May’s plan is for a funeral not a festival
I have rarely been so dismayed as at the Conservative party conference when a so-called mainstream Tory MP – the prime minister’s ‘envoy to Indonesia’ no less – refused to criticise Viktor Orban on the grounds that he had been “elected” and the “instruction of the British people” is for us to “keep out of the internal affairs of other countries”.
“But surely we can’t stand by while fascism takes over in Hungary, a fellow European democracy?” I suggested to Richard Graham, MP for Gloucester.
“You don’t get it. We are leaving the European Union,” he replied.
The full horror dawned on me. We really are leaving Europe, not just the EU. Ringing in my ears was the famous– utterly relevant – dispute between Chamberlain and Churchill in 1938/9 on whether Czechoslovakia was “a far-away country of whom we know nothing” – or the bulwark of our defence and civilisation. That’s the bit on the map next to Hungary.
If Theresa May’s jamboree takes place in 2022, it will be a funeral not a festival. I was aged minus 12 at the 1951 Festival of Britain, though I think of it every time I visit the magnificent Royal Festival Hall. The historian Kenneth Morgan writes that people “flocked to the South Bank to wander around the Dome of Discovery, gaze at the Skylon, and generally enjoy a festival of national celebration. Up and down the land, lesser festivals enlisted much civic and voluntary enthusiasm... A people curbed by years of total war and half-crushed by austerity and gloom, showed that it had not lost the capacity for enjoying itself. The Festival made a spectacular setting as a showpiece for the inventiveness and genius of British scientists and technologists”. I can’t conceive any part of this happening in 2022. By then, if Brexit goes ahead, scientists and technologists will be fearful of even returning to Britain lest their visas aren’t renewed and they can’t get back to San Francisco, Paris and Munich.
The 1951 festival celebrated the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition, which showcased Victorian Britain in all its pomp and glory. It celebrated national unity, survival and honour in defeating the worst European tyranny in history. To at least half the nation, a 2022 festival would celebrate national self-immolation. Worse still, and not fully appreciated in mainland Britain, is the centenary which this festival is intended to celebrate in 2022 – the century since the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland.
This is why it is deliberately named the ‘Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ and scheduled for 2022, by agreement with Theresa May’s coalition partner Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP. 1922 is when the ‘Irish Free State’ broke away from the UK after a terrible civil war (think Easter Rising, mass executions, Black-and-tans), while the six most ‘protestant’ counties of Ulster remained within the UK under a devolved government and parliament sitting in Stormont in Belfast.
The history of Northern Ireland is a battleground almost as bloody as the events it disputes. And the one thing we should not be doing is celebrating it. Maybe the right thing was done by Britain in 1922, maybe not. David Lloyd George, who did the partition deal in a coalition with the Tories, defended it as the best of a very bad job dating back to the rejection by the Conservative party of Gladstone’s 1886 bill which would have given home rule to Ireland as a whole. This was followed by a revolt against any future home rule settlement by Ulster’s ‘orange’ movement, cynically and treacherously manipulated by Tory leaders from Lord Salisbury to Andrew Bonar Law.
Ulster’s Stormont regime was a one-party unionist state whose raison d’etre was to discriminate against Catholics and keep them down. This led ultimately to the civil rights protests of the 1960s and a collapse into violence and terrorism, which only ended in the 1990s, after a nightmarish 30 years of quasicivil war and appalling bloodshed, thanks to enlightened statecraft by John Major, Tony Blair and post-de Valera governments in Dublin. I suspect May isn’t familiar with the sweep of Irish history. She has devoted less attention to Ireland than any modern prime minister. She hasn’t even done what I and others regard as her bounden duty – which was to camp out in Belfast until a powersharing government was formed after the last Northern Ireland election. Instead, there has been no government or assembly in Belfast for nearly two years, and civil liberties and unrest are once again in an alarming state. But one thing May should do: cancel her ‘Festival of Partition’.
If in any doubt, she should read the speeches of Edward Carson, who led the insurrection against the Liberal government which paved the way for Northern Ireland. “Ulster will fight, Ulster will be right,” was the slogan. Never again. Brexit or no Brexit.