England will be the end of Britain

Sunday National, April 2021

At the end of last month, as the Scottish Parliament was dissolving ahead of the Holyrood election, ministers in Boris Johnson’s government made two announcements related to Scotland and the future integrity of the UK. The first was symbolic: from now on, government buildings across the country (although not in Northern Ireland) would be required to fly the Union flag every day as a “proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us,” the Conservative culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said. The second was procedural: in the coming weeks, lawyers for the Johnson administration planned to challenge the SNP’s attempt to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law.

These announcements were followed by the publication of the Dunlop Review – a report, written by the Tory Lord James Dunlop, looking at strategies for “strengthening” the Union. Johnson should establish a new cabinet position for intergovernmental and constitutional affairs, Dunlop recommended, and there should be “better branding” for Scottish infrastructure projects financed by the UK Treasury. Since taking charge of the Tory Party in 2019, Johnson has launched four separate initiatives aimed at ‘saving’ the Union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. His latest maneuver stalled earlier this year when the head of Downing Street’s ‘Union Unit’, the ex-Vote Leave strategist Oliver ‘Sonic’ Lewis, quit after reportedly briefing against his colleague, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. Lewis had been in post for a grand total of 14 days.

Johnson is visibly failing in his mission to stop the SNP and stem support for Scottish independence. And yet, if the prime minister’s efforts to boost the presence and visibility of the UK government north of the border don’t yield the desired anti-nationalist results, he always has a formidable Plan B to fall back on: he can simply say ‘no’ – no to a legally-binding, mutually-agreed independence referendum, no to additional powers for the Scottish Parliament, no to Scottish democracy itself. “Scotland is not a colony, a semi-colony, a pseudo-colony, a near colony, a neo-colony, or any kind of colony of the English,” Tom Nairn wrote in 1968. And he was right: for the most part, Scots were participants in the British Empire, not victims of it. Still, at some point, you start to wonder: beyond simply anchoring Scotland and England together for the sake of constitutional tradition, what overarching purpose is the Union actually meant to serve? 

In his new book, State and Nation in the United Kingdom, the Aberdeen University professor Michael Keating – arguably Scotland’s leading political academic – charts the rise of so-called ‘muscular unionism.’ For Keating, Brexit was a key turning point. The 2016 referendum marked the emergence of a new kind of British identity politics, he says, which views the UK not as a “plurinational” union made up of multiple, often competing, territorial narratives and interests, but as a unitary state, with political authority concentrated exclusively in the Westminster parliament. The Tories’ Internal Market Bill – designed to repatriate powers to London from Brussels that should otherwise revert back to Edinburgh and Cardiff – is a vivid example of this hardline Brexiteer mentality. In their rush to standardize the provision of goods and services throughout the UK after Brexit, Conservative ministers have run roughshod over the conventions of Scottish and Welsh Home Rule. Before 2016, unionism wasn’t a “unified ideology”, Keating argues; it was a “complex structure with numerous strands, which sometimes cohere and sometimes pull apart.” But the net effect of the Brexit poll, with Scotland voting one way and England voting another, has been to undermine the devolutionary settlement established in the late 1990s and create a “serious fissure” in Britain’s constitutional architecture. 

Keating does a lot of useful myth-busting across the board. The nationalist caricature of Britain as constitutionally static doesn’t stack up, he says. Since the late 20th century, referendums have been central to the “tool kit of [British] constitutional reform”, used in relation to the UK’s membership of the EU in 1975 and 2016, Scottish devolution in 1979 and 1997, Scottish independence in 2014, Welsh devolution in 1979, 1997 and 2011, and Northern Ireland in 1972 and 1998. Nor is it true that Westminster has always been unresponsive to popular democratic demands. In fact, in recent years, British prime ministers have made a series of “striking” concessions on the right of the UK’s constituent nations to secede from the Union if they so choose. “John Major declared that no nation could be kept in a union against its will,” Keating notes, “while his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, accepted that ‘as a nation, [the Scots had] an undoubted right to self-determination’.” (Major reiterated this sentiment last week, urging Johnson in the pages of the Financial Times to “remedy the shortcomings” of devolution and warning him that a hardline approach to IndyRef2 was “more likely to provoke a break-up than prevent it.”)

The idea of unionism as a “living principle”, constantly changing to meet new political challenges, is central to Keating’s analysis. Traditionally, the Union has drawn strength from its “polyvalent” qualities, he argues – its ability, as a set of institutions, to mean different things to different people at different times. This tendency was dominant for a long period after the Second World War. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the Tories cast themselves as defenders of Scottish regional autonomy in the face of Clement Attlee’s ‘authoritarian’ and ‘overbearing’ welfare state. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Labour politicians like Gordon Brown positioned the NHS and the trade union movement as lynchpins of the Anglo-Scottish relationship, under attack not just from right-wing free-marketeers but from the SNP, too, whose plans to break-up Britain would plunge working-class Scots into economic ruin. And in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, David Cameron framed the Union as the bedrock of British liberal democracy and global soft power. “In the darkest moments of human history, there has been in the North Sea a light that never goes out,” the ex-Tory leader remarked, mawkishly, a few months before the September vote took place. “If this family of nations broke apart, something very precious would [disappear] forever.”

The major problem according to Keating, however, is that the UK constitution has only ever evolved at the margins: as Scotland and Wales have pushed for ever-increasing amounts of autonomy from London, the underlying question of English self-government has gone unanswered. When the Brexit crisis hit, the dividing lines running through Britain’s asymmetric system of devolution became apparent and England’s status as the leading – yet inadequately represented – partner in a lopsided union was revealed. Scottish and Welsh voters may have felt, from the late 1990s onwards, that they were living in a quasi-federal country, Keating writes, but the English electorate has never had to adapt to the reality of Britain’s shifting constitutional landscape. As a result, it has been easy for Johnson’s Vote Leave cabinet, acting on behalf of its mandate for an English Brexit, to behave as though the Scottish Parliament and, to a lesser extent, Welsh Senedd, don’t exist. In 2016, Theresa May could call for a “red, white and blue Brexit” because unionists no longer understand the UK as a contested project, encompassing a range of different national mythologies and allegiances. Instead, senior Brexit-supporting Tories like Johnson and Gove emphasize an imaginary “unity of purpose” for the UK as a whole – even as they operate through a heavily Anglicized, eurosceptic lens. Keating sees the signs of this myopia everywhere in British politics. “No UK government department has England in its title and even in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, cabinet ministers are usually referred to as ‘UK’ rather than ‘English’,” he writes. “This has added to public confusion about responsibilities and led [Westminster policy-makers] to forget that they represent only one territorial component of the Union.” 

State and Nation in the United Kingdom is a sweeping assessment of the UK’s constitutional development. In calm, clear prose, Keating traces the factors that have brought British unionism – and particularly rightwing British unionism – to the brink of crisis. England and Englishness loom large in his thinking. In 2018, a poll conducted by YouGov showed that 63 per cent of Conservative Party members would be happy for Scotland to ditch the UK if it meant England could complete its departure from the EU without disruption. A separate poll, published the same year, showed that 76 per cent of Tory Brexit voters south of the border felt the same way. In other words, as Johnson’s hapless attempts to ‘take on’ the SNP indicate, the Union is beginning to unravel under the weight of English national indifference. And – beyond doubling-down on outdated and Anglocentric notions of absolute parliamentary sovereignty – the current crop of Westminster leaders have no idea what to do about it. 

At the same time, there is nothing valedictory in Keating’s account of the UK; he offers no comforting predictions about the inevitability of Scottish independence. Indeed, if anything, State and Nation helps explain why, despite Brexit and the past, chaotic decade of Tory rule, at least 50 per cent of Scots remain reluctant to embrace independence as an alternative to the UK’s constitutional status quo. The “substratum of British identities, rooted in history, shared experience, and values” that made unionism culturally hegemonic in the 20th century may have weakened since the onset of devolution, Keating says, but it hasn’t fully dissipated – and there’s no guarantee that it will, even in response to the endless political missteps and blindspots of the Johnson administration. Unionism has proved durable, up until now, because it has always implicitly accepted that Scotland’s presence in the UK was conditional. If London can rediscover that spirit of pragmatism in its approach to the SNP, and wider Scottish demands for a renegotiated partnership with England post-Brexit, then there is no automatic reason for the Union to end. 

Polling data bears this out. A recent survey published by the centre-right think-tank Onward revealed that one third of Scots would be more inclined to support independence if the SNP wins a majority at Holyrood in May and Johnson flatly refuses to authorise a new referendum. “The UK government should show, rather than tell, the benefits of the Union,” Onward’s director, Will Tanner – who is also, coincidentally, a former advisor to Theresa May – concluded. “And build a British identity that is complementary to the values and cultures of all four nations. The Union is not yet lost.” He may well be right. The fastest and most effective way of driving otherwise politically moderate Scots towards the UK exit door is to tell them, in the most uncompromising terms possible, that they are never allowed to leave. The second fastest way is to launch a series of flag-waving attacks on the structures of devolution in order to justify a radical constitutional shift that the majority of Scots wholeheartedly reject. 

Keating might slightly overstate the subtlety of London’s approach to Scotland prior to Brexit. Thatcher and Major may have formally acknowledged Scotland’s right to leave the Union, but the battle in the 1980s and ‘90s was over devolution, not independence. And for almost two decades between 1979 and 1997, the Thatcher and Major governments repeatedly vetoed Scottish demands for a devolved Edinburgh parliament. Thatcher claimed to believe that Scottish voters were free to quit the UK if they wanted to, but not to unilaterally rearrange its constitution if they didn’t. “Should they determine on independence, no English party or politician would stand in their way, however much we might regret their departure,” the former prime minister wrote in her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, in 1993. “What the Scots (and indeed the English) cannot do, however, is to insist upon their own terms for remaining in the Union, regardless of the views of others.” Twenty years after the creation of the Scottish Parliament, it seems unlikely that Boris Johnson’s grasp of Scottish political culture is any more sophisticated than Mrs. Thatcher’s. ‘No’, after all, was her favourite word, too.

This article is a review of State and Nation in the United Kingdom by Michael Keating. Read the original piece here.

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