Constitutional Culture WarsJohnson’s Next Divide-and-Rule Campaign?
AV Deggar considers how the Vote Leave coalition may react to emboldened separatist forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland
This month’s local elections left Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party with a bloody nose, losing almost 500 seats across the UK – their worst performance in a quarter of a century.
As well as losing symbolic English councils like Westminster and Margaret Thatcher’s beloved Wandsworth to Labour, across the border in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) romped to victory, adding a further 22 councillors to their record 2017 total.
The shockwave became seismic a few days later, when Sinn Féin was confirmed as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly – becoming the first Irish Republican party to top the polls in the history of the nation.
Mid-term malaise, the ongoing ‘Partygate’ saga, the cost of living crisis and disenchantment with Boris Johnson have all been mooted as contributing factors to the Conservative Party’s local election collapse. While all are valid contributors, it is the Brexit effect that has intensified discontent in the regions where Remain majorities persist.
Johnson’s hardest-of-all possible Brexits has galvanised the independence movement in Scotland and has aided the cause of Irish reunification. In the process, the Conservative and Unionist Party has nurtured its ideal bête noire in the ongoing culture war – the treachery of the separatists.
Before the counting had finished in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the President of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald, stated that her party would seek to hold a border poll on the integration of Ulster with the Republic of Ireland by 2027.
Although Unionist parties still represent the largest bloc within the legislative assembly, the biggest single Loyalist presence, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), experienced a decreased vote share in every constituency in Northern Ireland.
A major part of the DUP’s fall from grace was its confidence-and-supply partnership with Theresa May and later Johnson’s governments, which propped up successive Conservative regimes at Westminster but ended with the Northern Ireland Protocol and a border down the Irish Sea.
Seen as a dislocation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, the DUP opposes the Protocol, which protects the integrity of the EU single market without the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland, but does not allow goods to move unrestricted from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
While 54 out of the 90 newly-elected members to the Stormont Assembly are pro-Protocol, the DUP has confirmed it will not enter into power sharing until there is “decisive action” on it – meaning radical modification or total repeal.
Obligingly, the UK Government has been threatening to renege on its responsibilities under the Protocol since September 2020, admitting that it would break international law in the process.
The sabre rattling has become deafening in the past few days, with the UK Attorney General approving a withdrawal from large chunks of the Protocol, and the Foreign Secretary and Conservative leadership hopeful Liz Truss threatening to scrap it altogether – possibly precipitating unrest in Northern Ireland and a wider trade war with the EU.
Similarly in Scotland, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon backed by her Scottish Green partners in government, has committed to holding a second referendum on independence by 2026, and preferably before the end of 2023.
After 15 years in power and winning 11 elections at Holyrood and Westminster, the SNP’s grip on power is unassailable. With a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, another plebiscite on independence is inevitable. Granting IndyRef2 is within the gift of the UK Government at Westminster alone, and denying Scots a second vote would be unjustifiable.
Outside of the ongoing cost of living crisis, the biggest headache for whichever flavour of Conservative administration fights the next election will be constitutional – and could be cynically weaponised to become their best asset at the ballot box.
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A Wedge Strategy
What we know today as ‘culture wars’ have existed as a fixture in the US political mainstream since the Richard Nixon era as ‘wedge issues’ – social sticking points that have the potential to split or enforce a polarity of opinion. ‘God, guns and gays’ is a perfect example.
Typified by Ronald Reagan advisor Lee Atwater, and practised to this day by Johnson stalwart and on-off Conservative election consultant Lynton Crosby, wedge strategy has been rebranded for the digital age, where a largely unregulated social media and compliant client press permits contentious issues to be extruded to their most sensationalist apogee.
Wedge strategy found its ultimate expression in UK politics in the build-up and aftermath of the Brexit referendum in 2016, when polemic issues like immigration melded with British hyper-nationalism and Europhobia – largely confected and driven by right-wing voices in the conventional and digital media.
As Byline Times has shown on numerous occasions, the pernicious role of the media in the EU Referendum result cannot be overstated.
In 2015, pollster Ipsos MORI showed that just 1% of the British population believed that the EU was “the most important issue facing Britain today”, alongside the likes of “overpopulation” and “morality”. A month before the Withdrawal Agreement was signed in 2019, 57% believed that Brexit was the country’s largest concern. People who hadn’t given a passing thought to the EU were now burning blue and gold flags in the streets. The politically disaffected and unengaged had become radicalised.
Cutting across traditional ideological lines and the broad-church coalitions of Westminster parties, internecine hostilities fractured party and populous alike. Allegiances and priorities were reformatted to align with Leave or Remain tendencies, exacerbated by the parliamentary gridlock that meant Brexit sucked in all the political oxygen for three and a half years, exhaling only toxins into an already poisonous political atmosphere.
The Brexit wedge became a coverall for the damage that was being wrought on wider society – five years of swingeing austerity became 10 before Brexit was “done”. Health inequalities rose, the wage gap increased, state spending per child sank, general poverty skyrocketed, homelessness soared, the public sector shrank to its smallest size since World War Two, libraries and youth clubs were replaced by foodbanks and community kitchens. The fabric of the nation was shredded, only noticed by those whose lives were ripped apart at the seams.
Whether sought or unsought, wedge strategy and populism based on cultural mores had acted to mask the socioeconomic rot setting into British life, as well as creating a valuable new adversary, an ‘othered’ target for the basest forces of jingoism. In the shared enmity for the EU, a powerful new reactionary coalition was formed that could be periodically reactivated with the same Pavlovian inputs, and for similarly destructive ends.
A Rhetoric of Betrayal
In the coming years, the ‘treason of separatism’ may well become the primary wedge issue around which to reassemble Brexit’s reactionary core, reuniting a cross-party consensus against a common foe and papering over the cracks of economic hardship.
Whichever moniker is used to describe those advocating Scottish independence and Irish reunification – separatists, secessionists, mutineers, insurrectionists, traitors – it is likely that these nationalists will be painted as wreckers and turncoats, Confederates seeking to implode the Union from within in an act of self-harm that strikes at the very heart of British identity.
The mode of attack is already tested, and the precedent has been set for the rhetoric of betrayal to pervade public discourse. Boris Johnson’s repeated use, and defence in 2019, of calling a law that would compel him to seek further time to agree a Brexit deal “The Surrender Act”, was the perfect trial balloon for inflammatory speech. While he was implored to moderate his tone, a Parliament with no punishment for intemperate language relies on self-censure – something that has not been forthcoming.
With multiple once-in-a-generation crises unfolding concurrently, a Government which occults its failings behind the blame of others, needs both an enemy and scapegoat – with the casting of Scottish and Irish nationalism as treason, it can have both, with all of the collateral damage that demonising an enemy within could entail for British society.