while 55% voted for parties that either opposed brexit or offered a second referendum.
      The mere fact that the brexiters opposed a second referendum shows that they knew that they would loose a second referendum.
      Age demographics also played an important part in the recent election, among those under 45, Far more voted Labour than Tory, it was mainly older people who voted Tory, destroying the future for the young with their racist stupidity.

    • bob
      December 17, 2019 at 07:46

      Sorry, Reginald. Boris Johnson’s new deal with the EU is hardly any different from Theresa May’s deal – neither amount to the UK leaving the EU in a sovereign brexit. The UK will ‘leave’ the EU in name only and be constrained without any say whatsoever in the EU for a generation – if the latest Withdrawal Bill becomes law. This being voted for by a whole load of conservatives who opposed May’s deal and saw it for what it was!!

      I haven’t mentioned the uprising of the EU Defence Union, which the UK is a major player in because nobody in politics in Britain wants to talk about it

Comments are closed.