Eddie Barnes: Referendum call a case of parochialism

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Picture: Getty
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DASHING from TV studio to radio car, the Tory MP Adam Afriye was back on manoeuvres at the weekend, demanding that Britain holds a referendum on its membership of the EU next year.

Viewers 400+ miles north of Westminster, in Scotland, would have been forgiven for feeling a little confused. Next year? Like, when we’re having a referendum on Scottish independence? How does that work? Mr Afriye clearly hadn’t given the Scottish question a moment’s thought. With bone-headed parochialism, his call exemplified perfectly the detachment that some of his ilk have for events not connected with SW1.

Mr Afriye can expect to get nowhere with fellow Tory MPs in winning his argument. But does his blundering at the weekend illustrate a deeper issue, one which highlights the growing culture gap between the different bits of the UK? And when two parts of that nation are focused on such different priorities, does it not suggest that the Union is ripe for ending?

One of the country’s foremost historians and thinkers on Britishness, Professor Linda Colley, has been giving her own views on the issue in a new interview with the IPPR think-tank. It is put to her that the “cements” she identified as forging the nation together – empire, warfare, religion to name three – have now evaporated. Defending the modern Union, she notes that it continues to function on a practical level, pooling cash and sending it back to where it is most needed. But the “overarching narrative” of Britain “is not really there”, she acknowledges. Gordon Brown tried to develop one, she notes, but it didn’t really fly.

The polls suggest that, at present, the practical benefits of the UK will persuade voters in Scotland to stick, not twist. But will the nations continue to drift slowly apart thereafter? It ain’t necessarily so, argues Prof Colley. But it will require a proper solution in the form of a new constitutional settlement which seeks to correct the overwhelming power of London. As we report today, she suggests a new English Parliament, based outside London, to complement Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Westminster would be left with just with the macro-economy, defence and foreign affairs. “Such an arrangement could counter disintegrative pressures,” she concludes.

But is this even remotely likely? The IPPR, which has conducted detailed research into attitudes in England, believes that, with English identity on the rise, so pressure will grow for it to get the same governing structures that the devolved nations have been given. And this will only keep increasing, goes the argument, if Holyrood wins more power, further stirring English resentment.

Huge political opposition, not to mention Afriye-esque blinkeredness and “other stuff” stand in the way of such a radical change.

But the Pandora’s Box of Britain’s constitution has been opened – and it can’t now be shut.

• The full interview with Prof Linda Colley is available here.