Britain needs democratic renewal. Roberto Unger is right to argue that such a project can lead nowhere without confronting constitutional questions. But Britain’s constitutional crisis is deeper and more intractable than he recognises. There are, for the short term at least, no alternative constitutional arrangements that are likely to keep Britain from breaking apart.
Britain’s future relationship with the European Union is one part of the problem. As long as there is a significant minority in Britain who hope for something like associate EU membership, any post-Brexit constitutional settlement will have at best provisional legitimacy. Outside Scotland, the argument for a stronger relationship with the EU is usually cast in economic terms. But since the EU treats participation in the Single Market as a claim to some political authority, any closer economic relationship will necessarily have consequences with respect to how the UK is governed.
More immediately, the constitutional crisis is a matter of the Anglo-Scottish Union. This Union has always been more precarious than post-Whiggish takes on British history have allowed. It was a politically deft construction when it was established in 1707 because it allowed Scotland to retain legal and religious autonomy and England its complex constitutional heritage while excluding a political expression of either Scottish or English nationhood. But by accommodating an explicitly democratic expression of Scottish nationhood in a national parliament, devolution under New Labour in 1999 destabilised the Union, incentivising a political version of English nationhood that inflames Scottish nationalist anger towards Westminster.
Mantras about decentralisation and “radical devolution, including within England” cannot escape the fundamental predicament that emerged when the parliamentary Union was ended in 1999 on such asymmetrical terms. Until a way is found to overcome the present parliamentary disunion, there will be intense conflict between the nations within British politics and little prospect of collective British purpose.
[see also: The system cannot hold]
Britain’s economic problems will reinforce those divisions. The lesson that the Conservatives learned from the 2019 general election was that a post-Brexit renewal must reshape Britain’s economic geography. But when the party’s electoral future is tied to votes in the small towns of the north and the Midlands, it is unclear whether it is Britain or England’s economic geography that the Conservatives wish to change.
Over the past few months, Boris Johnson has bet on what he has called a “green industrial revolution” as the avenue for Union-wide economic transformation. In envisaging a world in which Britain becomes the Saudi Arabia of wind power, Johnson appears to believe that the Union can be saved by a British project uniting the island’s coasts in an offshore energy capacity. But whatever the pay-off for the British economy would be from a manufacturing and construction renaissance, the move away from fossil fuels is unlikely to convince those living outside Britain’s large cities that any economic reform will be to their advantage.
Moreover, since the constitutional legitimacy of the British state is insecure, there will be political clashes about who should decide on the allocation of state resources to energy and other investment projects. In those policy areas where sovereignty is returning from the EU, such as state aid, the restored economic powers will only sharpen the conflicts between the national parliaments about who should exercise them. Since under the present constitutional arrangements these powers cannot be devolved to equivalent political bodies across the Union, the freedom for decentralisation is constrained.
There are no self-evident answers on the form democratic renewal in Britain can take. But the magnitude of what lies ahead means Britain’s age of complacency has ended and a democratic contest over the constitution and policy experimentation is beginning.
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold