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The fight to save the fractured Union

In an age of political alienation and resurgent nationalism, can the United Kingdom still hold?

By Douglas Alexander

How you see the world depends a lot on where you stand. Writing a review of Fractured Union from here in Scotland offers a distinctive lens through which to assess this very British book. As I write, I am looking out across the Firth of Forth from East Lothian, where I’m Scottish Labour’s candidate in the coming general election. If elected to represent this constituency, I would be following in the not inconsiderable footsteps of a distinguished scholar of the British constitution and one of the earliest architects of Scottish devolution: the late, great Professor John P Mackintosh.

As East Lothian’s MP during the Harold Wilson era, Mackintosh understood – decades before others – both the inherent fragilities and continuing possibilities of the “unusual” country that is the United Kingdom, the topic of Michael Kenny’s Fractured Union. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a similarly distinguished scholar, Kenny has written a lucid, engaging and insightful page-turner that provides a “Cook’s tour” of the political chaos that has engulfed the UK over the past decade.

After a brief history of devolution – now in its 25th year – the reader is left with a sense of the sheer carelessness of the Conservatives’ approach to the heavy responsibilities of government. Examples include, at a gallop, the Scottish independence referendum, the Brexit referendum and its consequences, before considering the British state’s management – and mismanagement – of the coronavirus pandemic.

Perhaps reflecting the balance of his sources, Kenny seems rather more surefooted analysing what happens in the corridors of Whitehall than on the streets of Glasgow, or indeed Belfast and Cardiff. He draws heavily, perhaps a little too heavily, on the recollections of Whitehall mandarins and so emphasises their centrality in a manner that, at times, inadvertently diminishes the critical contribution of political leadership, for good or ill. Governmental structures and the view from Whitehall certainly do help to account for some of the constitutional strains affecting the country today, but so too do many other aspects of contemporary politics. As someone closely involved in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum I was perplexed that Alistair Darling’s leading role in the Better Together campaign was omitted from this account. Our campaign won in 2014 in no small measure because we understood that evidence matters, but so too do emotions. We understood that all the pride and patriotism was not on one side of the argument. And we understood that the choice needed to be a debate within Scotland, led by Scots, about Scotland’s future. These insights, and the need for a case that stirred the soul as well as engaged the mind, were not properly understood by the UK government of the time and, tragically, were never embraced by the Remain campaign just a couple of years later in 2016.

The book instead settles for the familiar and rather negative account of the Scottish referendum campaign. It’s worth recollecting that our victory was secured against a political backdrop of singularly unpopular UK leaders, and the policy backdrop of unrelenting austerity. It won during a decade in which our politics was transformed by social media and featured the re-emergence of populism, which delivered both Brexit and Donald Trump. Securing a margin of victory of ten clear points for a politics of solidarity, of Scotland remaining in the UK, in these circumstances is a result that, to my mind at least, only looks stronger with the passage of time.

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In that decade – the central focus of Kenny’s exploration – the currency of politics across the UK shifted from economics to culture. With questions like “am I Scottish or am I also British?” and “am I British or am I also European?” coming to dominate public discourse, the political battleground became about identity and belonging. Only in the last couple of years has the importance of economics begun to make a comeback as a result of continuing stagnation, which reflects a toxic mix of low growth, high inequality and the cost-of-living crisis. Even the book’s title, Fractured Union, seems a somewhat static view of what remains the unpredictable and contingent politics of the contemporary United Kingdom.

While the author offers clear comparisons with the constitutional challenges that have been faced in Catalonia, Quebec and the former Czechoslovakia, the book could have benefited from locating constitutional politics on a wider canvas. It does not strike me as coincidental that nationalism has emerged across these islands at a time when populism is rising again across Europe and the United States.

On both sides of the Atlantic, economic anger, cultural anxiety and political alienation have helped shape the politics of the past decade. A nationalist politics that is focused on exploiting these concerns – rather than solving them – has proved electorally effective, and so strained existing constitutional relationships. Yet fully accounting for these symptoms requires more than acknowledging psephology: it requires an understanding of deeper causes that lie in economics, culture and psychology.

Much as I enjoyed Fractured Union, I wanted it to offer greater insight into the “why” of contemporary British politics, rather than simply describing, if brilliantly, the “what” of today’s constitutional circumstances. This valuable new contribution to the literature is therefore a stronger account of the past than a guide to the future. Its analysis of contemporary electoral politics already risks seeming somewhat dated, however, given the continuing difficulties of the SNP north of the border and the Conservatives, well, pretty much everywhere.

As a Scot, I found Kenny’s “What about the English?” chapter fascinating; it confirms in my broad judgement that English nationalism continues to pose a greater threat to the integrity of the UK than its noisy neighbour of Scottish nationalism.

The chapter on “Future-proofing the Union” offers a convincing account of the continuing cleavage between advocates of the “integrationist” and “muscular” unionism that has become a hallmark of today’s Conservative government, and those who advocate a “comprehensive devolved settlement”.

As a committed devolutionist I’m encouraged that after a decade of decline for our country, Labour is once again making the case for economic, social and democratic renewal.

So it is worth recalling that in this magazine on 27 September 1974 John P Mackintosh wrote: “Only one thing will halt or reverse the onward march of the SNP and that is a period of government in London which is really successful so that it ends with a satisfied electorate eager to vote positively for a party that has once again restored the feeling that Britain is a successful, worthwhile country to belong to.”

Half a century on, there remains wisdom in Mackintosh’s insight. After reading Michael Kenny’s gripping book I still believe that, with the correct care, fractures can heal.

Douglas Alexander is Labour’s candidate in East Lothian and a former secretary of state for Scotland.

Fractured Union: Politics, Sovereignty and the Fight to Save the UK
Michael Kenny
Hurst, 414pp, £20

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran