Nicholas Kristof: Will Great Britain become Little England?

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures, during a visit to Metropolitan Police training college in Hendon, north London, Thursday, Oct. 31,2019. (Aaron Chown/Pool Photo via AP)

London • Over the centuries, Great Britain spawned the Industrial Revolution and nurtured representative democracy. It ruled the waves and created common law. It nurtured the first anti-slavery movement and stood up to Hitler.

And now Britain has gone nuts.

To paraphrase Churchill, if the nation should last for 1,000 years, people may look back and say: This was their saddest hour. Actually, never mind: Brexit may cause the United Kingdom to fragment, so that the country might not last a decade more, let alone last a millennium.

The U.K. is headed for a new election on Dec. 12, at a time when both its major parties are headed by people who should never be trusted anywhere near Downing Street. What’s more serious is the likelihood that Prime Minister Boris Johnson may eventually manage to drag a wearied Britain out of the European Union.

It’s baffling for friends of Britain to see Johnson leading in the polls as he recklessly pursues a path that is damaging his country economically and risks dismembering it. Those of us sentimental about the U.K. — Shakespeare! Cream tea! The Beatles! The Famous Five! — feel as if we’re watching a dear friend quaff a few pints of bitter and hurtle toward a cliff.

Economists largely agree that Brexit will cause both trade and GDP to suffer. One study estimates that Britain may already be 3% poorer simply because of planning for Brexit. Another puts the long-term decline at 3.5%; a different one estimates a 6% drop in the medium term. As The Economist magazine noted, Johnson’s Brexit plan would be even worse for the U.K. economy than that of his predecessor, Theresa May.

Johnson’s Brexit would leave Northern Ireland more integrated with Ireland than with the rest of Britain. And as religion becomes less important on both sides of the border, pressure for Irish unification will grow. One recent poll found a small majority in Northern Ireland in favor of leaving the U.K. and merging with Ireland — although the brakes may come from an Ireland wary of inheriting the weaker Northern Ireland economy.

“Paradoxically, Mr. Johnson and Brexit may have done more for a United Ireland than the IRA ever did,” Jonathan Powell, who was chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair, wrote in The Financial Times. Powell warned that Johnson’s plan may “mark the end of the union, leaving a Little Englander government ruling a Little England.”

In Scotland as well, a poll shows a plurality now in favor of independence, and there are already calls for a new referendum on independence.

“The best future for Scotland is one as an equal, independent European nation,” said Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland. “That is a choice I’m determined to ensure is given to the people of Scotland.”

Pragmatism may restrain Scots in the end, for Scotland presumably would then be out of the EU and would find itself creating a border with England as well. It’s far from clear that the EU would welcome Scotland back, for fear of encouraging separatists in places like Catalonia.

Even Wales seems fed up. One survey found that 41% of people in Wales would favor separation if they could remain in the EU.

A fractured Great Britain would no longer be great; ultimately, all that would be left might be England. A mighty union that had lasted hundreds of years, running from the Orkneys to Cornwall, from Belfast to Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, would have been torn asunder by the demagoguery of politicians like Johnson who can’t manage even their personal lives, let alone a nation.

London is a tribute to the great man theory of history, with statues and street names and monuments underscoring how leaders change history. Yes, they do — and if the U.K. fragments and Britain’s economy continues to decline, it will be because of the foolhardy and mendacious campaign by Johnson and his enablers. He would be remembered perhaps as the 21st-century version of Guy Fawkes.

This election reflects sordid calculations all around: Johnson hoping that he can win a majority, the Scottish National Party wanting the balloting over before it is discredited by a sexual assault trial next year involving its former leader. If no party wins a majority, it’s possible that we’ll be back where we started, or that Labour will cobble together a government with the Liberal Democrats and hold another referendum on Brexit. I hope so.

One of my British ancestors was Ralph the Wrecker, a pirate from Hunmanby in Yorkshire who set lights on the coast to fool ships so that they would crash on the rocks. He was finally arrested and sentenced to hang. As he stood on the gallows, the noose ready, a messenger galloped up with a pardon. Otherwise I might not be here.

So I know that the British are capable of a change of heart — and we friends of England are hoping for another so that Britain can remain Great.

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.