Scotland, then Catalonia and now Lombardy and the Veneto. The list of European sub-national areas bidding for independence, or at least greater autonomy, is growing.
The Scots voted to remain in the UK, though not by a huge margin. Catalans, in an unsanctioned referendum, voted to leave Spain. Last weekend, Lombardy and the Veneto voted for greater autonomy within the Italian state.
In France, the entire party system collapsed in the wake of Emmanuel Macron’s insurgency. The recent German and Austrian elections produced big successes for an extreme right-wing party. These movements, like the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s presidency, are evidence of growing disenchantment with the traditional governments of nation states. Tired and out-of-touch political establishments face insurrection on different electoral fronts.
Some of this reaction can be linked back to the fallout from the banking crisis of 2008. But there is more to it than that. A perception that changes in the world economy, notably deindustrialisation and mass migration, have ‘left behind’ large numbers of people has, rightly or wrongly, begun to affect voting.
In Britain, a weak and divided government is struggling to make sense of Brexit. There is a risk that if Ms May cannot deliver a brilliant settlement that works for all sectors, industries, regions and households, there will be even greater resentment than now. If parts of the country that voted ‘leave’ found that, say, unemployment was rising sharply, there would a risk that voters would become even more disenchanted with the system. Similarly, any suggestion the UK does not leave the EU would be seen as denying the will of the people.
Many ministers and most civil servants are negotiating a Brexit deal they personally believe will damage the economy. Moreover, the process is entirely centralised, with no opportunity for other than a handful of ministers to decide the fate of the country. Insofar as power is returned to the UK, it will be to Westminster. If areas such as London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, with their own city-regional governments, come to believe that the UK government is incapable and/or out-of-touch, how long before we see pressures for secession within England? Insecurity can lead anywhere.
Tony Travers, director, LSE London