hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 19 September 2014

New Britain

Riga, Latvia. 19 September.  I am exhausted, relieved and not a little emotional this morning.  I have been up all night after addressing NATO generals here in Latvia watching the results of the Scottish referendum on television.  I am also deeply proud of my country this morning.  Britain endures,  democracy prevailed and thanks to the good sense of the Scottish people the referendum on Scottish independence delivered a decisive 55%-45% vote for the continuation of an ancient union that not only defines my country but defines me.  A proud Yorkshireman, Briton and Englishman with Scottish forebears the United Kingdom is for me deeply personal, goes to the very heart of my soul and reflects much of who I am.  Indeed, I do not mind admitting to you that this morning a tear of relief ran down my cheek as the Scot's rejection of separation was confirmed. 

This is not just a relief for me but here on the front-line of freedom people have been coming up to congratulate me in my relief.  Like me they would have accepted a vote for separation, albeit in my case I would have been cast down.  If one believes in the liberal democracy that defines much of Europe it is precisely the settled will of the people that must be respected even if one believe that will to be wrong.

No, for many Latvians Britain is more than just any old country.  She is a vital ally and friend the diminution of which would undermine Latvia's precious and precarious freedom.  Too often trapped in the short-termism of modern politics the British political class forget the strategic potency of Britain and the vital role a strong Britain plays in both European and world peace.  Britain might no longer be a world power and the days of jingoism are long dead.  However, Britain is still a strategic brand, a cornerstone of NATO and one of the foundations upon which a stable Europe is built.   With so much uncertainty again in Europe and indeed beyond the need for big Britain to play a big role has never been greater, something Latvians see with a clarity that their position brings sharp into focus  The descent of the United Kingdom into doubt and exaggerated decline (for that is what a vote for separation would have entailed) would have gravely undermined both Europe and the West.

Furthermore, separatists across Europe would have been encouraged and far from strengthening the voice of Europe in the world the Old Continent would have slipped even deeper into fracture and falter.  Perhaps French President Francois Hollande put it best when he said that 'we' Europeans did not make Europe to get to this point; the deconstruction of nations.  M. le President also said that getting smaller, allegedly to be stronger was the very opposite of the European ideal. Wise words indeed. 

This morning Britain is awakening from a nightmare.  Never again must Britain be brought to the point of disintegration.  No doubt this morning Prime Minister David Cameron feels vindicated that he permitted such a referendum. He must also face the fact that he handled the entire process spectacularly badly.  The panic in London after just one opinion poll showed the chance of a vote to separate was eloquent testimony to just how out-of-touch all the leaders of the main political parties have become.  Indeed, Cameron allowed Nationalist leader Alex Salmond not only to set the terms of the debate, but also the timing, who got to vote and even the very question.  In so doing Prime Minister Cameron put the Union at unnecessary risk and gave the separatists every chance of winning.  Thankfully, the separatists did not win and Cameron's yes-no gamble paid off with Scots giving a decisive and clear answer to preserve the Union.  It could have been so different this morning.

One thing is clear from this vote; political business as usual is not an option - be it in London or Brussels.  My over-riding lesson from this whole stressful experience is that twenty-first century democracies only work if power is as close as possible to the people that legitimise it.  Whether it be the arrogant disregard for the people shown for too long by the Westminster/Whitehall elite, or the gross and crass manipulation of democracy and the popular will by the Brussels elite sooner or later people will rebel.  

It is also time to renovate the will of the majority.  Both in Westminster and Brussels two trends have alienated the majority.  First, the over-concentration of high power and high politics in ever fewer and ever less accountable hands.  Second, the obsession of such elites with minorities often at the expense of majorities.  Do not get me wrong, I believe deeply in protecting minorities but for too long the legitimate concerns of decent majorities on matters such as immigration and Europe have been disregarded and dismissed by the elite as populism or nationalism. 

The distaste for big politics the Scots showed in this campaign is not unique to Scotland.  Indeed, I see it a across the UK and indeed across the EU.  I am sick of attending conferences and meetings and listening to presidents, prime ministers and ministers both past and present congratulating each other as great democrats or champions of the people when they are anything but.  I see the political elite almost weekly and the spin of its self-satisfied complacency it is not a pretty sight.

Hopefully, the Scottish people yesterday lit a bonfire under such complacency.  A bonfire that could and should act as a pyre for all the false 'certainties' of Westminster and the single-minded egotism of the EU elite.  Indeed, as President Hollande said prior to the result, the referendum in Scotland may decide the future of not only the United Kingdom but also the future of the EU.  There is a risk Europe could fall apart.  In the words of Wellington it was a close run thing.

Thank you Scotland.  Now it is time for bed.  Tomorrow we start the construction of a New Britain in a New Europe.

Julian Lindley-French       

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