Some Thoughts on Sovereignty, Voice and Power
from Rosemary Bechler (ed.), The Convention on Modern Liberty: The British Debate on Fundamental Rights and Freedom, Open Democracy/Imprint Academic 2010
What is the UK? British political science says that the UK is a unitary state. But it is not: it is what’s called a ‘union state’. A union state is shaped by national and regional differentiation beginning with 1707 and the negotiation of Scottish autonomy, the retention of pre-union rights, and so on. These are political concepts known across the world, yet the political centre has increasingly understood the UK as a regimented unitary state. It has forgotten the evolving unionisms that have held us together. It has increasingly become a neo-liberal space, polity, and state, dedicated to the furtherance of neo-liberalism, which prioritises a certain kind of narrow, dogmatic set of economic relationships.
What was ‘Britishness’ in the past? It was a popular project. It wasn’t just a Tory project. There was a progressive version of it, a Labour story about working people getting a fairer deal, and income redistributed across the isles to areas that needed it. This Britain would take us out of feudalism and the Dark Ages to a better opportunity for all. There was an emotional strand to that and there was also a spiritual and metaphysical strand. People saw the 1953 coronation as a national communion, and there were a set of stories surrounding it that meant something at a popular level, linking a political and an everyday discourse.
It was thirty years ago that Tom Nairn wrote about the break-up of Britain and we are obviously still living through that long ‘end’ phase in the UK. But something major has happened to it quite recently. Britishness still exists at a governmental and an elite level. But a gut emotional unionism is no longer there. The stories and narratives told about Britishness are increasingly threadbare and problematic, often to the point of being laughable – as in the ‘golden thread of liberty’. The Brown project seems to be straight out of the Ladybird books, and has some essential lacunae – it does not talk about London, the world city; it never talks about Ireland; and there is no mention that we are still living with the defeat of British imperialism in 1921.
The laughable nature of this only crept in with the failure of the ‘new Britishness’ project which initially held out some hope in 1997, around the time of New Labour. Maybe we were kidding ourselves, because a lot of it was risible even then: ‘Britain TM’, ‘Creative Britain’, ‘Cool Britannia’. How we laughed. But there was seriousness about a political project. There was Charter 88, which hadn’t quite won over New Labour to a different model of popular sovereignty. But there was a programme around decentralism and a sense that a different kind of country and political culture was possible.
Why didn’t it happen? It is too easy to say that Tony Blair didn’t understand constitutional reform. Or even that the ‘War on Terror’ got in the way. Some things much deeper were at work, and I think they go to the heart of what the UK is. There had been an erosion of the old gentlemanly checks and balances as the state got larger, and those fell into abeyance at the same time as the gentlemanly model of capitalism, with all its problems, was taken to a level of utter grotesqueness. In the gap created, this misunderstanding of the UK as a unitary state arose – with both politicians and civil servants and most of the UK’s media. This gives us an over-reaching, unreformed centre which misunderstands the set of relationships that it has with the rest of us – and then, as I mentioned, to cap it all, there is the neo-liberal state.
So – some thoughts on sovereignty, voice and power. I am generalising and summarising here, but the majority public opinion and the political elites of Scotland and Wales generally know they are living in a union, the United Kingdom. They have that union state view, and they have a shared post-nationalist idea of sovereignty, such that, even if Scotland becomes independent, its sovereignty wouldn’t be absolute. But in England, certainly at the level of the political class, they are still obsessed with old-fashioned notions of sovereignty. They have no idea that they are living in a union. The union the English political class live in, of course, is the European Union, and they see that as a threat, to precisely that absolutist view of sovereignty. They are right to do so. Some of us would see that very threat as an opportunity for something better. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have our own active ideas and embodiments of popular sovereignty in our national, devolved bodies. England has neither voice nor power.
This makes for a very confused picture and it looks unsustainable. Yet one answer would be to say: ‘The English question only needs to be answered if the English want to answer it’. As Robert Hazell said: ‘It’s not an exam test: you don’t have to sit it’. And even if you wanted to answer it, you don’t have to go down the same route as the devolved Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. You can express it, instead of in devolved institutions, in terms of culture and identity. But the relationship of Englishness and Britishness is crucial.
The Tories were once brilliant at managing that balancing act between the two, at least until Thatcher came to power. Labour, historically, have tried to subsume all identities into this British project of which Brown’s is just the latest version. But the status quo – the unitary state on a neo-liberal model – isn’t sustainable in the long-term. The challenge, the hope, as Raphael Samuel put it, is to ‘invent a new set of island stories’ that can evolve a level of Britishness in which there is some kind of political cooperation and cultural areas, but could also put in place all sorts of different sets of governmental and democratic relationships – four separate nations; Scotland being independent and England finding a new identity with other nations and a new name if ‘the United Kingdom’ is abolished. Whatever it is, the old model clearly needs to be killed off and a stake driven through its heart.
There are many different Englands out there, and we have to hope that, whatever happens, we are not left with the Rupert Murdoch playground. There are many different Scotlands and Wales’ and Northern Irelands too. It is true that in Scotland, for all its faults, the Scottish National Party (SNP) Government has given voice to a much more social democratic set of values and policies than New Labour has advanced north or south of the border. This can be seen in its progressive social justice and public health policies, in its opposition to PFI-PPP, and a host of populist measures.
Herein lies a complexity. For the SNP’s social democracy also masks an underlying duality in the party, rather similar to New Labour. While the party has a social democratic ‘heart’ on social policy this is combined with a neo-liberal ‘mind’ on economic policy.
Within the limitations of the Scottish settlement and the limitations of the SNP, it has broadly developed a more centre-left and progressive politics that New Labour would ever have dared to advance post-1997, while at the same time not transcending the limits of progressive politics found across the globe.
There are other problems. There is a homogenising project in Scotland, advanced by the SNP which involves piling everything into one Scottish identity basket. This seems to me, as someone sympathetic to Scottish nationalism, to be taking one problem area, the British project, and putting it into another one. So the SNP will take one of our most successful plays – Blackwatch – a play about the Iraq war and a regiment of Scottish soldiers who were involved in the attack on Fallujah and disbanded by the Blair Government – and use it to invoke one, over-prioritising Scottish identity. Those of us who want a different Scotland, one that is self-determining and that challenges Westminster, will have to resist those absolutist tendencies within the SNP too.
Meanwhile, there is a fundamental problem about how the left think of England, which isn’t just a fear of xenophobia and racism. It is a fear that England is an innately Conservative country and that, if Scotland and Wales are not somehow kept on board, you will be left high and dry. It isn’t true – England voted only once in post-war times by a majority for the Conservatives. That was in 1955 and in that year a Scottish majority voted the same way because the Tories were just very popular in that year. As did Northern Ireland (with only Wales proving immune to Tory charm!).
At the heart of the small nation project is a set of conflicts between minority nationalisms and majority nationalism. Gordon Brown is a majority British nationalist and majority nationalisms very rarely understand what they are when they say, ‘Grow up and join the real world!’ or ‘You’re all separatists and you want divorce!’ We have got to recognise the problematic impact of that kind of majority nationalism around the world.