A week, they say, is a long time in politics. How right they are!
When I wrote my column for the last issue of this magazine, the United Kingdom – also known as Great Britain – was very much a single country that was an important member of the European Union. Despite its occasional Euroscepticism, the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) went back to 1970 when its membership application was eventually accepted after the French had relaxed their initial objection.
Since then, various Conservative Party and Labour Party governments have continued to keep the country within the EU, notwithstanding differences that they have had with the European Union from time to time. Throughout this period, the UK managed to maintain, with pride, its strong sense of identity based on its enviable history as a British empire in which “the sun never sets”. For instance, it held doggedly onto its own currency, the British Pound, instead of adopting the Euro, and onto its own immigration system, instead of allowing use of the Schengen visa which is more convenient for foreign travelers to much of Europe.
However, with anti-EU sentiment growing stronger in an increasing number of countries in Europe, largely in the aftermath of the 2008/9 global recession and following the recent massive wave after wave of illegal North African and Asian immigration into Europe, more EU scepticism manifested itself in Britain. With the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which made it into a coalition with the last Conservative Party government that succeeded Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s administration, and with Conservative Party support wavering, Prime Minister David Cameron went into the 7 May 2015 general election with a promise to call a referendum on continuing UK membership of the EU.
That referendum took place just over a year later, on Thursday, 24 June 2016 – and the following day the disappointed, pro-EU Mr Cameron tendered his resignation as Prime Minister when the “Brexit” lobby won the referendum by a very slim majority.
Given the very close degree of the world’s interconnectedness today, the entire international community followed events in Britain, in the run-up to and after the referendum, with great interest. While the predominant international view was that the continued presence of the UK in the EU was in the interest of both that country and the international community, just under 52% of British voters saw things differently and made themselves heard.
The narrow margin of that victory means that the UK is now a country divided almost right down the middle when it comes to EU membership. For every five British citizens who are against continued EU membership, almost five others hold the opposite view – equally strongly. They believe that the country would be better served by continuing EU membership. Going forward, this marked difference of opinion is likely to punctuate most or all important policy discussions in that country.
More importantly, however, the outcome of the referendum may well have far more serious, long-term implications for the UK itself. As the referendum indicated, among the four provinces (they prefer the word “country”) that constitute that country, two – England and Wales – voted for “Brexit” and the other two – Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted in favour of continued EU membership.
Scotland registered the highest pro-EU vote, at 62%, throughout the UK, followed closely by London in second place at 59,% and by Northern Ireland in third place at 55,7%.
With Scotland itself traditionally having a relatively high percentage of residents who prefer an independent Scotland, there is now a greater probability that Scottish nationalists will again call for a referendum on Scottish independence. Following the outcome of the UK EU referendum, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon immediately served notice that a second referendum on Scottish independence may take place soon. She said that it was “democratically unacceptable” that Scotland – which voted 62% in favour of continued UK membership of the EU – faced the prospect of being taken out of the EU against its will.
In the September 2014 Scottish referendum, 44,7% voted in favour of Scottish independence, while 55,3% voted in favour of continued membership of the UK. Judging from the outcome of the British EU referendum, a much higher percentage of Scots are in favour of EU membership than the percentage of those who were in favour of continuing UK membership in September 2014. To boot, the 55,3% of Scots who voted in favour of continued UK membership did so at a time when the UK’s membership of the EU was not in question!
Predominantly Catholic by religion, Northern Ireland has long had a peculiar relationship with the mainland UK. It is a province in which both political and religious battles have raged over the years between Catholics and Protestants, the Irish and the English. It is a territory that has long been the home of Sinn Feinn’s Irish Republican Army, which historically has been at the forefront of calls for a united Republic of Ireland.
The outcome of the “Brexit” referendum is certain to have potentially significant implications for the UK. Just what those implications are remains to be seen. As the new UK works on negotiating its new relations with the rest of Europe, it will have to keep an eye on possible events back home, with demands for Scottish independence and a united Ireland likely to grow louder.
However, contrary to fairly pervasive fears that were expressed here at home ahead of the British referendum, South Africa may not be that terribly affected by it all. Pretoria has every reason to want to strengthen its relations with the EU, while leveraging its relations with Britain to accomplish the same goal with that country. In the end, then, the UK EU referendum outcome may well be a win-win for South Africa, depending on how smartly Pretoria plays its cards.
Kaizer M. Nyatsumba
Chief Executive Officer