Gavin Esler is a writer, was one of the lead presenters of the BBC2 Newsnight TV programme and is now Chancellor of the University of Kent in Canterbury. He was invited by the Chair of the Committee of the East Kent European Movement (EKEM), Chris Hammond, to speak after the branch AGM, held on 24 March 2022 in Canterbury. His subject was his recent book “How Britain Ends – English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations”.
About 35 people were in the room and about 80 people in Britain took part by Zoom. Gavin spoke about the stresses and strains resulting from Brexit. He started by emphasising that Brexit is not “done” and that it has been a big divider of the people of Britain.
He was born in Glasgow, schooled in Edinburgh, worked in Northern Ireland, London, the USA and now Kent. His father’s forebears were German immigrants to Scotland in the seventeenth century, some of whom are also in Northern Ireland. He has worked in many countries in Europe. He said he had not thought much about his different British ethnicities until after the 2016 Referendum.
The result of the 2015 General Election was a watershed for him. The ethnic tectonic plates in the UK had shifted. With UKIP winning 3.8m votes in 2015 and receiving only one seat, he wondered what forces now hold us together as a country and who now speaks for the United Kingdom.
All Scottish constituencies (and two-thirds of Scottish voters) voted Remain, and England voted to Leave, placing great strains on England’s Union with Scotland. This prompted him to write his book.
Gavin knows Northern Ireland well and he emphasised the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and the need for an open border on the island of Ireland. He described how Ian Paisley had taken over the DUP, which brought the Unionists into the power-sharing Agreement.
Gavin fears that Brexit may destroy this Agreement, resulting in the return of violence in Ireland. He considers that the Conservative party does not think of the three other nations in the UK. His belief is that the Union of the four nations making up the UK is now over.
Gavin recognised that the creation of Northern Ireland was a short term solution to the Irish civil war in the 1920s and it had never been expected to last a century. He did not agree with the suggestion that Northern Ireland should be pushed by the Westminster government into merging with the Republic and felt it just could not be done.
Weaknesses of the system
Gavin was critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the 2019 General Election. He felt that Labour should have appealed more to the uncertain voters rather than the voters whose loyalties were known. Gavin is extremely critical of our voting system, the First Past The Post (FPTP), which often results in the formation of a Government without wide electoral support.
He reminded us that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland use a proportional voting system rather than FPTP. He said that the only European nations using FPTP were the UK and (strangely) Belarus. Constitutional reform in England is vital.
Devolution at home; cooperation abroad
Gavin considers that many functions of Government in England should be devolved to lower levels, closer to the people. He emphasised the difficulties in modernising the country.
He hopes that Keir Starmer will argue for the UK to have a close relationship with the EU and for us to rejoin the Single Market. So many problems facing governments today have international implications, which makes it essential for governments to work closely together like in the EU.
In conclusion, Gavin believes that the Government of the UK will become weaker as a unifying force but that the people of the four nations of the UK will continue to have close relations.
Gavin was warmly applauded for his thoughtful talk. He signed numerous copies of his book “How Britain Ends”.
How Britain Ends—English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations
Published by Head of Zeus; 320 pages; Hardback, Paperback and e-book