In 2019, Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 2020, he shrank into being prime minister of England. For the second time in less than seven years, the union is in trouble. But this time the problem needs a new question. Forget: ‘Should Scotland be independent?’ The Scots will take care of that. Ask instead: ‘Who in the rest of Britain needs this union with Scotland? And why?’
Through the long Covid months, it was only England that Boris spoke for, and spoke to, at those teatime briefings from Downing Street. Meanwhile, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland did their own devolved things. Drivers crossing the Severn into Wales faced courteous police questions. Nicola Sturgeon declined to rule out controls on the Scottish border if there were a fresh surge of infection ‘down south’. All three devolved governments had divergent policies over quarantine for incoming travellers, while England – finding its own voice – did something different again. Time after time, Westminster failed to consult or warn the leaders of the ‘home nations’ about abrupt U-turns in English pandemic strategy.
The United Kingdom was growing disunited not only in word but in deed. It wasn’t only independence-minded Scots who noticed that their country was handling its own coronavirus crisis confidently and – after some horrible early mistakes, principally to do with care homes – more effectively than England. Mark Drakeford, first minister of Wales, confirmed the growing recognition that decisions made in England were made for England, and that ‘home nations’ could and should stand on their own feet (‘we now have a three-nation approach from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland’). Meanwhile, back in London, nobody tried to claim: ‘We are all in this together’ – the slogan used in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and defaced by the monstrous unfairnesses of ‘austerity’. This moment will pass. Covid-19 will gradually disappear from newspaper front pages, and Johnson will return to being a ‘British’ prime minister. And yet the union will never be the same again. A saucy genie of empowerment has escaped from the bottle. As John Curtice wrote in the Herald in July, ‘all the lives of everyone in Scotland have been affected by the devolved government in a way they’ve frankly not been in the previous 21 years of devolution.’
The Anglo-Scottish union was under new strain anyway. We can see now that devolution made sense only in the context of EU membership. The Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh governments lent some of their powers to Brussels, but now London is proposing to take those powers – industrial subsidies, agriculture, fishing – for itself rather than let them revert to Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. The Scottish government is preparing to fight this tooth and nail, now that the Internal Market Bill has been published. The machinery of devolution itself has also rusted. Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh complain that their civil servants are increasingly left in the dark by Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, while the Joint Ministerial Council meetings seem to have shrivelled into a formality. The Dunlop Review, which considered the ways in which the UK government ‘through its institutional arrangements’ might meet ‘the challenge of strengthening and sustaining the union’, was handed in before Christmas; leaks suggest it proposed many urgent reforms, but apparently it may never be published. Instead, Whitehall departments are planning to set up and loudly publicise their own ‘British’ spending programmes, running parallel to the operations of Scottish and Welsh ministries. That was the real motive for the sudden additional funding for the Northern and Western Isles announced during Johnson’s one-day visit to Scotland in July – a reminder of who really calls the shots in the UK.
Rhetoric about ‘strengthening’ the union really means centralising the UK state, so that no alternative source of power can challenge the ‘sovereign’ absolutism of the Westminster parliament. Remember 1986? With a scratch of her pen, Margaret Thatcher ended the democratically elected self-government of English cities. She did it because some of the six ‘metropolitan authorities’, London especially, were daring to pursue their own un-Thatcherite policies. And she got away with it. In a constitutional republic, she would have been impeached. This sort of monarchical atrocity has a long record in the Anglo-British state, which is still, in its dark innards, a 17th-century kingdom.
‘Our precious, precious union’, Theresa May used to wail as she flapped up and down the shires. But precious to whom? And why? Who in England really cares about the union with Scotland? Come to that, what might other islanders in the British archipelago gain if the Scots left it? It depends on whom you ask. For many years, the southern attitude to Scottish independence seemed to be mild: slightly pained but not alarmed. English people old enough to remember the Second World War often said: ‘Seems a pity after all we’ve been through together. But it’s their right, isn’t it?’ Nobody seemed to have given much thought to the value of the union. This April, 40 per cent of a UK sample – which means an even higher percentage of English responses – told YouGov that they felt they had ‘nothing in common with people in Scotland’. Last year, another poll found that 63 per cent of Conservative supporters would sacrifice the union with Scotland if that was the price of Brexit. ‘Precious’ the union clearly was not.
So where are the passionate supporters of the union to be found? In Scotland, above all. There, a great many people believe that they have much to lose – economically, socially, patriotically – if their nation secedes. Although current polls put independence in the lead, Scottish Unionism is still vigorous. And it’s significant that 400,000 out of Scotland’s population of five million were born ‘elsewhere in the UK’ – overwhelmingly in England. More than 72 per cent of this bloc voted ‘No’ to independence in the 2014 referendum. Had they abstained, the result would have been the same, though narrower. But had they voted ‘Yes’, Scotland would today be independent.
Even if ordinary England cares little about the union, its governing, administering and teaching elites – whether socialist, liberal or conservative – claim to care desperately. Among politicians especially, it’s taken as axiomatic that an avalanche of execration and oblivion will thunder down on the British leader who ‘loses Scotland’ (‘loses’ is an interesting word, as if Scotland were not a partner but a possession – a glove down the back of a sofa, or some overseas atoll with a Union Jack and a pelican). A recent column by Tom Gordon in the Herald insisted that by signing a Section 30 Order to allow another independence referendum, Johnson would be signing a ‘death warrant’ for his own premiership, his government, his successor and the Conservative Party itself, as well as the UK. And yet this terror of lynching by patriotic English mobs, this fear that the whole temple will collapse when the Scottish brick is pulled out, remains untested. Almost certainly it’s a myth. A century ago, the British public was agonised over what to do about Ireland, with the Tory Party at one point prepared for civil war in order to defend the integrity of a Protestant empire. But after the Irish Free State was created in 1921, the loss of Ireland scarcely figured in the following year’s election. Instead, British voters hounded their candidates about questions of imperial trade and the rise of the Labour Party.
Why, then, does the establishment cling to this myth, and whom does it serve? There are coherent reasons and opportunistic ones. The Foreign Office, to start with, is well aware of how impatient other nations have grown with British pretensions about belonging to the ‘top table’. ‘Ever since 1945,’ a diplomat once told me, ‘we have managed to prevent Britain’s retreat from greatness from turning into a rout.’ In this view, foreigners would seize on Scottish independence as signifying a historic collapse in the UK’s international influence. Jealous rivals would combine to heave the country out of its permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The British nuclear deterrent, still based in Scotland, might become unsustainable. And then lonely, amputated Brexit Britain would become a helpless satellite of the United States. Oh, and what would become of the monarchy? The queen, it seems, isn’t attracted by invitations to replicate herself as ‘Queen of Scots’.
The union’s superstructure of Britishness also seems to maintain the myth. The elite, or upper crust, or ruling classes – whatever we call them – have a powerful interest in preserving this long-constructed British identity, using it to block the advance of political Englishness. They see English nationalism in class terms: as an angry and envious form of vulgar populism which potentially threatens the whole social order. For two centuries, the Ukanian middle class, in Tom Nairn’s coinage, in striking contrast to the role taken by bourgeois parties on the Continent, denied English popular nationalism a chance to mature into a radical, modernising force. Instead, it has been deliberately defined – by Farage-loathing Conservatives as much as anybody – as the politics of a xenophobic rabble which must at all costs be kept on the fringes.
Those are some of the motives for keeping unionism alive. All are negative. But who (leaving Scotland aside) will gain if the union breaks up? To begin with, English Tories – even if they don’t recognise it. The government has no economic or party political reason to bother about Scotland. The SNP apart, the Scottish parties that could in theory reinforce a Westminster coalition against Johnson’s administration are pitifully weak. And his parliamentary majority means that he doesn’t need the few Scottish Tories to help him stay in power. A great many English voters are convinced – inaccurately – that Scotland enjoys a heavy and unfair subsidy from the English public through the Barnett formula. ‘Allowing the Scots to make their own laws, while freeriding on English taxpayers … is simply unjust,’ Johnson wrote in the Telegraph in 2001. ‘They will come cap in hand to Uncle Sugar in London,’ he went on. ‘And when they do, I propose that we tell them to hop it.’ Some political small change could be earned by supposedly making the Scots pay their own way through independence.
More interesting is the following wicked thought, never quite absent from the English Tory mind. Getting rid of Scotland, with its hostility to English Tory rule, could give the party eternal political dominance over the other nine-tenths of the UK. A giddying prospect! So why wait for the Scots to choose their independence? Why not boot them out right away? A brilliant example lies in recent history. Václav Klaus levered the Slovaks out of Czechoslovakia in 1993 in order to secure his own unchallenged command over the Czech Republic. Like the Scots, the Slovaks were pesky obstacles to his Thatcherite policies, clinging to a strong interventionist state and subsidies for their massive public sector. To dodge blame for ‘losing Slovakia’, Klaus cunningly provoked the Slovak negotiators into making impossible demands whose rejection made independence unavoidable.
William Hague seems to have toyed with this idea when he was opposition leader between 1997 and 2001. But neither he nor David Cameron were brutal and ambitious enough to go for it. No one seems very interested in an English parliament and few people think much of Cameron’s ‘English votes for English laws’ amendments to Commons standing orders. The mass mobilisation of the Brexit vote in 2016 offered right-wing Tories a chance to tame and absorb inchoate English nationalism, to transform it into a disciplined movement under middle-class leaders and with a broadly Conservative programme. The capture of Brexiteering ‘Red Wall’ formerly Labour constituencies in the 2019 election renewed that chance. But, for the class-drenched motives I suggested above, the Tories seem unwilling to take it.
Since 2016, it has been clear that Brexit will never bring a cloudless British independence day. Once again, the Scottish presence is spoiling things. The truth is that since devolution nothing has gone right for Ancient Britons. By introducing democracy into the autocratic union of 1707, devolution revealed the elephant in the room: the colossal population imbalance, with 85 per cent of the union’s inhabitants living in the English ‘partner’. Relative size suddenly came to matter, inflaming contests over sharing resources or legal competences or representation abroad. In this new perspective of asymmetry and mutual suspicion, ‘partnership’ has been discredited as a recognisable description of intra-UK relationships.
Devolution also floodlit something that had seemed irrelevant: the fact that there was no English parliament. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could now identify and tackle some of their own national needs – but was this at the expense of unrepresented English taxpayers? A malevolent sense of victimhood has entered English nationalism, a feeling that the nation that created the UK by force or statesmanship, and which contains the overwhelming mass of its population, wealth and infrastructure, has to stay gagged while freshly promoted provinces make impudent, ungrateful demands.
In Scotland’s 2014 referendum campaign, one apparently humble word became the deadliest weapon. The word was ‘normal’. Again and again, at pro-independence gatherings, I heard people say: ‘I just want my kids to grow up in a normal wee nation, like other countries.’ By this they meant a country which took its own decisions for better or worse, which could feel that its future was in its own hands. But they also meant that the UK was ‘abnormal’. Looking south, they saw a confusing polity with no clear sense of identity or agreed law of state, whose component parts no longer felt any reason to cohere, whose third-rate lawmakers (unelected by Scots) increasingly lacked respect for truth or integrity, and had no vision for the future beyond their own electoral survival.
At the core of the abnormality was England’s difficulty in accepting its Englishness. Not all Britishness is a deceit – any Czech or Italian visitor to Manchester, Swansea, Glasgow, Derry or even Cork will be aware of a common linguistic culture with strong variants – but in politics the moth-eaten remnants of imperial Britishness form a blindfold against the 21st-century world. Britain is an imaginary realm, floating in a category above mere nation states; England is a European country like its neighbours. Britain is exceptional and must express itself in superlatives (‘world-beating’, ‘global leader’, ‘most efficient on the planet’); England is a medium-sized country with first-rate scientists and rotten management. Britain dreams of becoming a heavily armed, swaggering pirate power, defying international rules; England is a minor, sceptical nation with a taste for satire and democracy.
England must be liberated. But Brexit, and the cynical chauvinism of the Johnson government, and the xenophobia of the Faragists, can’t achieve that. It’s the union with Scotland that holds the decayed Ukanian fabric together. End it, and the unique intimacy between England and Scotland – Alex Salmond’s ‘social union’ – can flourish in a confederation of independent states. End the timed-out union, and allow England to encounter itself at last.