Brian Feeney: Keir Starmer will be the last prime minister of the UK

Labour leader likely to be in power for next decade, by which time north will have voted itself out

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer
Will Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer be the last prime minister of the UK as we know it? (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

Life-long supporters of the Conservative and Unionist Party must be dismayed by their rout in what people are calling “a landmark election”.

In one way, however, it has conformed to the pattern of British politics for the last 45 years: long periods of one-party government, followed by a heavy defeat and a long period in the wilderness. Thus, 18 years of Thatcher followed by 13 years of Labour, then 14 years of Conservatives. It’s generally assumed Starmer will be in for at least 10 years.

In another important respect though, this result is different and more consequential.

In 1997, when Blair defeated the Conservatives, they went off to lick their wounds and reinvent themselves under Cameron. This time is completely different. Despite Marx’s assertion, history doesn’t repeat itself; the Conservatives now have a rival on their right and there is the distinct possibility that the party will split. At the minimum the Conservatives will lurch right and become an English nationalist party similar to Marine Le Pen’s in France.

There’s another aspect, and that is the change in Britishness over the last 15 to 20 years. Partly that’s due to demographic restructuring, which has led to the weakening of British identity in all parts of the UK including here. It’s also due to the misbehaviour of the overwhelmingly English Conservative governments in their relations with Scotland, Wales and here.

Not surprising in some ways when you consider 84% of the UK population live in England. However, the net effect has been to weaken the union with Scotland and unmistakably with the north of Ireland. Conservatives have become extinct outside England.

So much so that the most important consequence of this election and the likely long duration of Labour government into the 2030s is that Keir Starmer is on track to be the last prime minister of the UK, for the north will vote itself out.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer arrives at Stormont to hold meeting with party leaders during the final day of his three day visit to Dublin and Belfast. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to Stormont

No need to panic. Nothing startling will happen in the next five years, for Ireland is not on Starmer’s ‘to do’ list. However, politics never stands still.

While Starmer is doing nothing about this place except to restore the equilibrium of the various parts of the Good Friday Agreement, including exercising ‘rigorous impartiality’ as the GFA demands, demography will be heading inexorably towards a nationalist majority.

Without going into the intricacies of the statistics, the people who will vote for reunification are at present in school. By 2030 the electoral future of the north will no longer be in the gift of cultural or any other kind of Protestants.

No influential group in England will oppose Starmer’s decision to call a referendum. Polls already show decisively that people in England, Scotland and Wales are either indifferent to, or are in favour of, Irish reunification. There’s no emotional attachment to the north. Politically for any English politician there’s no percentage in it.

Economically there is no attraction in remaining shackled to Britain, which is in decline and on course to be overtaken by Poland. The Financial Times showed in 2022 the poorest in the UK are worse off than their counterparts in Slovenia. The north’s health system can’t compete with Sláintecare. Consultants are leaving in droves to double their salaries in the south, GP services are collapsing.

For young people with little or no feeling of Britishness, what’s the point of remaining in the most impoverished part of these islands? What can it offer except sentiment, and that butters no parsnips.

Another factor has emerged, and that’s the growing awareness among Dublin politicians of these trends.

Leo Varadkar’s remarks at the Ireland’s Future SSE conference were not off the cuff. Reinforcing that was an important interview Neale Richmond TD, financial services minister, gave to the Sunday Business Post in which he said his party’s election manifesto would contain more detail than in previous campaigns on “the future of our island”.

General Election Ireland 2020
Fine Gael’s Neale Richmond

Richmond, someone who has long advocated deeper planning on unity, had spoken to Varadkar before the SSE event so knew what he was going to say. Varadkar’s proposal for a sovereign wealth fund to help finance reunification and his hope that “we’ll see what is a long-standing political aspiration towards unification become a political objective” for the next Irish government was significant.

It’s true that so far Starmer has gone out of his way to show he’s no threat to the union, but that’s primarily because he didn’t want to give Conservatives any leverage in Scotland, that union being most important for Britain to maintain.

Going into the next British general election, with new Stormont assembly results and a new Irish government, will be another story.

Starmer is one of those people who subscribes to Keynesian view “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

By 2030, the accumulation of facts will be more than sufficient to be irresistible. They will enable Starmer to go into history as the last prime minister of the UK.