Today is the anniversary of two different unions that have had a profound effect on the UK and its people.
The first was the Union of Ireland with England, Scotland and Wales on 1st January 1801. It was a union that many Catholics never wanted. Its early years were made worse for the Catholic majority in Ireland by Pitts failure to deliver the promised catholic Emancipation measure through the United Kingdom Parliament. This Act of Union may have had the agreement of the Irish Parliament of the time, and did lead to 100 Irish MPs appearing at Westminster, but it also ushered in a century and two decades of unrest culminating in the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921. It showed that if you do not base Unions and governing arrangements on overwhelming support, and the consent of the governed, the system will be unstable. The support of many Protestants was not enough: there needed to be common agreement to a system of government seen to be fair by both sides of the religious divide.
The second was the entry of the United Kingdom into the European Economic Community on January 1st 1973. This ushered in years of argument of a non violent kind over how the UK should be governed and who should have the right to make decisions. The government of the day did not gather the whole hearted support of the people for the original entry. A subsequent government did allow a referendum in 1975 in order to conceal its own major split on the issue, but in the debate over the referendum the ??Yes?? to Europe side concentrated on extolling the virtues of freer trade and more jobs, playing down any suggestion that significant power would be taken away from the British people to govern themselves. Unsurprisingly the ??Yes?? side won easily, defending the status quo by inviting people to vote ??Yes?? to staying in the EEC and ??Yes?? to more jobs. There was little debate about the meaning and significance of the Treaty phrase, seeking ??ever closer union??.
The fact that this consent is now 32 years old means that many of todays voters have had no chance to express their views on how much power they want the EU to enjoy. The fact that the consent at the time was regarded by most who voted ??Yes?? as consent to freer trade and more jobs, not to ever more power of self government being removed, has left many of those who did vote ??Yes?? feeling uneasy. Above all ,the transformation of something called the ??Common Market?? in the referendum debates of 1975 into a fully fledged EU with powers over most parts of government activity should in itself trigger the need as well as the demand for a new referendum.
The 1st January is an important reminder to governments who care about public opinion that enforced Unions can go horribly wrong. It is also a reminder that the European Union has not been established in the UK with the full hearted consent of the current electorate. The overwhelming majority think there should be a vote on the latest proposed transfer of power, and believe that too much power has already been transferred. It is high time the government made the case and trusted the judgement of the people.