Theresa May assumed her position as new British Prime Minister only couple of weeks ago, but the formidable Conservative leader has been served up grave issues beckoning resolution already. Despite being an advocate for Britain to remain a member of the European Union, the Prime Minister now has the unenviable task of overseeing what will be an indisputably tumultuous Brexit. But the process of Britain leaving the EU is sure to involve much trickier challenges than she may have previously anticipated.
Recent weeks have seen numerous activists and politicians call for a second European referendum, in addition to thousands of petition signatures and suggestions of House of Lords with the intentions of blocking Brexit. But the Prime Minister has remained defiant, having accepted that Britain’s democratic principles in relation to referenda must be honoured. In her first Prime Minister’s Questions, Mrs May was keen to highlight that “Brexit means Brexit,” and that her government is determined to make a success of it.
The developments of past weeks have, however, shown that the Brexit vote does not just point to discontent with current EU administrations in Brussels. Myriad areas of Britain have revealed their anger with the state of the union with the Brexit vote. But how exactly will Theresa May make a success of them? Few could have foreseen the damage to the national status quo and Britain’s constitutional arrangements that the Vote Leave victory has done. The landscape of British politics looks more foggy than it ever has before, questioning the UK’s 300-year-old union, the credibility of UK political parties, and the nature of British foreign and economic policy.
After close examination of the EU referendum results, it is clear that British discontent reaches much farther than to institutions on the Continent alone. A vote to leave the EU was, for many, a statement of deep disregard for the state of British society and government. It is here that Mrs May’s greatest challenges lie. The Prime Minister must work fast in order to eradicate the growing disdain for the British government’s south-east-centric politics, as areas of Northern England and Scotland feel more isolated from the UK than they ever have done before.
The Leave campaign had, of course, generated a great deal of support amongst wealthy conservatives. However, the astonishing facet of the European Union referendum was the sheer number of working class individuals who sided with Eurosceptic viewpoints. The most anti-EU areas of Britain, shown to be Boston and South Holland in Lincolnshire, alongside regions like Castle Point and Great Yarmouth in the East, each show similar social trends. The vast majority of these areas have a diverse ethnic make-up which many have seen as a strain on local economies, as well as poor standards of education, and a low quality of living.
The very different issues which face the Prime Minister regarding Scotland will not disappear easily, either. Scotland’s vote to remain as part of the EU was purely a rejection of English Eurosceptic sentiment instead and, in some cases, to do with growing Westminster disregard for Scottish politics. The support for the remain campaign north of the border has shown that Scottish interests are very different to those of England. Support for Scottish independence has seen a slow but sure increase, and could threaten Theresa May’s premiership. In the same way in which she must repair relations with the north of England, the Prime Minister must now bring Scottish political issues to the fore if she is to succeed in maintaining the longevity of the union.
In spearheading the UK’s response to what many citizens see as a broken European system, Theresa May has much more to repair – Britain’s broken society, and partially broken union. The government’s attention now ought to be diverted back home, to a Scotland which severely questions its place in the United Kingdom, and to the communities of the North of England which find themselves evermore at odds with an agenda of austerity, minimal investment, and immigration.
Brexit has shown that Britain has big problems at home, let alone abroad. Rejuvenating the operation of the union is May’s next challenge. The way in which she deals with such a quandary could indeed make her premiership and hugely boost her already impressive track record. But failure to improve the quality of life and social stability of British citizens in the north of Britain could mean grave unpopularity, and higher resentment for Westminster governance. Shortcomings in relation to Scottish issues could, in time, see increased support for national independence, fuelled by disapproval with her Conservative government.
An ailing union has the power to topple Mrs May’s entire tenure as Prime Minister. Theresa May’s plans as part of her Industrial Strategy Committee are a welcome sign of planned improvements for the northern parts of England, and should bolster the togetherness of the UK. The committee on Tuesday pledged to work on the UK’s economy in areas outside of the south east of England, chiefly in areas of Manchester and in the further north. Rail link projects have also been proposed in order to boost connections between northern English communities, also in the hopes of increased economic activity. There is still work to be done, though. Investment remains puny, and austerity has meant mammoth cuts to public services and local government funding in recent years.
The importance of Scottish issues on Theresa May’s agenda has been questioned further, too. Yesterday, The Herald reported that Scotland Secretary David Mundell was not invited to May’s Industrial Strategy Committee meeting. It is somewhat disheartening to see that Scotland has been left out of Theresa May’s discussions already. As calls for more political powers for Scotland have become louder in recent years, surely the Conservatives should be seriously worried about losing their precious union. In addition, many north of the border still feel that the Smith Commission proposals did not go far enough in further liberating the Scottish government. The narrow victory for the pro-Union campaign in 2014’s referendum over Scottish independence shouldn’t be taken for granted by Mrs May.
If the Union proves too difficult to sustain in its current form, perhaps federalism is the answer. Of course, this is the outcome that the Prime Minister would dread most of all. As the nations which comprise the UK become increasingly diverse and are evidently in need of specific regional solutions to bespoke issues, perhaps a form of ‘devo-max’ across four identical regional assemblies would relieve the Westminster Parliament in its obstinacy that one size fits all.
Regional assemblies, coexisting with a larger federal government working on common issues like defence and national security, could indeed work wonders, and restore public confidence, investment, and sovereignty to parts of Britain which currently feel left out. Scottish independence hasn’t achieved a landmark support increase since 2014, and the chances of Northern England becoming a separate nation are doubtless extremely slim.
When the new Prime Minister took on the challenge of renegotiating Britain’s place in Europe, and indeed the rest of the world, the task of saving the union came, too. The EU referendum has shown up the deep societal and political differences which currently set each UK nation apart. Making a success of Brexit clearly involves a lot more than it may seem at face value. Ensuring a strong Britain after leaving the European Union can only be done be ensuring that each component of our nation works together in absolute synergy.
Unless Theresa May and her government work fast to repair the relationship with Westminster and areas outwith the south of England, the age-old union which has bound Britain together may swiftly disappear. Cries for help in the form of increased devolution is increasing as citizens consistently feel ignored. An agenda for ironing out the profound differences between the societies of northern and southern England alone, not to mention the growing issues relating to Scottish interests, must be solved before a renegotiation of European relations can take place. Making a success of Britain itself is vital before it can be deemed a success in front of the rest of the world.