Belfast and the Exhibition of its Most Famous Legacy

Titanic Belfast - the world's largest attraction dedicated to the ill-fated ocean liner. Image Credit:  William Murphy  via  Flickr   CC

Titanic Belfast - the world's largest attraction dedicated to the ill-fated ocean liner. Image Credit: William Murphy via Flickr CC

     If London was the first UK city I had known about, then Belfast was the second one thanks to its notoriety as the birthplace of the RMS Titanic, which has been a long-time interest of mine and remains a significant part of Belfast’s story.

     That story has been a long and complex one which begins with the settlement of the area in the northeast corner of Ireland during the Bronze and Iron ages, out of which still remain a 5,000 year old henge (older than the more notable Stonehenge in Wiltshire) known as Giant’s Ring and a couple of fort hills. Belfast became substantially established in the 17th Century during the migration of English and Scottish settlers, and the city was granted borough status by James VI & I in 1613. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, Belfast grew rapidly and went through a series of expansions to straddle between County Down and County Antrim as it became a thriving industrialized and commercial city with wealth generated through linen, rope-making, tobacco, heavy engineering, and shipbuilding – most significantly Harland and Wolff’s, which was one of the largest shipyards in the world.

     Belfast gained city status under Queen Victoria in 1888 and continued to prosper, but became politically divided over the issue of Irish Home Rule and eventually became the capital of Northern Ireland when Ireland was partitioned and the six counties of Northern Ireland elected to remain part of the United Kingdom. Within the city, there has been sectarian tension between its unionist/loyalist (usually Protestant) and nationalist/republican (usually Catholic) communities. This grew into a civil conflict known as “the Troubles” from 1969 to 1998 and resulted in the violent deaths of over 1,600 people, which combined with the decline of industry following World War II, saw the city suffer economically.

     The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 provided the political basis for ending the vast majority of the violence and since then, Belfast has largely moved forward in peace. As well as being the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland, Belfast is the second-largest city on the island of Ireland and the 10th-12th largest city in the United Kingdom. It is a center for higher education, business, industry, arts, and tourism, and its central area has undergone expansion and regeneration, so that it has achieved growth and is the economic engine of Northern Ireland.

     Part of that regeneration has come in the form of Titanic Quarter, an area of land located just to the east of the city center on Queen’s Island which once belonged to Harland & Wolff and home to the facilities which produced the Titanic and other vessels of the White Star Line. All but derelict by the end of the 20th Century, it has been transformed over the last decade into a mixed-use development at the center of which is Titanic Belfast. Opened in 2012 and visited by Her Majesty the Queen for the Titanic centennial (and her Diamond Jubilee), it not only stands as the largest Titanic-themed attraction in the world, but also as a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage. The exterior takes on the appearance of the angled prows of ships in a nod to the great liners built there and is mostly clad in aluminum shards, so that it looks – interestingly enough – like an iceberg.

The expansive Main Atrium of Titanic Belfast. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

The expansive Main Atrium of Titanic Belfast. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Stepping into the main atrium of the structure (which is home to Ireland’s longest freespan escalator at over 80 feet long), this heritage is commemorated with a compass on the floor around which are lines from Thomas Garnduff’s 1924 poem, Songs from the Shipyard. Indeed, it feels as like stepping into another world – when shipbuilding and heavy industry was king, this is also visibly seen with a 60 foot wall of rusted steel plates like the ones used for Titanic, as well as the names of all the vessels built by Harland and Wolff across from it. There's also a platform overlooking the atrium which mimics the Titanic's prow and may therefore provide for a Jack and Rose moment.

     From here, one can start a journey through the main exhibition, which is the Titanic Belfast Experience and features nine interpretive and interactive galleries telling the story of the Titanic, her sister’s Olympic and Britannic (collectively called the Olympic-class ships), and the city and shipyard which built them.

Harland & Wolff gates and White Star Line posters greet visitors as they begin the Titanic Experience with  Boomtown Belfast . Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Harland & Wolff gates and White Star Line posters greet visitors as they begin the Titanic Experience with Boomtown Belfast. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     The first gallery is Boomtown Belfast, which gives visitors the atmosphere of Belfast at the turn of the 20th Century as a city of industrial prosperity and political tension. Through an original set of Harland & Wolff gates are interactive maps and scale models of the Titanic, as well as a game to see how many rivets can be “fit” in 30 seconds. This leads to gallery two in the form of The Shipyard, where one is immersed into the sights, sounds, and even smells of the construction of Olympic and Titanic.

Scale replica sections of  Titanic's  bow and rudder, as well as the Arrol Gantry as part of  The Shipyard  gallery. Image Credit: All Titanic Belfast ( Left ,  Top Right , and  Lower Right ) via  Flickr     CC ; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

Scale replica sections of Titanic's bow and rudder, as well as the Arrol Gantry as part of The Shipyard gallery. Image Credit: All Titanic Belfast (Left, Top Right, and Lower Right) via Flickr CC; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

     An elevator (or lift, as they were called at the time) carries visitors to the top of a 66-foot scaffold alluding to the Arrol Gantry which aided in the construction of the sister ships, and from here, they are transported via a cart on a ride through other recreated elements of the shipyard, scale replica sections of Titanic’s rudder and bow, as well as photos and motion picture footage depicting what it took to build the biggest ships in the world. Gallery three – The Launch marks the completion of Titanic’s hull and her launching into the River Lagan with a large window showing the finished hull on the slipway before clearing away to show the area as it appears to today.

     With the empty hull in the water, visitors move on to the fourth gallery, called The Fit-Out, which features the great vessel going through her final stages of construction as she is fitted out to become a luxury liner. There are examples of cabins from each class, a scale model of the ship, information panels and large pictures of the interiors, and most impressively, a 360-degree CGI tour of the ship – going through seven levels from the engine room to the navigation bridge (seen in the above video). This leads to experiencing life aboard the ship itself in the fifth gallery – The Maiden Voyage. Here, visitors can walk on the deck, have a seat on a bench, and take in the views of Belfast Harbour while also viewing the famous photos taken by Father Francis Browne aboard the ship during his overnight passage on the first leg of the voyage from Southampton to Queenstown (now Cobh) via Cherbourg, France.

Gallery featuring Father Browne's collection of photos and deck benches with views of the harbor and atrium, as if on  Titanic  herself. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast ( Top Left  and  Bottom Right ) via  Flickr   CC

Gallery featuring Father Browne's collection of photos and deck benches with views of the harbor and atrium, as if on Titanic herself. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast (Top Left and Bottom Right) via Flickr CC

     Of course, the happiness and good feeling doesn’t last as Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic with a great loss of life. For this, galley six – The Sinking features a cold room and simulated water to immerse the visitor into the conditions experienced by the Titanic and the souls aboard her that night in 1912. The beeping Morse Code signals carrying Titanic’s distress call in form of CQD and SOS are heard, as well as audio from survivors giving their gripping accounts of the unfolding disaster, accompanied by the images of the great liner foundering.

Graphic novel-like depiction of the sinking  Titanic . Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Graphic novel-like depiction of the sinking Titanic. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Also depicted is the confusion and contradictory reporting reports in the media during the early hours following the sinking. This leads into the seventh gallery of The Aftermath, where there is a full-sized replica lifeboat on which a large double-sided television screen displays the portrayals of the American and British inquiries into the disaster. There are also interactive tablets allowing people to search a database and see if they had a relative on board, as well as information on Harland and Wolff to the present day and careers of Titanic’s sister ships.

The Aftermath Gallery featuring a replica lifeboat and representation of the present-day Harland and Wolff gantry cranes. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

The Aftermath Gallery featuring a replica lifeboat and representation of the present-day Harland and Wolff gantry cranes. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Following this, the Myths and Legends section in gallery eight deals with Titanic in popular culture, including books, plays, poems, films, songs, and other media that have been inspired by the ship for over a century. Clips and excerpts from these are featured, along with various Titanic memorabilia as Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On plays in the background. There are also more interactive tablets, this time providing answers to long-standing myths surrounding the Titanic.

Myths and Legends meet reality as  Titanic  appears on various Media. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Myths and Legends meet reality as Titanic appears on various Media. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     The ninth and final gallery is Titanic Beneath, which brings Titanic’s story up to the present with the discovery of her wreck by Dr. Robert Ballard, and a video about the discovery and exploration of the wreck is available for viewing in an experience made to feeling as though the visitor is underwater. Further on is a glass floor revealing a mosaic of the Titanic floating underneath as she appears today on the ocean floor, as well as more information of the wreck and the debris around it.

Looking two-and-a-half miles "down" to the  Titanic's  final resting place in the ninth gallery of the Titanic Belfast Experience. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Looking two-and-a-half miles "down" to the Titanic's final resting place in the ninth gallery of the Titanic Belfast Experience. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Under this is the Ocean Exploration Centre, which features additional experiences with regard to Titanic as well as an educational facility drawing on expertise and resources from local universities, with a marine biologist on hand and a focus on the waters of Northern Ireland and images from Dr. Ballard’s expeditions throughout the world in the hope that Titanic may spawn interest in this area of study for future generations.

The Ocean Exploration Centre. Image Credit: all Titanic Belfast (  Top Left ,  Top Middle ,  Top Right ,  Bottom Left , and  Bottom Right ) Via  Flickr   CC ; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

The Ocean Exploration Centre. Image Credit: all Titanic Belfast ( Top Left, Top Middle, Top Right, Bottom Left, and Bottom Right) Via Flickr CC; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

     This whole experience can be done in 2-3 hours, though Titanic aficionados may naturally spend more time. In addition to the main exhibition, the building also features gift shops with Titanic memorabilia (including plates with the White Star Line logo), places to eat, and areas for booking events such as conferences and receptions – including a room featuring a stylized replica of the Grand Staircase. In the greater expanse of Titanic Quarter, there are the slipways on which Titanic and her sister’s were built – which have been turned into a nice walking plaza, the SS Nomadic – the last White Star liner and one of the tenders which serviced Titanic at Cherbourg, the Drawing Offices where the vessels were designed, Titanic Studios (where Game of Thrones is filmed), the Thompson Graving Dock, which was built to accommodate Titanic for dry-docking purposes, and nearby are the modern-day facilities of Harland and Wolff – dominated by the yellow gantry cranes, Samson and Goliath. Furthermore, within the the plaza which surrounds the Titanic Belfast building, there is a large map of the Northern Hemisphere which shows Titanic's maiden voyage track and features benches which form a Morse Code sequence which reads: “DE (this is) MGY MGY MGY (Titanic’s call sign) CQD CQD SOS SOS CQD (the distress calls radioed from the ship)”.

Aerial view of Titanic Belfast, with the slipways ( Olympic's  on the right and  Titanic's  on the left) above it and the Drawing Offices to the Right. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Aerial view of Titanic Belfast, with the slipways (Olympic's on the right and Titanic's on the left) above it and the Drawing Offices to the Right. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Titanic Belfast is open year-around save for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (December 24-26) and times vary depending on the season. Tickets can be purchased for the main exhibition experience alone or for the Titanic Discovery Tour, a walking tour of the slipways, Drawing Offices, and other features in the immediate area of Titanic Belfast. Visitors can also join in special events for afternoon tea and Christmas. There's also the White Star Premium Pass to access the main experience, the Discovery Tour, and the Nomadic, which ought to make make for an exciting, educational, and memorable experience.

     For Belfast and its citizens, a memorable experience is exactly what they want visitors to have as the city strives to march forward confidently into the future. What’s remarkable is that until fairly recently, Titanic was not embraced so much by the city, for it was considered a mark of shame to have built a vessel that sank on its only voyage less than a fortnight after leaving her birthplace. With the discovery of the wreck and further confirmation that Titanic was a liner of sound workmanship, the city has done more to promote its connection to her, which has led to a cheeky saying that “she was fine when she left.” The popularity of James Cameron’s 1997 film helped bring Titanic to a new generation, as well as increased interest in Belfast, so that Titanic Belfast is in many ways, the culmination of the city’s reconnection with and pride in its most famous product, as well as sign of its renewal and regeneration. This reached new levels of success this year with the attraction welcoming its three millionth visitors and being named the Leading Visitor Attraction in Europe by the prestigious World Travel Awards – the “Tourism Oscars” – and seeing off competition such as the Eiffel Tower. Through Titanic, Belfast is indeed continuing to build for itself a positive reputation and showing that it is turning a corner in its long and layered history.

Grand View of the River Lagan, Belfast Harbour, the city itself and beyond. At Left are the gantry cranes of Harland & Wolff,  Samson  and  Goliath ; below them is the Thompson Graving Dock, were  Titanic  was partly fitted out; to the right is Titanic Studios in the large brown building, and further over is Titanic Belfast and the slipways. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   cc

Grand View of the River Lagan, Belfast Harbour, the city itself and beyond. At Left are the gantry cranes of Harland & Wolff, Samson and Goliath; below them is the Thompson Graving Dock, were Titanic was partly fitted out; to the right is Titanic Studios in the large brown building, and further over is Titanic Belfast and the slipways. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr cc

See more photos of Titanic Belfast on its Flickr account here and here.

A Country, Indeed

Individual British coins coming together to make the Royal shield of the United Kingdom. Image Credit:  DaveKentUK  via  Flickr   cc

Individual British coins coming together to make the Royal shield of the United Kingdom. Image Credit: DaveKentUK via Flickr cc

     Last week, SNP MEP Alyn Smith went before the EU parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Affairs to assert that the “UK is not a country” and called on the committee to view the UK as merely a “state made up of four countries” and to see that two of those countries (including Scotland) voted for the UK to keep its membership of the European Union in the referendum which was held on June 23rd.

     The aim of Mr. Smith was to convince his colleagues in Brussels to put aside the UK-wide vote to terminate membership of the EU and instead focus on the result of each of the home nations as if there was a separate vote held in each of them with the ballot papers asking if they wanted their individual part of the UK to stay in or leave the EU, and to therefore treat Scotland as a special case with regard to remaining in the EU as the overall UK prepares to leave.

     He pleaded with the committee members to not “turn your back on all of us now” and that under First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a panel of expert advisors has been assembled to look at all options for Holyrood to pursue following the Brexit vote, and promised that this panel would before long come to the committee with “solutions” for Scottish participation in the EU. Pending such solutions, he said that the committee ought to wait before making any “precipitous move” to shut down attempts for an easy transition to Scotland being an EU member in its own right – perhaps with some of the UK’s opt-outs.

     However, despite the pleasantries exchanged between Sturgeon and some leaders of the EU in her charm offensive to win support for her position on Scotland and the EU, as well as the standing ovation Smith received for his impassioned speech to the EU Parliament, it appears that there is little appetite to deal with Scotland as a separate case from the UK with regard to Brexit since the UK is the sovereign entity which holds EU membership. That, and the fact that there are other EU countries which have separatist issues within their borders, and will not wish to have a special deal for Scotland being used as precedent for those wishing to break them up. The Spanish are almost certain to use their veto to prevent such a precedent from being established, and their legal position (as stated by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy) is that the UK as a whole must leave the EU and then Scotland – if it became independent – would have to put in an application to become a new EU member.

     This is the position of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Europe Minister, David Lidington, as well as Sir David Edward, a former European Court judge who is a member of the First Minster’s special panel. He warned a Holyrood committee and also told the BBC that obtaining Scottish membership would be impossible to negotiate while the UK leaves the EU during the two year period following the invocation of Article 50 to start the real process of Brexit and raised concerns about “complications” such as customs duties on goods and services going between Scotland and the rest of the UK, as well as the real possibility that an independent Scotland may have to start life outside the EU.

     Nevertheless, Smith, Sturgeon, and others in the SNP can be counted on to keep pressing forward with whatever morsel of an argument they can find, because what they are really after is a second referendum to break up the UK. An affirmative result in their favor is made easier by getting assurances that Scotland will have a smooth transition to independent EU membership, and this is made easier by convincing the powers that be on the Continent to view EU referendum results as those of four separate countries voting separately, rather than as one country voting as one. Hence, Smith’s assertion that the “UK is not a country.”

     This claim is one of the things which has been a source of irritation during the independence referendum and since. The purpose is to delegitimize the United Kingdom as a country – as something with a heart and soul – and instead characterize it as just a state – as a made-up construct with no soul or value beyond that of a few monetary exchanges. It’s about making people feel no sense of purpose or belonging within the UK, and with the hope that they will see it as something with little or no meaning to them to the point that they will be willing to break it up.

     The reality is that the United Kingdom is a country, with all of the attributes of a country; it has its own head of state, parliament, citizenship, armed forces, passport, currency, anthem, flag, internationally-recognized borders, membership of international institutions, and international presence via a global network of embassies.

     However, aside from these legal and bare essentials for being a country, there’s much more to the United Kingdom; the listed attributes are merely the bones which hold up the meat of what makes the UK a country.

     Indeed, it is fair to say that the UK is a state, but it is more than that, for it is a multinational nation-state; both a union of nations (just as the US is a union of 50 states) and a nation of unions built over hundreds of years which celebrates the cultures of its constituent parts, which in turn contributes to the overall culture and society of the United Kingdom as a whole and the concept of being British. What we think of today as Britishness has been brought about by the full and joint political, economic, and social union of the home nations into a single country, known as the United Kingdom. Each part has greatly contributed to that, and to remove any part would mean removing something essential about the UK.

     For my part, I have never thought of the United Kingdom as being divided according to the English, Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish. For me, it has been one country made of different peoples with much in common, and with the borders between them virtually meaningless.

     For this reason, the UK belongs to everyone within its borders, and it is indeed not only a country, but one which has meaning and a soul embedded within it. I look at the vast expanse of Britain – from the Welsh valleys, to the green and pleasant land of England, to the Scottish Highlands, and Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway and take wonder in the beauty of this one land – indivisible. I look at the radiance of the UK’s great cities – from Glasgow to Manchester, Belfast to Inverness, from Aberdeen to Cardiff, Liverpool to Southampton, and from Birmingham to Edinburgh to London, and remain in awe of these places that are the engines of Britain’s prosperity.

     When I hear songs like I Vow to Thee My Country, I think of the nation by which we have stood beside through decades of peace and war. When I listen to Heart of Oak, I think of great British ships that exported Britain around the world and helped to connect it. With Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope of Glory, I also think about the country that did so well at the 2012 Olympic Games by being united and which also celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of its storied Queen.

     Yet for all of these great things, I am not at all blinded by visions of the United Kingdom as perfect country.

     There is poverty and economic suffering currently going on throughout the entire United Kingdom, for the downturn of recent years has caused pain for many people, and now there is Brexit with which to contend. I know that it is not entirely a land of hope and glory, but that does not mean that it cannot be or strive toward it.

     Britain has been – and is – a great country, and much of that greatness stems from the fact that it once governed the largest empire in human history. The British Empire is long gone, but positive influences from Britain around the world live on to the present day, and the UK is still a leader in world affairs. This is something in which the people ought to take some pride.

     It should also take pride in its cultural exports, such as James Bond, the Beatles, and Harry Potter – all of which hail from the land of Shakespeare and Burns. There are other contributions, like developing democracy and social welfare and leading the world in the industrial revolution, and still more, its venerable institutions such as the NHS, the monarchy, the BBC, Parliament, and the Armed Forces, all of which – in spite of their shortcomings – provide the glue that underpin British society and bind the British people together.

     I see all of these things, and I think to myself: what a wonderful country, this sceptered isle, or rather isles – these Isles of Wonder, which were so beautifully portrayed by Danny Boyle at the Olympics nearly four years ago.

     I cannot help but to have admiration for what Britain has done in the past, and – as the Games themselves displayed – have hope for what Britain can do in the future, both at home and abroad.

     Over the last weekend, the country united around Andy Murray as he won his second Wimbledon title, as well as Gordon Reid winning the inaugural wheelchair singles event at the storied and prestigious tournament – providing a ray of sunshine and excitement to a country deeply divided over the Brexit vote and still reeling from the fallout. Earlier, the country united around Wales as it became the last Home Nation standing in the Euro football tournament, and in a few weeks, it will again unite around Team GB for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

     All of this is a real-life display to show that while the UK is made up of different parts and its people have multiple identities, they also come together as Britons to fuse their individual talents into a national synergy which paves the way for the achievement of great things like athletic victories. It certainly shows that Britain is hardly a clapped-out and washed-up former imperial power; her old Empire has been successfully transformed into the Commonwealth, and the country itself had carried on in modern times. It still has much going for it when the people believe in themselves and are willing to join together in common efforts to advance the country and themselves.

     When taken altogether, with the bonds linking the UK as tight as they are in the course of over 300 years as a country, a break-up of the UK will likely be far more tragic, regrettable, and painful than that of the UK leaving the European Union on several levels, not least where the economy and trade is concerned. Therefore, it is in the best interest of Scotland to have representatives at the table of the UK negotiating team to help create a deal that is beneficial for everyone (especially when considering that more Scots on a higher turnout voted to keep the UK together two years ago and the EU referendum was a UK-wide vote, which Sturgeon acknowledged by campaigning and taking part in debates throughout the country).

     Indeed, without Scotland, there can be no Britain, and the UK is not just about England, or London, or [big, bad] Westminster, or the [evil] Tories. There is a social, cultural, and perhaps even, a spiritual element to the UK that I believe gets lost in the debates about the constitution, the EU, devolution, oil, the Barnett Formula, and etc. It was that element of the UK that is truly in danger, and continues to be at risk – that element which helps to bind the people together into one as they join into a common culture with shared values and beliefs, and participate in many of the same things, while also maintaining the elements that make them distinct from each other.

     But even then, the distinctions all contribute to the social and cultural fabric of the United Kingdom, for Scottish culture contributes as much to British culture as English culture, and when you break it down further, there a varying cultures within England and Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales which enrich their respective home nation and the UK as a whole. The Glaswegian accent is as British as the Cockney and Scouser accents; Ynys Môn (Anglesey) is as British as Orkney; Yorkshire pudding is as British as haggis. When one thinks of Britain, they must – without fail – think of the country in its entirety from Shetland to Land’s End.

     There are many people, both at home and abroad (including yours truly) who value and appreciate the UK because of its diversity and because of the overlapping identities shared amongst its people. We believe that there is something special about the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish being part of the same country – with all those languages and dialects, foods, landmarks, landscapes, and towns and cities – a modern country that values its storied past and heritage, but also embraces modernity and the future, especially now in these times.

     If Sturgeon and the SNP wish to be constructive with regard to Brexit, then according to Stephen Daisley of STV, she can either “be an equal partner in a grown-up political process” and stop with the “constitutional game-playing” and indyref2 threats, or she can “pander to her excitable grassroots”, but cannot do both. A similar choice must be made by the new prime minister, Theresa May, with regard to her own hard-line Brexit caucus within the Conservative Party.

     The time is fast approaching to come together and do what’s good for the United Kingdom as a country and for all of its people, so as to ensure that it is better off and stronger going forward.

Reflections on Brexit and Moving Forward

Map of the United Kingdom displaying the results of the EU referendum via the strength of the Remain/Leave vote in each county/council area. Image Credit:  Mirrorme22  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

Map of the United Kingdom displaying the results of the EU referendum via the strength of the Remain/Leave vote in each county/council area. Image Credit: Mirrorme22 via Wikimedia Commons cc

     It has taken time for me to get my thoughts together on the aftermath of the unexpected Brexit vote. Indeed, I fully expected that the United Kingdom would retain its membership of the European Union in last Thursday’s referendum, with the result being a close one, but still being a Remain vote and the country moving forward on that basis. There would need to be national healing and reconciliation of course after such a bruising and personal campaign, but the status quo would hold and potential constitutional, political, and economic disruption would be avoided.

     However, that did not happen and the decision to leave the EU was quite a shock to just about everyone, including those who voted Leave and expected to Remain.

     To be sure, it was a clear result, narrow but clear at 52% for Leave and 48% for Remain, and it was the express will of the British people, which must be respected. Nevertheless, the result has made a divided nation ever more divided, as new rifts have opened up and existing ones further exacerbated, as the country enters into a period of uncertainty as it confronts the future.

     David Cameron has announced his resignation as prime minister in the wake of losing the historic vote and Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn has been facing calls to stand down from the leadership of the Labour Party and even threats of a leadership challenge as many of his MP’s are unhappy with what they saw as his lackluster support for the Remain campaign, and are not confident in his ability to lead the party to a general election victory – either in 2020 or sooner depending on the outcome of the Conservative leadership election.

     That very election appeared to be almost a formality with former London mayor Boris Johnson as the favorite to succeed Cameron in large part to his leading role in the Leave campaign. Yet, this has been upended by another prominent Brexiter, Michael Gove, who was expected to back Johnson, but has announced he will stand for the leadership on the basis that he does not believe Johnson is capable of uniting a fractured country. Not long after that, Johnson pulled himself out of contention for the keys to Downing Street – throwing more another lump of uncertainty into the repercussions of the referendum.

     Those repercussions include the impact on the economy; financial markets throughout the world tumbled upon the news of Brexit and the pound plunged to levels not seen since the 1980’s. Both have since become more steady since the initial first couple of days, perhaps in part due to the behind-the-scenes work by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney in reassuring the markets and taking appropriate measures to promote stability and mitigate the fall-out from the vote on the 23rd.

     Still, the UK having its credit rating downgraded from (gold-standard) AAA to AA status by rating agencies who have also downgraded the UK’s economic outlook is concerning and ought to be concerning for everyone as seemingly abstract economic and financial forces have real impacts on people’s lives. In addition, much of the economy’s future will hinge on the results of UK’s exit deal from the EU and the ability of Britain to obtain favorable free-trade deals with the EU itself (with access to the single market) as well as several individual countries.

     Furthermore, there is the issue of the racist incidents and hate crimes that have occurred since the vote. To be fair, such things have happened before and are not entirely new, but given the role of the immigration issue in this campaign, it has only confirmed the view of some people that Brexit was driven by a dislike for immigrants and is not a good show for a country known for its sensible nature and general tolerance for foreigners. These incidents need to be condemned in the strongest terms and action must be taken against those causing unnecessary societal disturbances and making people feel unwelcome in a country where they have made a home, built a life, had children, and been contributing to the economy for years.

     On this point, there is the question of what happens to those non-British EU citizens who currently live, work, or study in the UK, as well as British citizens living abroad in other parts of the EU (of whom I know quite a few), and this has to be solved in a manner that is fair to all parties as well as humane, for real lives and livelihoods hang in the balance.

     In the week gone by, I’ve been concerned about all of these things as the reality of Brexit settles in on people, just as I was concerned about them before the vote. Now that it was happened and will in all likelihood be made official by Parliament and invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (to begin the official two year process of terminating EU membership), minds will be focused on negotiations that will take place and the result of them.

     There will also be a focus on the internal struggles within the UK itself, for though the UK as a whole voted to terminate its membership of the EU, London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland all voted to have the UK keep its membership of the EU and the realities of a country divided were seen in stark relief on the maps displaying the results of the vote.

     The capital city, with its global financial services industry and culturally diverse population, is concerned about the effect of Brexit on its economy and ability to be a critical gateway and international hub. In Northern Ireland, there is concern over the peace process and the open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – the only land border which the UK shares with another country – which in part have been underpinned by the Republic and the UK both being members of the EU. These issues will have to be resolved in a suitable manner.

     With regard to Scotland, I had hoped that with the SNP losing its majority and support for separation appearing to stagnate at best, that perhaps we had gotten to a turning point away from the inward-looking constitutional obsessions of the SNP.  Even with the Nats preparing for their summer independence campaign (a.k.a., the “Summer of Love”), it appeared that things had gone somewhat muted on the separation front. This may have been due to the EU referendum taking up much of the political space in Britain, but even then, I had a feeling that Scotland was moving forward as part of the UK with no immediate threat of another referendum and it appeared that the UK was going to vote Remain in the EU referendum – therefore avoiding further constitutional disruption.

     The surprise Leave vote has – at least for the time being – upended that prospect and the SNP has been given new life to go about its grievance-mongering and push for a second independence referendum on the basis that Scotland voted 2-to-1 for the UK to retain its EU membership while the UK overall voted to terminate it on a much more narrow vote. This was the nightmare scenario in which the SNP could complain that Scotland was being “dragged out” of the EU “against its will” due to the strength of the Leave vote in England and Wales, and then claim that this was a “material change” in circumstances from when Scotland voted to keep the UK together in September 2014. Indeed, there were many people who rejected independence back then on the basis that the UK held EU membership and Scotland did not, but may well vote the other way in a future referendum – especially if Scotland became a member of the EU in its own right or they saw independence as the means for Scotland to attain EU membership (notwithstanding the steep obstacles to EU membership for an independent Scotland, which are laid out in this blog post by my Twitter friend, Keith Steele, as well as in The Scotsman by Bill Jamieson).

     Before long, a Sunday Post poll claimed that support for separation had surged to 59% – just short of the 60% Nicola Sturgeon has cited as the number she needs for a consistent period to move forward with a second referendum and win it. But if that appeared scary, another poll by Survation reported (perhaps a more realistic) 49% support for separation and 42% support for staying in the Union, or 52%-48% when don’t knows are stripped out, which is still a ten point swing from the last time that poll was taken in April, which showed support for the Union at 47% and separation at 44%. Yet, that poll also showed that 45% of Scots opposed a second referendum in contrast to 42% in favor, which may indicate that while independence may be somewhat favorable, there is a lukewarm appetite for yet another referendum.

     Furthermore, it is totally possible that this is a knee-jerk reaction in the face of the Brexit result and that with time, any bounce for the separation cause will cool off (and it may also be of some worth to note that more Scots voted to keep the United Kingdom together on a much higher turn-out than for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU).

     Nonetheless, anyone who supports continuing the United Kingdom ought to be concerned about any polling which shows independence in the majority, or at least with more support than staying in the Union. It does no good to discount polling simply because it offers results going in contrast to one’s preferred option, for all that will do is engender a sense of denial and complacency which will prevent pro-Union supporters from fully understanding what needs to be done now and in the weeks, months, and years to come. Indeed, it was – I believe – complacency and a lack of imagination which cost pro-Union folks the 70-30 victory they had wanted to put the independence issue away for a long time.

     Of particular concern will be those who voted No in 2014 and Remain in 2016. There are many among that group of people who feel, at the very least, disillusioned with the UK in the aftermath of by what happened last week, possibly even betrayed. For them, there is no sense in denying that circumstances have changed and it is severely unhelpful to browbeat them by claiming that they are unpatriotic, traitors, or the like, and furthermore, they have every right to re-asses their position on the Union.

     My pitch to them would be that they should think of bigger picture with regard to the UK as a whole and not go down a path of creating more uncertainty piled on the uncertainty which already exists. Another way to put it is that current situation is precarious enough and need not be further exacerbated. Yes, you did not vote for this result, but neither did millions of your fellow citizens in Scotland and throughout the UK, and breaking up the UK will not be helpful to you or any of them. On the whole, the UK is still a better option than separation; for example, the rest of the UK and the UK’s domestic single market is of more importance to Scotland than the EU, with vastly more Scottish exports going to the rest of the UK than to the EU. Going forward, I hope this reality and other things will weigh on the counsels of people who may be thinking again about whether they support continuing the UK, and that they will take time for the dust to settle and think with a good mix of rationality and emotion to come to the conclusion that sticking with the UK is the better deal, for the world still needs the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom still needs Scotland.

     Indeed, everyone throughout Britain would do well to keep calm and take things a day at a time, especially after this referendum which proved to be so divisive, just as the one in Scotland had been to the point of causing horrible rifts between friends, within families, and young and old. The referendum and since have brought about an undeniably an ugly tone in British politics and society these days. I have see it every day on Twitter and Facebook, where people are demonized for what they believe in, shouted down and told to f**k off; where unfair accusations are made against those who hold those beliefs and where tempers flared and emotions were overflowing.

     Really, it is very sad to see the UK as bitterly divided as it is along so many fault lines. On a personal level, it has been painful and disappointing to watch friends and acquaintances from the campaign to keep the UK together going at each other over this issue and other that are related to it.

     Going into this referendum, I was concerned about the potential consequences for the economy, Britain’s standing in the world, peace and security, the impact on people’s lives and livelihoods, and the UK itself. Those concerns are true today and have been heightened by the edginess of the political atmosphere which took hold during the referendum and has been carried into the current circumstances.

     The nation needs to needs to heal itself in a big way following these last couple of years of constitutional wrangling between Scotland and the EU. Indeed, it may have been better to have held the EU referendum much later, so as to give it more space after the Scottish referendum and allow for the passions and feelings emanating from it to calm down before going onto another emotional and divisive vote affecting the constitutional structure of the country (which I believe ought to only be valid with a vast majority of the voters electing to change it).

     As with the Scottish referendum, this one was motivated by dissatisfaction with the status quo, the feeling of alienation from the political establishment, and a distrust of elites of all kinds. In many ways, those in power over the generations have themselves to blame for where we are currently, for it was they who failed to provide adequate answers to the issues of ordinary people who struggled with the effects of an ever-changing and increasingly global economy, as well as economic and societal pressures of immigration. The killing of MP Jo Cox, though it may not have been motivated by politics, still added to what has very much become an ugly atmosphere as discontent with the present system bubbled to the surface, and of course, this discontent is felt throughout the Western world, including America.

     Going forward now that the referendum has passed, everyone needs to reflect upon what has happened and go forth to work together to hammer out a just and fair settlement. In this light, it would be preferable for the SNP to be at the table of the UK team to offer assistance in these efforts, for there is a long and proud history of Scottish influence on the shaping of British diplomacy and foreign policy. My hope is that whatever happens, the United Kingdom will stay together and that people of goodwill will strive to make it a better place for everyone.

     Indeed, I must say that I love Britain. I value Britain. I respect Britain. I think highly of Britain and have given the better part of two years focused on keeping it together. I deeply care about Britain and its people, and wish nothing but the best for it in the years to come as it looks forward to its future.

     Along with Jo Cox, the beloved husband of one of my very good friends in Britain also passed away that day after a long and well-lived life. He served his country in the armed forces, and was from all accounts, a good patriot, father, husband, teacher, and all-around gentleman. Like Cox, I’m sure that he wanted was to pass on a better country and a better world to future generations.

     Their passing can be a reminder of the fleeting nature of life and the need to live our lives to the fullest extent, stop bitterness and needless violence against one another, and to work in a common effort to solve the problems we face with debates, discussions, and solutions befitting the lives they led.

     To the people of the UK, I say that in these challenging times, you need each other now more than ever. You’ve all been through so much over 300 years – fighting together to save the country from tyranny, exploring and trading with the world, exporting yourself culturally, standing up for basic rights and freedoms, pushing to advance social justice, and so much more. The centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme beginning on Friday are a testament to that.

     Indeed, you still have much more that unites you than divides you, and you need to move forward together as one country with a positive attitude and vision for the future, so as to aim for securing the best possible deal with regard to the EU and trading relationships with countries throughout the world, which means working toward a settlement which is beneficial for the UK as a whole, including its constituent parts and projecting Britain as an outward-looking and forward-thinking country robustly engaged in world affairs to help tackle the problems facing us all while taking care of its citizens at home, which are not mutually-exclusive.

     Perhaps this positive hope for the future can be expressed in the patriotic tune I Vow to Thee, My Country, which speaks of a love of country and doing good for it and the people, without malice or prejudice toward others.