Britain, divided

 

 

(Politico.eu)

 

A country divided; that’s how Britain has felt since last year’s vote to leave the European Union. Remoaners versus Hard Brexiteers, all shades of gray abandoned. But what if Britain was literally, physically divided?

The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have spent the months since the referendum grumbling about London’s approach to Brexit. Some even predict the union could be rent asunder as a result, with the Scots leading a domino effect of independence.

But what if the union was redrawn another way? With much of England outside of the capital favoring a break with Europe, perhaps the real post-Brexit fault line runs north and south, with pockets of the east staying with the former, and Wales and the southwest the latter? Imagine a neat separation across the country: Remainers on one side of the border and Leavers on the other.

History has taught us that attempts to redesign the map — from the Balkans to the Middle East — lead to bloodshed and brutality. The sectarian violence that erupted in the wake of British influence also left deep scars. Given Britain’s colonial past, wouldn’t it be fitting retribution if our divided island was forced to come to terms with itself by falling apart?

Of course, in reality, there is no Man from the Colonial Office hovering over a map of the U.K. with a red pen. But what would it be like if there were?

* * *

The two new states of Lohoco and Britannia come into being at the stroke of midnight, April Fool’s Day 2019, two years and a day after former Prime Minister Theresa May signed Article 50 to quit the European Union.

The border crossings were supposed to close an hour later, but such were the traffic jams that most were forced to stay open until nearly dawn.

On the M40, M4 and M1, Operation Stack, used by police to corral lorries approaching the Channel Tunnel, is introduced for the first time outside of Kent. Families with young children sit despondently by the roadside, waiting for their convoys to move off. Cars are full to bursting, many inside enjoying the little luxuries they know will be unobtainable in their new homeland. Pret a Manger wrappers litter the hard shoulder heading north. Southbound, the packaging is Greggs.

Scotland gained its independence a year before the rest of the country split in two.

Whole towns have decamped from parts of Essex and Kent. Across the motorway lanes, they gaze at travelers heading south from Cheshire and Durham. The Welsh Valleys are emptying out; much of Norwich is on the move.

United Nations observers gathered at the Watford Gap Services on the M1 appear irritated that Starbucks on the northbound carriageway has run out of free-trade coffee. In the Northamptonshire drizzle, barbed wire fences are being built through farmland where cows used to roam freely. A group of coach drivers is complaining about the delays; the ordeal of having to learn new routes. The U.N. observers nod sagely.

* * *

David Davis, the new prime minister of Britannia, fought to retain the name “Great Britain,” but was forced to back down due to the inescapable logic that his country is no longer formed of the Greater of the British Isles. But Britannia sounds grander, more historic somehow, he thinks. The passports are blue again too.

Lohoco, on the other hand, was named by a committee in Brussels, as reflecting its status as a fully integrated member of the European Union. It’s an acronym, standing for “London and the Home Counties,” which, let’s be honest, is basically what the country comprises. For now, it nominally contains Northern Ireland, the southwest, Suffolk and Wales. Scotland gained its independence a year before the rest of the country split in two. (First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is due at the IMF later in the week, but that’s another story…)

 

President Sadiq Khan — who came to power a year after May’s hopelessly divided party was toppled toward the end of 2017 — thinks “Lohoco” has a jaunty air, like “Tribeca” in New York City or, more aptly if more prosaically, the “Benelux” countries.

Lohoco has bought the European Kool-Aid alright. A member of Schengen and the planned Joint European Armed Forces, the new nation will soon move to the same time zone as Paris and Madrid.

It is a strange place, this Lohoco, almost a city state. The mighty metropolis at its heart sits stranded, nothing to rule over, no one to influence. The great financial institutions are back, and almost as many Europeans have arrived as native Leave southerners have left, but something has been lost; its humor and sparkle have gone, perhaps.

The pound sterling ceases to be legal tender outside of Britannia the day after the new borders take effect. Such was the speed of the transition that the new Bank of Lohoco is not yet fully up and running when the new borders go up. Still, enough euros are already in circulation that the economy can function.

The Britannian pound is now pegged to the dollar, meaning it too is stable. Under a deal between Davis and Donald Trump, the first consignment of chlorinated chicken from Kentucky is due to land at Manchester Airport any day now. Food in the north is a little blander, a little more carcinogenic post-Brexit. But no one there is that surprised or bothered. Even the newly-arrived Leavers will soon learn to live without focaccia.

The skies over London buzz with planes arriving from Moscow and Beijing. Now the political situation seems to have settled down, the oligarchs are back seeking stable shores for their billions. There is a booming trade in luxury apartments, while young Lohocians get used to the idea of renting for the remainder of their long lives.

The streets of the capital belch lorry fumes, the economy is booming, and the mood is all business. In the further reaches of Lohoco, it is strangely quiet though. The countryside feels empty; unwanted. Only a few aristocrats still work the land, turning loss into profit thanks to the the plenty of Brussels while supplying the upmarket restaurants of Cheltenham and Chelsea. The seas along the south coast are all but empty of fish; the fishermen were among the first to flee north. Before too long, many other country-dwellers who originally considered themselves Remain will follow them across the border.

The new arrivals struggle to find work up north, as jobs are already scarce in Britannia. Prime Minister Davis’ promised New Deal — a plan to build roads and other infrastructure development to replace the lost car industry — is expected to help. Plus there are plenty of openings at the Border Force. Patrols begin two days after Partition, when work starts on a permanent wall to replace the razor wire that went up at midnight on April 1.

Alcohol duty is high, particularly on imports of foreign wine and gin. VAT stands at 45 percent. Smartly uniformed Britannia guards with German Shepherds stand watch at customs checkpoints, although no one is coming over these first days because visa applications have yet to be processed. The scenes at the new crossing points in Peterborough and Shrewsbury stand in sharp contrast to the tranquillity of the invisible line dividing Derry and Donegal, a customs barrier along the Irish border post Brexit proving unnecessary after all.

* * *

With the first Saturday of the new status quo comes the start of the new, if truncated, football season. Next year, the 10 teams in each league will play each other twice, a neat solution based on the handy fact that the 20 clubs in the 2017-2018 Premiership are already neatly geographically split between Lohoco and Britannia.

The only hitch is the realization by millions of Lohocians that they can no longer listen to Manchester United vs. Manchester City on the Salford-based BBC Radio 5Live, which seceded along with the rest of the northwest. No matter, Sky Sports and the other channels have full coverage of both sides of the border. Britannians are content to listen to their league on the radio and aren’t fussed about missing Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur.

The clubs of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle were always booming, now cities from Birmingham to Norwich are packed out at night.

In fact, apart from “Coronation Street,” there’s not much worth watching telly-wise on Britannia’s remaining channels. But most people don’t notice — there’s too much going on IRL.

The live music scene returns as if Northern Soul never went out of fashion. The clubs of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle were always booming, now cities from Birmingham to Norwich are packed out at night. Pubs stay open late, despite the high price of booze. There is a party spirit in the air, not quite celebration or even elation. It is something more like the Blitz spirit; the hedonism of those who fear they are doomed.

Those Britannians who do have jobs spend the day yawning. In Lohoco the overpriced wine bars of London, Cardiff and Belfast are also doing well; elsewhere in the south, everyone settles down in front of “Bake Off” as usual.

And so it is on both sides of the border; life carries on. A re-ordering has taken place, an upheaval on a grand scale, but, for many, partition has been mere physical confirmation of a process that began long before Brexit, long before the referendum. We really are two countries now.