Opinion

John Lloyd

In Britain, a summer of quiet revolution

John Lloyd
Jul 16, 2013 16:13 UTC

The British Isles are sentries in a turning world. The monarchy, pageantry, the mediaeval House of Lords, titles, accents, the established Church of England with the Queen at its head — they all give the adroit illusion of continuity and the primacy of tradition over change.

But this summer there are diverse changes modernizing the Isles. These revolutions, small and large, will not be reversed, and will contribute significantly to a redefinition of what it is to be British (and Irish). The illusions of tradition will remain, as diligently served as ever. The core is hollowing out.

These changes are not unique to these wet and windy islands. But it’s more remarkable because for many centuries Britain and its offshoots punched above their weight, making history and creating (or inventing) traditions. The French are famed for having a beautiful and mostly efficient country and for grumbling furiously about it. The British change everything all the time, and worship the old customs whose essence they have long since destroyed, or are destroying.

Ireland, the smaller and much younger of the two sovereign states on the Isles, found its independence in the 1920s. That independence was fought for so hard in part because its majority religion, Catholicism, had been treated as an inferior, even a treacherous, affiliation for centuries. The Republic came into independent statehood with its religion militantly at the forefront of national, social and cultural life.

But the Church’s role in Irish life has been diminishing for some time; it has been dealt another blow. Last week, Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s government passed a law allowing abortion when a woman’s life was in danger. The measure provoked princes of the church to threaten Kenny (who’s a devout Catholic) with excommunication and saw him lose his Europe Minister in a resignation of principle. The law dilutes, but does not reverse, a ban that has seen some dozen women leave for the UK every day for abortions. Some reformers have protested it did not go far enough, but it’s a breach in a so far adamantine wall. Kenny has twice faced down the Catholic Church. Ireland is no longer what it was in its post-revolutionary years, and remained for decades after — a quasi-theocracy. It’s fully secular.

The moment for Irish unity is nearly over

John Lloyd
Jan 29, 2013 19:50 UTC

The latest “troubles” in Northern Ireland began 45 years ago, and though much reduced, sometimes to invisibility, they are not over yet and will not be for some time. Protests over the Republican-dominated Belfast Council’s decision to fly the Union Jack just on certain days happened again over the weekend, if smaller and less violent than in the past few weeks.

This is what can happen after more than a century of demand for Irish independence: violence, on both sides, takes time to lose its attraction, and its adherents. Yet the bid for Irish unity, which from the late sixties to the late nineties was written almost daily in blood, has failed. Now, as we’re witnessing what may be its long withdrawal from politics, republicanism may not have another chance.

Sinn Fein, for nearly all of its life a front organisation of the IRA, has made an accommodation with unionism. Its two leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness – respectively once heads of IRA brigades in the seventies and eighties – have not just implicitly accepted the partition of the island, but have called for the nationalist community to work with the police (whom they previously sought to slaughter). They have also denounced those republicans who carry on terrorism under the name of the Real IRA as ‘traitors to Ireland.’ In a much quoted observation, the historian Paul Bew quipped that “the IRA is too intelligent to admit that they have lost and the Unionists too stupid to realise they have won.” This is what the 1998 Belfast Agreement brought.

For Europe, it doesn’t get better

John Lloyd
Apr 4, 2012 21:03 UTC

The European crisis isn’t over until the First Lady pays, and the First Lady of Europe, Angela Merkel, cannot pay enough. She needs to erect a large enough firewall to ensure that the European Union’s weaker members do not, again, face financial disaster. That will not happen – which means the euro faces at least defections, and perhaps destruction.

The crisis had seemed to recede somewhat in early 2012, and the headline writers moved on. But it had only seemed to recede, and relaxation was premature. As Hugo Dixon of Reuters’ Breaking Views put it on Monday, “the risk is that, as the short-term funding pressure comes off, governments’ determination to push through unpopular reforms will flag. If that happens, the time that has been bought will be wasted – and, when crisis rears its ugly head again, the authorities won’t have the tools to fight it.”

But the underlying tension remains between high indebtedness in nearly all the EU countries and the need to pare back public spending without suffocating the economies. The flat, or negative, growth lines in the same countries that are indebted are likely to be made worse as demand falls and a malign cycle threatens.

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