A short history of the future: the story of the beginning of the break-up of the UK
Chapter in Mark Perryman (ed.), Imagined Nation: England after Britain, Lawrence and Wishart 2008
I think the unravelling, should it come, would probably be a protracted nightmare. It would be a divorce, a division of the spoils on a kind of epic, spectacular scale. If we think of such issues as the army, things like British embassies overseas, Britain’s permanent representation on the United Nations – all of these things would have to be unravelled and negotiated and fixed somehow. And I suspect that that would be extremely difficult, it would take a very long time, and I think that maybe for one or two years Great Britain – and I use that term advisedly – would just kind of go out of business in terms of its relations with the rest of the world while all this was sorted.
David Cannadine, A Beginner’s Guide to Separation, BBC Radio 4 (1)
‘Come on’, he said. ‘It’s not a trick question. Just name me one thing he did that Washington wouldn’t have approved of. Let’s think.’ He held up his thumb. ‘One: deployment of British troops to the Middle East, against the advice of just about every senior commander in our armed forces and all of our ambassadors who know the region. Two’ – up went his right index finger – ‘complete failure to demand any kind of quid pro quo from the White House in terms of reconstruction contracts for British firms, or anything else. Three: unwavering support for US foreign policy in the Middle East, even when it’s patently crazy for us to set ourselves against the entire Arab world.
Robert Harris, The Ghost (2)
The UK is both a space and a location. Where it thinks it is located and positions itself is central to how it sees itself. In part this is about the conversations and stories that all states tell themselves.3 The UK is a state, but an unusual one – a multi-national state of four nations, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.4 Its founding goes back to the 1603 Union of the Crowns and the 1707 Treaty of Union between Scotland and England. What is less observed is that the UK is not a nation. While there is a sizeable sociology of ‘stateless nations’ such as Scotland or Catalonia, there is no similar body of work on ‘nationless states’ of which the UK is one. Other examples, before they separated into constituent nations, would once have included the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.5
This in part reflects the bias in research towards ‘minority nationalisms’ such as the Scots, Welsh, Catalans and Québécois. At the same time the ‘majoritarian nationalisms’ of the UK and other big states are ignored. These ‘big state’ nationalisms involve the language and symbols of nationalism but do not see themselves as such. They patronise self-determination movements in their territories on the dangers of nationalism, the need for stability and the perils of Balkanisation.6 This feat is managed without ever stopping to realise the contradictions of one nationalism trying to question the legitimacy of another; thus British ‘majority nationalism’ feels itself confident enough to lecture the various ‘minority nationalisms’ in the UK – Scottish, Welsh, Irish – without seeing itself as nationalist.7
The UK is also misunderstood as a unitary state: a place of unfettered central power and conformity, with no checks on that power through parliamentary sovereignty. This is inaccurate. The UK has never been a unitary state. It is instead a union state: a place where national distinctiveness and arrangements different from the centre occur.8 The UK has nurtured in large parts of its history distinct Scottish, Northern Irish and, to a lesser extent, Welsh arrangements and has never advocated a politics of centralised standardisation.
And yet the mindset of the centre and the political establishment has always been one of the unitary state. Paradoxically, this has become more entrenched as the UK has begun to alter and reconfigure. This misunderstanding of the UK as a unitary state has far-reaching consequences for how power is understood and exercised, and for the future of the UK.
The unravelling of the British state
We have travelled a long road since the British constitution was the envy of the world. In 1953 the American sociologist Edward Shils on a visit to the UK was surprised to hear ‘an eminent man of the left say, in utter seriousness … that the British constitution was “as nearly perfect as any human institution could be”’.9 This was an age when the UK’s identity, purpose and government had been vindicated by two World Wars. The Westminster system was viewed as the zenith of political democracy and exported around the world; at the same time proportional representation and referendums were seen as dodgy continental devices beloved of dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini.
Both the self-image and the view of the UK from abroad has changed dramatically since then. In the last forty years the British state has faced a series of internal challenges and external changes which have remade the state and politics. In the decade from the mid-1960s onward a series of challenges coalesced which impacted on the form and language of the ideas of nation, state and territorial politics. These challenges to the British state were both internal, driven by the forces of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and external, in the growing instability in the world economy in the 1970s. These twin forces are often discussed and studied, but are never understood as dynamics which, in the case of the UK, informed, influenced and altered each other. This is important to any understanding of what has happened to the UK over this period as a state and polity, and the fate of British social democracy as it morphed from Wilsonite to Blairite modernisation.10
It is more than coincidence that the junking of Wilson’s National Plan in 1966-67 – and with it Croslandite dreams of economic growth, faith in planning and greater equality – happened at the same time as the emergence of the SNP and Plaid Cymru to shake Labour’s hegemony in Scotland and Wales. These forces were a long time building. The Nationalist victories at Carmarthen in Wales during 1966 and Hamilton in Scotland during 1967 were not overnight sensations, but products of rising Nationalist tides since the beginning of the decade. They changed the politics in their respective countries, and the UK.
The Hamilton by-election happened sixteen days before Wilson finally bowed to the inevitable and the pound was devalued.11 The slow death of Croslandite social democracy took nearly a decade, from November 1967 to the culmination of the IMF crisis in December 1976, but the beginning of the end can be traced back to this unhappy ending of Wilson’s 1960s honeymoon.
Labour tried to marginalise the Scottish and Welsh challenge with the Kilbrandon Commission, but the internal and external challenges to the state became stronger as the British economy faced the uncertainties of faltering growth, increasing pressure on public spending, and rising inflation. The second wave of Scottish nationalism corresponded exactly in the period 1973-74 with the world economic shock of the same period. Post-Bretton Woods, the seismic shake of the OPEC oil price rise and resulting decade of hyperinflation were intimately linked to the SNP’s campaign ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ after the discovery of North Sea Oil.12
British Labour’s response to the internal challenge was characterised by timidity and uncertainty. It responded with an embarrassing U-turn, by ordering Scottish Labour to adopt a pro-devolution position – attempting to make concessions while retaining the integrity of the British state. To do this it drew on Labour history and myths found in its roots as a decentralist party in its formative years. This allowed it to present its abrupt change of policy as essentially still consistent with its core values.
Its response to the external challenge of economic change was even more unsure and inelegant: at first trying to ride it out, then facing humiliation at the altar of the IMF in 1976.13 Here the party had no previous traditions to draw upon. The external challenges questioned just about every social-democratic assumption about economic and social policy: on growth, redistribution, planning, the role of the state and public spending.
The interweaving of the internal and external challenge is pivotal to understanding the last forty years of UK politics: the abandonment by Labour of many of its key beliefs, the onset and triumph of Thatcherism, and the arrival of New Labour and its embrace of the post-Thatcherite consensus. There is a direct relationship between the politics of an unsettled union and the rise of a political consensus around a neo-liberal polity which is unquestioned across the political spectrum. This situation accords a special place to Scotland – given its degree of political and institutional autonomy, and the parameters of its politics.
The fall of Labour Scotland and the rise of the Nationalists
The emergence of the SNP since the mid-1960s has been matched by the rise of contemporary political and cultural nationalisms north of the border.14 The SNP has not always enjoyed an easy relationship with these forces. Firstly, the SNP has tended to see political nationalism as synonymous with itself and its own property. However, this nationalism is found across Scottish society, in pro-home-rule forces pre-devolution, in institutional Scotland and civil society, and even, at points in their history, in the Scottish Tories.
Secondly, cultural nationalism has been a fluid force that has been one of the defining elements of Scotland post-1979. It contributed to maintaining a sense of hope, nurturing difference and identity, and asking difficult questions in the aftermath of the first devolution referendum when it looked as if politics had failed Scotland. However, this cultural politics by its very nature has been an uneasy accomplice of party politics, as it is characterised by values largely absent in the fabric of these parties – in particular by ambiguity, transgressing boundaries and the near-constant questioning of traditional certainties.
The SNP has been unable to develop deep roots in large parts of institutional Scotland and civil society; nor can it credibly claim cultural nationalism as its own. This has resulted in the SNP having a degree of positional mobility – as it first exploded onto the scene in the 1960s, then shifted to the left in the 1980s and then flirted with Reaganomics and the Laffer Curve in the late 1990s. Moreover, while this allows the SNP to have a tactical agility, ultimately it is a weakness, as the party lacks a rootedness in genuine, organic social location, classes and movements. In this the SNP is not a conventional ‘nationalist movement’, but just another political party, while at the same time they invoke and imbue themselves with attributes of the former.15
The SNP’s arrival in government for the first time in its history has seen it develop as a kind of hybrid party: catch-all and populist in part, social democratic in outlook, and articulating a contemporary nationalism aspiring to an independent nation. This has enabled the SNP administration of Alex Salmond to pioneer a political space which sounds and looks like a national government of the country, rather than the lifeless Labour dominated administrations which preceded it.16 The first six months of the SNP administration from May 2007 saw them embark on a series of populist measures, at the same time reversing previously unpopular Labour decisions. This only takes the SNP so far and they have yet to develop a thought-out governing strategy which addresses the lack of policy detail in the party. The reality is that the SNP have always been policy-lite, for at their core they are not about policy, but identity and Scotland’s status as a nation.
The Nationalists’ relationship with institutional Scotland has been revealing – like two ill-at-ease dance partners trying to get the measure of each other. Institutional Scotland, and in particular the statutory public sector, has had a nervousness about the SNP coming to power and disrupting decades of investing in relationships which proffered them access, influence and insider information on how to work the system to their best advantage. In particular, these interest groups have a desire to convince the SNP to prioritise their sectoral demands – whether it is further or higher education, health, law and order or enterprise. The SNP have two possible roads here. One is that their lack of relationships and cosiness will give them a window, with a period of manoeuvre. The other is that they will have a failure of confidence and embrace the institutional and official orthodoxies. These alternatives are not exclusive, and the first could easily lead to the second.
The SNP will for the foreseeable future be perceived as a nationalist party that is different from other parties: as more willing to stand up for Scotland and able to stand above narrow party interests. However, as an autonomous Scottish politics unfolds, we will come to see the SNP’s emergence as a governing force as a watershed moment of much greater significance than the narrow 2007 Scottish Parliament election result.
There is a longer backstory to that result. It is the fall of Scottish Labour – the dominant force in politics north of the border for the last fifty years.17 The Scottish Labour Party was never that powerful a phenomenon in terms of votes – never winning a majority of votes – but it exercised its power through a complex web of institutions, networks and patronage. This was an old-fashioned client state wedded to a party machine.18 In 1979 Labour Scotland represented three majority parts of Scotland: trade unionists, council house tenants and local councils. These were the three institutional pillars which allowed it to be so powerful and seemingly all-persuasive when it did not win a majority of the votes. Today all three of these areas are now minority parts of Scotland, and Labour is left without a life-support system to maintain a party, losing members and influence.19
The Unionist crisis of confidence
The establishment of a Scottish Parliament has influenced how England and the UK see themselves and Scotland, particularly in parts of the media. There has been an increase in Scotophobia – with comments from Jeremy Paxman about ‘the Scottish Raj’, and more virulent statements from tabloid pundits such as Kelvin MacKenzie and Richard Littlejohn. English discussions on Scotland tend to focus on three main issues, the over-representation of Scots in Westminster and the corridors of power in London, the West Lothian Question and public spending levels in Scotland.
First, Scots over-representation at Westminster. In the 1997 Blair cabinet there were six Scots representing seats north of the border out of 24 – including Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Donald Dewar.20 In the first Gordon Brown cabinet of 2007 this had fallen to four out of 22 members, and – Brown apart – there were no other Scots in the cabinet at the most senior level .21 This issue was never just about numbers, however: it touched on fears of a ‘McMafia’ – particularly in the media and other public arenas – which had roots in the borderline racism and xenophobia that has always been present in parts of English society. Thus, we have had bouts of Scotophobia before, and anti-Irish sentiment has at times been particularly venomous.
Second, the West Lothian Question. This is based on the supposition that post-devolution there is an anomaly whereby Scots MPs can vote on English domestic issues while they cannot do the same on Scottish matters which are the preserve of the Scottish Parliament. This is in many ways a political rather than a constitutional issue. The political impact of this derives from the weight of the block vote of Scots Labour MPs (along with Welsh Labour MPs) – they can sometimes bring undue influence when there is a close English parliamentary result. But the nature of UK politics is not that an ‘alien’ unpopular Labour government can be foisted on an unwilling England by the Scots and Welsh, since England represents 85 per cent of the UK’s population and parliamentary seats, which makes this an impossibility. What can happen is that a close English result could move in a more pro-Labour direction thanks to the Scots and Welsh.
The reality of this in post-war politics is very different from the theory. In only two general elections have Scots and Welsh Labour votes prevented an English Tory majority from forming a government, and both lasted for brief periods: 1964-66 and February-October 1974.22 Meanwhile, the opposite of the West Lothian Question has also occurred. Tory governments governing Scotland on English votes and with little popular support north of the border have occurred more frequently and for longer periods: 1959-64, 1970-74 and 1979-97.
To date, the West Lothian Question has affected the make-up of UK governments for a grand total of 26 months. UK governments governed Scotland on English votes for a total of twenty-seven years – a significant difference. This does not mean that these contradictory consequences don’t matter: they do. But one cannot examine one without the other. There is also a substantial difference between the two: the 1964 and 1974 results happened because the English parliamentary results were perilously close, meaning that Scotland, with its small number of seats, could affect the overall UK result. In contrast, the Tory imposition of governing Scotland with what was seen as ‘no mandate’ happened despite the Scots increasingly voting one way and England the other. This reached the point in 1987 when Scotland produced a Labour landslide in terms of seats, and England a Tory landslide. Scotland and England seemed like separate nations. Part of this was of course the distortions of an electoral system, which gave a disproportionate dividend to the winning party: the salience of the West Lothian Question would be minimised by electoral reform that sought to break up such distortions.
Third, Scottish public spending. This has long been perceived as higher than the UK average because of the Barnett Formula – something that has been so over-stated that it has passed into folklore, despite being based on a number of misconceptions. The Barnett Formula, established in 1978, was not set up to maintain higher Scots spending, but to aid eventual convergence. One of the problems here is that the spending levels associated with Barnett are not ‘needs’ based and transparent, but historically based on the territorial influence of different parts of the UK: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.23
Debates about public spending and subsidies north of the border are usually concerned with identifiable public expenditure, and exclude or make questionable assumptions about unidentifiable public expenditure.24 A recent comprehensive study by Oxford Economics showed that, taking unidentifiable spending into account, Scotland did not have the highest public spending per head, and that the highest public spending, Northern Ireland apart, was to be found in London.25
These three issues point to the absence of a common unionist language across the UK, and in particular one which binds together Scotland and England. In effect we are witnessing a unionist crisis of confidence on both sides of the border, where majorities on both sides are pro-union, and yet a number of issues are emerging which are slowly pushing the nations apart.
Gordon Brown’s attempts to develop a credo of progressive Britishness in a number of lectures in the long run-in to becoming prime minister has to be seen in this context.26 These were fascinating on a number of levels: they offered a kind of Ladybird Book version of British history, of good guys and causes, with the downside mostly obliterated. Thus Brown endlessly invokes the NHS and BBC, in an attempt to develop a progressive Britishness which is different from the traditional story of the Church of England, Protestantism and Empire. Moreover, Brown poses Britishness as exclusively about the internal values of the UK, and ignores external relationships such as with the European Union and the Atlanticist project. These latter two factors have become central in how the political classes construct and negotiate Britishness, but are often ones which they choose to remain silent about.
One issue that has been promoted by some has been the notion of ‘English votes for English laws’ – which is supported by the Conservatives and opposed by Labour. This could, in many imaginable situations, be politically unworkable, for example in a House of Commons elected by First-Past-The-Post that produced two governments in one Parliament: a UK Labour one and Tory English one. This is not a political remedy, rather a recipe for disaster and perpetual crisis. What is surprising is that Gordon Brown once did not only entertain, but openly supported, ‘English votes for English laws’. In a 1980 essay he wrote that this was a ‘prize’ worth paying for a ‘Scottish Assembly’, even though this would result in ‘a semi-permanent majority’ for the Conservatives in England.27 This is all the more of a shock for those, such as Brown’s biographer Tom Bower, who tend to see Brown in his early years as a firebrand. They have clearly never taken the time to read any of the socialist literature of that time.28
A.J.P. Taylor concluded his English History 1914-45 by commenting that at the end of the Second World War few now sang Land of Hope and Glory: ‘Few even sang England Arise. England had arisen all the same’.29 Such declarations of faith have always been close to the surface in progressive accounts of England, from Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England to, more recently, Tony Benn. British Labour usually conflates English history with that of Britain. Tony Benn’s sentimental evocation of the Levellers, Diggers, English Civil War and so on is a predominantly English story. Even a Labour politician such as Gordon Brown, Scottish to the core, has invoked English history and symbols as British – Magna Carta, the Peasants’ Revolt and Orwell’s ‘English genius’.30 Clearly, there is something amiss about the English question within the Labour psyche.
There are two distinct arguments about the state of England, one pessimistic, the other optimistic. The pessimistic account believes that England needs the rest of the UK; without it it will tip over into permanent Conservative hegemony. Sometimes this borders on an essentialist caricaturing of Englishness, equating it with reaction, racism and right-wing bigotry, which it is the duty of the Scots and Welsh to subjugate. A more measured version of this bases its case on electoral politics. It states that progressives need Scotland and Wales to put together a national coalition across the UK, and sees an England on its own as Conservative dominated.31 However, this argument is based on a distortion of the facts. England is not actually an overwhelmingly Conservative nation in political sentiment. The Tories have in post-war elections only once won a popular majority of the English vote, in 1955.
The second, more optimistic view tackles the pessimistic argument head-on and labels it as the stereotype it undoubtedly is. A number of English commentators have argued that there is a rich lineage of English radicalism and dissent: a counter-strand to the dominant British narrative. This finds present-day voice in the writings of musician and activist Billy Bragg, who poses the case for a progressive, multicultural Englishness that challenges the Whig interpretation of history and is at ease with the Scots, Welsh and Irish making their own arrangements.32
Billy Bragg’s account offers one possible future of a generous England finding a new role and feeling comfortable with its newly confident neighbours. However, this is a political project and set of aspirations that cannot be guaranteed to represent tomorrow’s England. Another England is just as possible, perhaps more likely: one which is anxious about loss and change, fearful about immigration, opposed to sharing powers with the European Union, and resentful of the troublesome Jocks and other non-English peoples of these isles. It is plausible to see such a set of sentiments, which already exist in parts of England, being given encouragement by the Murdoch press and Daily Mail, and turning into the scapegoating of Muslims, Polish plumbers and the Scots.
Where the English journey goes in the future has to be seen against the backdrop of the changing nature of English society and the UK over the last thirty years. Some observers like to portray contemporary Britain as a diverse, comfortable, at-ease-with-itself society. But the evident progress that has been made in challenging institutionalised racism and overt homophobia has to be put in the context of a more unequal country, with an increasing sense of indifference about those excluded and left behind. Neo-liberalism is now dominant as both an economic mantra and political ideology uniting all three mainstream UK parliamentary parties. Public institutions are ruled by the marketisation of their structures and commodification of their services. This has had an impact, of course, on every part of the UK, but it has thoroughly transformed England, and the South-East and London have changed more than anywhere else.
A short history of the future: the next two decades of the break-up
Most accounts of the future of the UK either reflect the same viewpoint as Gordon Brown’s, founded on the flexibility and adaptability of the UK; or they draw on the The Break-Up of Britain thesis first put forward by Tom Nairn over thirty years ago.33 Nairn’s thesis is a rich and complex one, addressing British, English and Scottish identities after Empire and with the rising impact of Europe, while more recent accounts of a break-up tend to concentrate solely on the Scottish dimension.
Instead of looking at the UK through the potential of Scotland to create trouble for the union; it might be more helpful to identify the sources of tensions, forces and movements which could emerge to accelerate the pace of change and challenge the nature of the UK. The following timeline presents one possible set of hypotheses. The trends could be speeded up if the Tories win the next general election, or could be slowed down significantly should the Tory recovery be much delayed. But what needs to be emphasised is that, while the timing of final destination remains open to doubt, the general drift towards a looser, more divided United Kingdom is surely not. The following points only examine the constitutional and political dynamics of the UK, and do not take into account the host of external factors which could impact on the state of the UK. These include how the European Union evolves, how the US exerts its military and economic power around the globe, the nature of globalisation and the gathering environmental crisis spearheaded by climate change.
A sixteen point break-up programme
Step 1: 2010 A Labour fourth term:
Despite a worsening economic climate Brown shows a degree of statecraft and competence and wins an historic fourth Labour term against David Cameron’s revitalised Conservatives. In spite of Brown increasing Labour’s vote from 2005, aided by pulling British forces out of Iraq, his Parliamentary majority is slashed. The Conservative vote rises due to the Liberal Democrats vote being squeezed. Brown faces a similar prospect to John Major in 1992: governing with a small majority and presiding over a party hollowed out and increasingly disunited. While he does not face the fissures of the European issue, he cannot ignore the increasingly salient issue that the Tories have won more English seats than Labour, and Brown’s prime ministership is seen as based on Scottish seats.
Consequences: The English question and territorial politics across the union rise up the political agenda.
Step 2: 2011 Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland elections:
The Scottish and Welsh devolved elections show a further marked swing away from Labour and growing divergence with Westminster. In Scotland the SNP administration win over 40 per cent of the first and second votes and a lead over a disconsolate Labour of more than 10 per cent on both counts. Alex Salmond, from a position of strength, forms a coalition administration with the Lib Dems on the basis of remaking the union and pushing for more powers for the Parliament. In Wales Labour lose votes to all the main parties, who decide to gang up and exclude Labour from power. In Northern Ireland Sinn Fein and the SDLP make significant gains in the Assembly elections.
Consequences: The three devolved nations are increasingly diverging from the politics of Westminster and look likely to grow more assertive in the future.
Step 3: 2012 Welsh referendum:
The Welsh vote on the Welsh Assembly gaining more powers, including primary legislation and tax raising powers along the lines of the Scottish Parliament. The referendum ‘Yes’ campaign has the support of all the main Welsh parties.
Consequences: A large majority votes in favour, which aids the process of ‘catch-up’ across the devolved nations, increasing the likelihood that the Scottish Parliament will push for more powers.
Step 4: 2013 Scottish referendum on more powers for the Parliament:
Aided by the Welsh vote, the SNP-Lib Dem Scottish government put forward a referendum which proposes a range of powers to be transferred to the Parliament: ranging from broadcasting, to fiscal autonomy and a number of constitutional issues. The main Scottish parties all support a ‘Yes’ vote to differing degrees of enthusiasm, with the SNP clear this is the first in a series of proposals.
Consequences: An overwhelming majority in favour which enhances the reputation of the SNP-led administration, and leads to an increasing likelihood of further constitutional change.
Step 5: 2015 The Conservatives return to power:
After eighteen years out of office David Cameron’s Conservatives defeat Labour under Ed Miliband who took over from Gordon Brown a year before the election. The Conservatives win a comfortable overall majority, but this masks national and regional variations. The Tories do well across the South and London in their traditional heartlands, while in Scotland and Wales the Cameron effect barely registers. This means that Cameron’s mandate is entirely based on English votes, and, with their platform including a commitment to ‘English votes for English laws’, future conflict looks likely. Northern Ireland moves further into a different political orbit, with Sinn Fein and the SDLP winning a majority of seats.
Consequences: The union begins to loosen a bit more and English nationalism of a less than attractive kind begins to appear as a serious political force.
Step 6: 2015 Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland elections:
The SNP win their third election in a row against a Labour Party still losing votes and unsure of itself. Alex Salmond decides to govern as a minority administration as he manoeuvres to win enough parliamentary support to hold an independence vote. In Wales a resurgent Labour Party sweeps back to majority power railing against Tory cuts and insensitivity. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein and the SDLP make significant gains in both seats and votes and have a narrow lead over the Unionist parties in both, which foretells the future contours of politics in Northern Ireland.
Consequences: A Scottish independence referendum becomes likely. Irish reunification moves a step closer.
Step 7: 2017 Scottish referendum on independence:
After several years of friction between the Conservative UK government and a SNP administration in Scotland, the SNP decide to move to a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional status, and gain support in the Scottish Parliament from the Scots Conservatives to bring the issue to a conclusion. Twenty years after Scotland’s last referendum vote, the Scots finally get the chance to have a say on whether they want to be independent. The campaign sees the SNP as the only main party advocating independence. At points in the campaign the vote between the two camps closes, but the result never looks in doubt.
Consequences: A narrow majority in favour of the Union, but the vote is close enough to make the prospect of a second referendum in the near future likely.
Step 8: 2018 European referendum:
The Conservative government calls a UK-wide vote – only the second such occasion in UK history – on taking back powers from the European Union and opposing any further European integration. The Tories find themselves in the favourable position of being backed by a huge majority of public opinion and most of the press, persuading a reluctant Labour to campaign on the same side, with only the Liberal Democrats making an unapologetic pro-Euro case.
Consequences: The Tories, with Labour support, win a decisive majority. The result institutionalises the UK’s semi-detached status in the EU. It contributes to a mixture of anxiety and opportunity in Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians as they see the rising Eurosceptism of the UK allowing them the prospect of bartering for more influence in the EU while also posing a threat to them.
Step 9: 2019 Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland elections:
In Scotland the SNP hold most of their vote. Labour shows no sign of recovery and is forced to form a ‘Unionist’ bloc withLib Dems and Tories against a rising movement for full independence. In Wales Labour remain the largest party but suffer huge loses to the Lib Dems who emerge as their main challenger, resulting in a Lib Dem-Plaid Cymru minority administration. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein and the SDLP make further advances as the Unionist bloc begins to disintegrate with some elements beginning to accept that Irish reunification is inevitable.
Consequences: The politics of the devolved nations diverge even further from Westminster while the health of Labour in its once invulnerable Celtic heartlands looks shaky.
Step 10: 2019 The Conservatives win a second term:
Cameron increases his majority on the back of the European referendum vote against a demoralised, and now much divided, Labour Party. The Tory revival is still geographically concentrated with his election solely due to English votes, and no upswing visible in Scotland or Wales.
Consequences: The progressive case for the union disappears and the UK heads towards break-up.
Step 11: 2020 English referendum:
The Conservative government agree to hold an English referendum on the issue of ‘English votes for English laws’ and restricting the rights of Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. In a bitterly fought referendum, the Tories face opposition from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but have the benefit of several years of press campaigning promoting this as an issue.
Consequences: With a significant majority in favour of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ the Conservatives enhance their English nationalist credentials. At the same time, the UK faces a future of constitutional upheaval and chaos. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians from across the political spectrum condemn the move and pledge to fight it.
Step 12: 2023 third Conservative term:
In a climate of ensuing constitutional and political instability, the Conservatives storm to a third victory and landslide result. This is again based solely on English votes, and aided by divisions in Labour and Liberal Democrats between their Scottish parties and UK party leaderships.
Consequences: The UK seems set on a period of constitutional turbulence.
Step 13: 2023 Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland elections:
The Northern Irish elections give Sinn Fein and the SDLP a majority of votes and seats and a mandate to begin progress towards Irish reunification, with a significant minority part of the Unionist community now accepting the inevitability of such a vote and decision. In Scotland, the SNP secure a decisive victory in votes and seats which gives them a mandate for a second referendum on independence, while in Wales, the Welsh Labour Party splits in two with the Welsh part winning respectable support and the British part being humiliated; the former announce they are entering into coalition with Plaid Cymru to negotiate a new relationship with Westminster.
Consequences: Scottish and Northern Irish votes on leaving the union become inevitable, while the Welsh are showing signs of mutiny.
Step 14: 2024 Northern Irish referendum on Irish Reunification:
The Northern Irish hold a vote on whether to reunify with the Republic after Sinn Fein and the SDLP win a majority of seats and votes in successive Assembly and Westminster elections. A simultaneous vote is held in the Irish Republic, and with the UK government officially neutral, the Unionist campaign has an air of resignation and defeat.
Consequences: The reunification vote is won and a timetable is agreed to advance towards an united Ireland. The vote is also seen as weakening the union and strengthening the cause of Scottish independence.
Step 15: 2027 Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland elections:
The last British devolved elections. The Northern Irish vote legitimises the new realities of politics in what was once the province. In Scotland the SNP is returned with a near-majority of the vote and seats with a ballot on independence declared to happen within 100 days of the election. In Wales, the Welsh Labour-Plaid Cymru alliance is returned with an increased majority.
Consequences: The beginning of the end of the UK.
Step 16: 2027 Second Scottish referendum on independence:
The ‘neverendum’ arrives. The SNP, now with the support of all the other main parties in the Scottish Parliament, secures a second referendum for independence. This is against the backdrop of political crisis and controversy over ‘English votes for English laws’. A significant minority of Scottish Labour openly campaign for independence, while a much larger part of the party is known to be secretly in sympathy. All through the campaign the pro-independence forces have a majority in the polls, but at the end there is a closing of the gap between the two options.
Consequences: A majority for independence is won and a process is agreed with the UK government for Scottish independence.
Thus within twenty years or so it is distinctly possible that the United Kingdom as we know it will have broken up, with Northern Ireland reunified with the Republic of Ireland, and an independent Scotland sitting north of the border. This leaves the question of what the Welsh would do in such a situation, and even more importantly, what would the rump remaining be called and what kind of state would it be?
A tale of two new states or one?
The United Kingdom is currently situated in a half-way house in ‘the twilight of the Westminster model’,34 yet with the political class and system unwilling and unable to kill off the old and embrace the new. The British, as a member of the Nolan Committee on Standards of Conduct in Public Life put it, ‘like to live in a series of half-way houses’.35
It is possible that this situation could continue for quite a period, but the last twenty years or so have seen significant changes which will shape the future:
• the rise of constitutional questions to the centre of the political stage;
• the establishment of devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at the same time as the excessive centralism of first, Thatcherism, then, New Labour;
• the emergence of judicial power as one of the main checks on the power of the centre;
• the straitjacket of Thatcherite orthodoxy which the political classes adhere to.
The UK is heading in the direction of a loose, more varied set of arrangements which may or may not bring about the break-up of the union but which will look and feel very different to present arrangements. Whatever form emerges will have to address where the UK thinks it is located and how this shapes Britishness. It will have to acknowledge that the UK finds it increasingly difficult to generate a language and statecraft which can adapt to and reflect its constituent parts while providing an over-arching story. Can a union state continue indefinitely without the sense of gut, emotional unionism that held the UK together for so long?36 Why has the centre-left been so poor at providing a feasible, radical democratizing political project which could provide a progressive narrative for the British state?
The potential break-up of the UK would raise numerous questions:
• Will the Northern Irish and the Scots decide to leave or not?
• Will the English find a political will, whether it is progressive or reactionary?
• What kinds of inter-governmental co-operation and common policy would emerge in a post-UK?
• What would happen to citizenship and nationality and would dual citizenship be possible across the new states?
• Most profoundly, if Scotland leaves what would be the characteristics of the new Scotland and Greater England/lesser UK: are they one or two new states?
If Scotland leaves the union what does the rest become? Does it become the United Kingdom minus Scotland – a Rest of the UK or does it become something else, new and unnamed? The Greater England/lesser UK would in the eyes of some be the successor state to the UK – with the legal rights to continuity of membership of
bodies such as the UN Security Council, the G7, the EU and NATO and responsibility for the 13,000 plus treaties to which the UK is signature to.
If it becomes the successor state – the Rest of the UK – it will follow the example of Russia after the Soviet Union fell apart (which it did due to the geo-political realities of the size of Russia in the Soviet Union, the issue of nuclear weapons and international opinion). In this scenario only one new state is created: an independent Scotland which internationally has to apply for membership of the UN, EU, IMF and World Bank.
However, this view is based on the controversial position that the Treaty of Union is just another piece of parliamentary legislation rather than being as close as the UK can get to a kind of fundamental law, and one of the building blocks of the union. The Constitution Unit’s comprehensive study of the practicalities of Scottish independence argues that Scotland’s position post-1707 is the same as Ireland post-1801, and that Scottish independence would have the same effect on the UK as Irish independence in 1922.37 This is an astonishingly inaccurate reading of history: Scotland created a union with England in 1707, whereas Ireland was conquered; one was a marriage of equals, the other was a relationship of inequality and submission.
An equally valid perspective states that the emergence of an independent Scotland would see the creation of two new states: Scotland and Greater England/lesser UK. As Chris Bowlby commented in a recent BBC programme on the Scottish question, after break-up ‘what would emerge would not only be a new Scotland but also a new remainder of the UK, in search of a name and a new sense of coherence’.38 From this perspective Scotland was ‘one of the basic building blocks of ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain’.39 Without Scotland, there is no ‘Great Britain’ and therefore there is no ‘United Kingdom’.
Fundamentally, the nature of break-up comes down to how you understand the character of the UK historically and contemporaneously. If you see the Act of Union as just another piece of parliamentary legislation which continued the process of Greater England, Scotland leaving the union does not alter the glorious tradition of continuity that is England/UK. However, if the Treaty of Union is regarded as being as close to fundamental law as the British can manage, Scottish independence leads inexorably to the end of the UK.
The difference of language between ‘Act of Union’ and ‘Treaty of Union’ is central here.40 Talk of an Act reduces it to parliamentary legislation and prioritises the English Parliament’s enactment of 1707, thus continuing the English law and practice in Diceyian fashion. Talk of a Treaty emphasises that was the creation of two consenting states and emphasises the 1707 decisions of the Scottish and English Parliaments.
Both of these perspectives cannot be right, but – strangely in a state that was meant to be ‘unitary’ – the UK has from its outset contained two entirely contradictory positions, one seeing the UK as Greater England and the other viewing it as a union state, one emphasising parliamentary sovereignty, the other popular sovereignty. Which position will prevail in any break-up process will be determined by wider geo-political realities, power and status, and the finer points of legal interpretation. It seems clear that, whatever the legal position, Greater England/lesser UK will try to use all of its influence and status in the world of realpolitik to position itself as the successor state to the UK.
There are already going to be many difficult questions: how UK assets such as art collections, museums and embassies are divided, national debt, oil revenues, state pensions and the thorny issue of nuclear weapons. The UK’s nuclear weapons are based at Faslane in the River Clyde, and there are potential similarities here with the end of the Soviet Union and the discussions between the Russians and Ukrainians over nuclear weapons and the Soviet Black Sea Fleet being based in Ukrainian ports. Would an independent Scotland tolerate nuclear weapons in its waters? Or could it lease back the base to the Greater English/lesser UK for a time-limited period? 41
Whatever the future holds it is going to involve instability, upheaval and argument for a period of time. The break-up of the United Kingdom would be a major historic and international event. The episodes which are likely to unfold along the way, including Northern Irish and Scottish votes on whether to stay or leave the union, will each have significant political consequences.
The potential passing of the United Kingdom into history will invite reflection and remembrance and even a sense of loss and sadness in places far afield across the globe. This is what occurred in Canada in 1980 and 1995 with the Quebec referendums. The same will happen – but more so – with the UK, and it is important that the coming period allows people to have a degree of honesty, reflection, and a sense of the emotion that the UK has invoked in some quarters.
At the heart of the British political system there is still a belief, despite everything, that the British constitution is the envy of the world and close to perfection: the view Edward Shils found such a surprise over fifty years ago. Some of the perspectives which have trumpeted this have included Thatcherism, Blairism and Brownism. It is going to take a political earthquake to dislodge this view.
Post-Iraq, after the Hutton and Butler inquiries into why the UK went to war – and after the details of 25 million British citizens were lost in the post – the British state and its system of government is in deep crisis. In many respects, while functioning like a normal state, it no longer works.
The old British story is nearing its end. A new set of Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English narratives are just beginning.
1. David Cannadine, A Beginner’s Guide to Separation, BBC Radio 4, December 6th 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/analysis/7130606.stm.
2. Robert Harris, The Ghost, Hutchinson 2007, p251.
3. See: Arthur Aughley, The Politics of Englishness, Manchester University Press 2007.
4. To be accurate Northern Ireland is not a nation, but is a part of two states. The Good Friday Agreement identifies Northern Ireland as a place with two nationalities, British and Irish, as a place of devolved government within the UK, and with institutional links to both the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
5. Michael Keating, Nations against the State: The New Politics of Nationalism in Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland, Macmillan 1996.
6. See Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge University Press 1990. Writing in-between the demise of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Soviet Union, Hobsbawm asks if a ‘Europe of nations’ in the Wilsonian sense could be a good thing. Looking at a future where the Baltic nations leave the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia break-up, he declares, ‘Can it be seriously supposed that such a Balkanisation extended on a world scale, would provide a stable or lasting political system?’, p177. Since this twenty-four European and Central Asian countries have become independent nations following the demise of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
7. James G. Kellas, The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity, Macmillan 1991.
8. Stein Rokkan and Derek Urwin, Economy, Territory and Identity, Sage 1983. This was first popularised in James Mitchell, Strategies for Self-Government: The Campaigns for a Scottish Parliament, Polygon 1996.
9. Cited in Vernon Bogdanor, ‘Conclusion’, in Vernon Bodganor (ed.), The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press 2003, p689.
10. Gerry Hassan, ‘Labour, concepts of Britishness, “nation” and “state”, in Gerry Hassan (ed.), After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade, Lawrence and Wishart 2007.
11. On the 1967 devaluation see: Alec Cairncross and Barry Eichengreen, Sterling In Crisis: The Devaluations Of 1931, 1949 and 1967, Palgrave Macmillan 2003 2nd edn.
12. Christopher Harvie, Fool’s Gold: The Story of North Sea Oil, Hamish Hamilton 1994.
13. Kathleen Burk and Alec Cairncross, ‘Goodbye Great Britain’: The 1976 IMF Crisis, Yale University Press 1992.
14. Jack Brand, The Nationalist Movement in Scotland, Routledge, Kegan and Paul 1978.
15. Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Scottish National Party: From Movement to Party of Government, Edinburgh University Press 2008.
16. The SNP’s victory was both an historic one and a very narrow and contested one, The SNP had until May 2007 failed to ever win a national election in votes or seats. It finished the elections 15,853 votes ahead of Labour in the constituency vote and 37,986 votes ahead in the list vote – leads of respectively 0.8% and 1.8% and with a one seat lead over Labour in a 129 member Parliament. There was huge controversy post-election over more than 140,000 votes being ruled invalid due to problems with counting the ballot papers.
17. The phrase is the title of George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England; Geoffrey Wheatcroft has in recent times used it prematurely about the fate of the Conservatives: The Strange Death of Tory England.
18. Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions, Ideas, Edinburgh University Press 2004.
19. Gerry Hassan, ‘People’s party must face the future honestly’, The Scotsman, 11.8.07.
20. Tim Austin (ed.), The Times Guide to the House of Commons 1997, Times Books 1997.
21. BBC News, 28.6.07, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6247502.stm.
22. In 1964 in England the Conservatives won 262 seats, Labour 246 and the Liberals 3, while across the UK Labour had an overall majority of four. In February 1974 in England the Conservatives won 268 seats, Labour 237, Liberals 9, while across the UK in a hung Parliament Labour had a four-seat lead over the Conservatives. The case of 1950 hung in the balance with the Conservatives winning 253 seats in England, Labour 251 and the Liberals 2, while Labour was returned with a UK majority of seven seats. The Conservatives won more votes than Labour in England in the 2005 election, 35.7% to 35.5%, while Labour won 286 seats to the Conservatives 194 and the Lib Dems 47: a Labour lead of 92 seats. F.W.S. Craig, British Electoral Facts 1832-1980, Parliamentary Research Services 1981; Dennis Kavanagh and David Butler, The British General Election of 2005, Palgrave Macmillan 2005. Fascinatingly, for protagonists of the ‘England’s voice is silenced’ perspective the Nuffield 2005 election study has index entries for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and not one for England, choosing to make not a single mention of the above anomaly.
23. Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan, The Fiscal Crisis of the United Kingdom, Nuffield College Working Papers On Politics 2002.
24. Identifiable public spending is the spending which is recognized as incurred on behalf of a particular population and allocated to regions or nations in the UK. The non-identifiable expenditure is that part which is incurred on behalf of the UK as a whole such as defence spending or overseas aid.
25. David Leask, ‘Why the figures peddled by Scotland’s critics don’t add up’, The Herald, 2.11.07.
26. Gordon Brown, Speeches 1997-2006, Bloomsbury 2006; Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander, New Labour, New Scotland, The Smith Institute 1999.
27. Gordon Brown and Henry Drucker, The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution, Longman 1980, p127.
28. Tom Bower, Gordon Brown, Harper Collins 2004.
29. A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945, Clarendon Press 1965, p600.
30. Simon Lees, ‘Gordon Brown and ‘The English Way’, Political Quarterly, Vol. 77 No. 3, July-September 2006.
31. See for example: Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Some Reflections on “The Break-Up of Britain”’, New Left Review, No. 105, September/October 1977, http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=680
32. Billy Bragg, The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging, Bantam Press 2006.
33. Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain, Big Thinking/Common Ground 2003 3rd edn.
34. Pippa Norris, ‘The Twilight of Westminster?: Electoral Reform and its Consequences’, Political Studies, Vol. 49 No. 5 (2001), pp877-900.
35. Cited in Bogdanor, op. cit., p719.
36. Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan, State of the Union: Unionism and the Alternatives since 1707, Oxford University Press 2005.
37. Jo Eric Murkens with Peter Jones and Michael Keating, Scottish Independence: A Practical Guide, Edinburgh University Press 2002, p109.
38. Chris Bowlby, A Beginner’s Guide to Separation, BBC Radio 4, 6.12.07.
39. Robert Lane, ‘”Scotland In Europe”: An Independent Scotland In The European Community’, in Wilson Finnie, Christopher Himsworth and Neil Walker (eds), Edinburgh Essays in Public Law, Edinburgh University Press 1991.
40. Neil MacCormick, ‘Is There a Constitutional Path to Scottish Independence?’ Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 53 2000.
41. Malcolm Chalmers and William Walker, Uncharted Waters: The UK, Nuclear Weapons and The Scottish Question, Tuckwell Press 2001.