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24 January 2023

The twilight of the British Union

If Labour wins the next election it will face nationalist opponents in Scotland and England. Could the UK survive?

By James Hawes

One evening in December I had a drink in an Oxford pub with the founding head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, Professor Ciaran Martin. I felt a bit like George Smiley, because we were talking about a looming threat to the very existence of this realm. But the menace isn’t digital. The mortal danger to the United Kingdom comes from its own peoples.

Martin knows all about that because, as a constitution adviser in David Cameron’s Cabinet Office, he helped set up the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. And he’s in no doubt about how serious things have now become. His recent press comment about the Supreme Court’s ruling on a second independence referendum would be striking coming from any UK mandarin; it’s doubly so because this mandarin hails from rural County Tyrone, a largely Catholic part of Northern Ireland and a hot spot for sectarian violence during the Troubles: “There is nowhere for a lawful, peaceful and constitutional movement like Scottish nationalism to go.”

[See also: Does Nicola Sturgeon regret her Scottish independence gamble?]

At the last three UK general elections, Scottish voters awarded first a near-totality, then a comfortably absolute majority, and most recently an overwhelmingly absolute majority of seats to candidates whose headline was independence. If, therefore, you believe that first-past-the-post (FPTP) is a sustainable font of democratic governance, it follows that independence is the settled will of a majority of Scotland’s voters, and should be enacted; if, on the other hand, you maintain that these results do not accurately express the wishes of Scotland’s voters, you evidently hold that FPTP does not work as a font of democratic governance, in which case it has to be replaced. Independence for Scotland, or a reconstruction of the UK’s electoral system: these are the only conclusions that can be drawn.

Refuse to draw either, and you are in effect saying that the results of the 2015-19 general elections in Scotland may simply be set aside. Which leaves the UK no longer a multi-national union of consent, but one of legal compulsion under Westminster.

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This is happening right here and right now. Yet, like the East German regime in the summer of 1989, we kid ourselves that no urgent change is necessary. True, Gordon Brown’s lengthy report for Labour, A New Britain, proposes “a new constitutional statute guiding how political power should be shared”. But does Brown’s team really believe that the heady prospect of “a period of pre-legislative scrutiny, including consultation with the devolved administrations and legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and with local and regional government in England, to build the maximum shared understanding of and consensus about the function and content of the statement” can turn the tide in Scotland where, in Martin’s words, “independence is the all-consuming issue”?

Meanwhile, the governing regime at Westminster maintains that majoritarian rule, derived overwhelmingly from English voters, may legitimately override contrary votes in the other nations of the British state, no matter how many or how clear. Indeed, the UK’s former chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost has suggested that the Scottish Parliament may have already exceeded its powers (by, for example, opening overseas hubs to promote only Scottish businesses) and that devolution might “evolve back” through Westminster banning such things. Ciaran Martin has publicly called this “Anglocentric British nationalism”, and to see how potentially maximalist that Anglocentric force is, we need only recall that large majorities of Conservative voters told pollsters before the general election of 2019 that in order to ensure that “Brexit took place”, they would accept the destruction of the UK and indeed, of the Conservative Party itself.

So how are so many people so able to deny the true state of things? The answer lies not in psychology, but in history. For in UK politics a week may seem long, but a century can be as nothing: Westminster since the general election of 2015 can easily appear as just another iteration of the great power struggle which was born with the Third Reform Act of 1884 and has never gone away except in time of war.

The United Kingdom was created in 1801 (with no public consultation whatever, naturally) to enact direct rule over a rebellious Ireland. It worked very well so long as it was run by a culturally homogeneous elite: the wealth and empire gained in the 18th century were comprehensively defended against Napoleon, then mightily extended under Queen Victoria. But when in 1884 Gladstone’s Liberal government enfranchised the UK’s masses (or, at any rate, the large majority of males over 21) they immediately voted not on national issues, but on tribal lines – and have essentially been doing so ever since.

In England, an ancient cultural fracture reopened. The southern English chose representatives associated with the Anglican Church, the monarchy and imperial grandeur; a map of places with strong Church of England adherence as recorded in the 1851 census is to all intents and purposes a map of the 1885 election. The northern English, who had tried setting up a separate parliament in Manchester just 31 years before (with enthusiastic public backing from Karl Marx, no less), voted like the Scots and Welsh: they chose Liberals, typically from a low-church culture, suspicious of the London establishment and imperial adventures. In Ireland, the new voters overwhelmingly backed Charles Stewart Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party, which won 85 of Ireland’s 101 seats, not to mention one in Liverpool.

Parnell now held the balance of power in Westminster. Following a handy conversion to the cause of Irish Home Rule, Gladstone was able briefly to occupy No 10; the transaction was too blatant for some Liberals, who split off to become Liberal Unionists and de facto supporters of the Conservative Party. And so, the battle lines were set: an “Outer UK League” of the northern English and the Celts faced off against the English south.

Each side was trapped in a logical paradox, grounded on the ancient division within England. The greater population of southern England meant that the Conservatives won six of the next seven elections in England itself, but their imperialist ideology meant that abandoning the Union was unthinkable. Except on one occasion, 1906, the Liberals needed the Irish to win, but that meant backing Home Rule for Ireland (and, by 1910, for Scotland as well). Thus Conservative England was ideologically locked into the preconditions of its own regular defeat, while Liberal England was tactically locked into weakening the one transnational institution which gave it a regular chance of winning.

The impossibility of this UK became manifest after the two bitter elections of 1910, which left the Liberals in power thanks only to their alliance with the Irish Home Rulers, despite the Conservatives comfortably winning England both times. Winston Churchill, at that time a big Liberal beast, believed that the Conservative hegemony in England could “tear the state in halves and bring great evils upon us”. In 1912 he proposed to his electors a truly radical constitutional change. Governance of the UK might, he said, be taken over by an “Imperial Parliament” in London, to be comprised of representatives not only from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but also from “four great areas in England which might well have a conscious political entity, an effective political machinery, bestowed upon them”. If England could be freed from the virtually baked-in hegemony of the Tory south, the UK might yet have a chance.

The Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, came very close to openly backing armed insurrection in Ireland to thwart the UK’s elected government. Churchill growled back that the will of parliament would be physically enforced if need be, because “there were worse things than bloodshed, even on an extended scale”. Only the Great War prevented some form of civil war, and only for a few years: the huge vote for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election having seemingly achieved nothing, by 1919 a critical mass of the Irish were ready to succour the gunmen.

[See also: Burning the bastards out]

Since the UK’s foundational raison d’être was to control Ireland, it was now logically defunct. But the thought of Imperial HQ itself crumbling, with all that implied for the empire, was too awful for the political elites. So they acted as they have continued to act ever since, and denied the reality of British decline and fall. James Craig, co-founder of the Ulster Unionist Council, rather than being arraigned for the treasonable running of almost 25,000 rifles from Germany in the spring of 1914, was permitted to construct a grotesquely gerrymandered, paramilitary sub-state, Northern Ireland – constitutionally within, yet almost entirely ungoverned from, Britain.

In mainland Britain, the rump anti-Tory league, bereft of 80-plus Irish MPs, had to regroup and rebrand. For all the superficially new postwar ideology, the essential paradox remained the same. Labour, by 1923 almost hegemonic north of the Trent, remained unable seriously to contest southern England beyond the poor quarters of London, so the muscle of its Scottish and Welsh seats was vital. Just like the pre-Great War Liberals, Labour had to make devolutionary promises even though it was entirely a party of the United Kingdom, whose first five leaders were all Scotsmen. From June 1918, its official policy was “Home Rule All Round”.

That was largely forgotten in the desperate 1920s and 1930s, when the economic situation in the north of England, Wales and Scotland was so similar that by 1935 the Ministry of Labour formally lumped them together as simply “the North”.

Nor did nationalism disturb Labour’s triumph of 1945. Mortal danger from outside had naturally brought the nations of the UK closer and everybody was happy to wrest the Union Flag from Churchill’s hands and hoist it over Clement Attlee’s New Jerusalem. But in the next generation, things returned to the post-1885 default. By October 1974, the second general election of that turbulent year, Harold Wilson felt obliged to offer elected assemblies in both Scotland and Wales. The promissory note was countersigned in the doomed campaigns of James Callaghan, Michael Foot (only to Scotland), and Neil Kinnock, then finally handed over by the victorious Tony Blair in 1997: for a few years, Cardiff’s AMs and Edinburgh’s MSPs happily digested their new powers within “Cool Britannia”.

Then came the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 and the general election of 2015, with Scotland under FPTP peeling away from Westminster even more decisively than Ireland had done with Parnell in 1885.

We’ve been able to evade the implications for one simple reason: the Conservatives have been in power ever since. And not just any old Conservatives, but a new-style party which the Tory grandee Ken Clarke has described as “essentially English nationalists”. Thus, on every substantive issue since the Brexit referendum, ideological opposition from Labour and nationalist opposition from the SNP have gone hand in hand. As a result, the picture still looks, on the surface at least, like the default constellation of our politics since 1885: a multinational outer-British opposition facing a south of England which claims a majoritarian right to rule the whole island.

But if voters’ intentions stay even roughly as they are now in the polls, the result of the next general election will be without precedent: for the first time, Labour will win in England and Wales but be trounced in Scotland. It will thus face an opposition consisting of two rival nationalisms.

In the run-up to the next election, how on Earth will Labour, born and bred within the UK, quintessentially the party of the outer-British alliance, cope with this prospect?

Watch: Matt Hexter joins the New Statesman podcast to discuss who comes after Drakeford – and what that will mean for Wales and the Senned.

Two and half years ago, I concluded my book The Shortest History of England by suggesting that the UK was doomed and that, “If [Starmer] can purge his own swivel-eyed loons he could, just possibly, build a brand-new party for a younger England. Perhaps, as Churchill suggested in 1912, a federal England.”

Starmer seems to be acting as though this is already the reality in all but name. His recent statements on Brexit are aimed squarely at English constituencies. Gordon Brown’s report pays lip service to the traditions of UK Labour, but if you look closely, the point of view is remarkably Anglocentric. In one place, the constitutional troubles of the UK are blamed entirely on the governmental arrangements of England, as if there is simply no such thing as an active nationalist impulse in Scotland: “Over-centralisation is bad for everyone, but in particular for England… the UK government is hyper-centralised when dealing with the 85 per cent of its population in England, and so is not set up to deal well with the other centres of legitimate political power, and finds it can ignore constitutional safeguards for devolution.”

So, according to Brown, if only all were well in the governance of England (the most profound victim of the present arrangements), all would automatically become well in the UK as a whole? Starmer echoes this thinking in his speech of 5 January, claiming that “many of those who voted Yes” to Scottish independence in 2014 actually just wanted the same things as Leave voters in England, these being (according to him): better local public services, local high streets, and local opportunities for their children.

The clear suggestion is that many Scottish voters who think they want independence really just want better governance from Westminster and stronger local councils. This is a frankly astonishing response to the constitutional crisis caused by the last three general elections in Scotland – astonishing, that is, if we assume that Labour, born and bred within the UK, is still wedded to the UK’s survival.

But look at the maths. In 1987, Kinnock won 50 seats in Scotland and 23 in London; Starmer has inherited 49 seats in London and only one in Scotland. Labour has nearly replaced in London what it has lost in Scotland. It is thus now already more truly an English party than at any time in its history, meaning both that it is more able to win in England and that it is more obliged to win in England – obliged, that is, to take seats outside the major cities, and in southern regions where only Attlee, Wilson and Blair have ever succeeded.

But the situation in Scotland leaves Starmer facing a two-front war. In England, assaulting a widely discredited right-wing government, he can and must present himself as an almost apolitical centrist, appealing to uncontentious values such as competence, fairness, hope and the NHS; in Scotland, however, his enemy is a pronouncedly centre-left nationalism. He cannot outbid the SNP, ideologically or constitutionally, without risking his appeal to middle England.

Expect, then, in 2023 to witness Labour all but openly admitting what the Tories all but openly admitted in 2015: that what we call “UK politics” is essentially about England. Starmer has no chance in the core south, which even Blair never took. The only path to No 10 is to regain Labour’s traditional hegemony in the north while convincing peripheral England south of the Trent that Starmer (southern English, KCB, KC!) is also the man for it. Hence his litany on 5 January: “Burnley, Wolverhampton, Grimsby and Swindon.” While this battle for England rages, Scotland will be studiously ignored, the constitutional issue there safely cocooned in the 155 wearying pages of Gordon Brown’s report.

Labour, the alternative English National Party? Is the UK finished? Of course, this seems unthinkable. But then, the idea that Britain might actually leave the EU was scarcely credible just a decade ago. Such things always seem unthinkable until they happen, at which point we immediately wonder how we didn’t see them coming. And when they do come, they can be deeply uncomfortable. For what will a new English Labour Party be like, stripped of that native Great British identity which has allowed it to present itself as by nature multinational, multicultural, communitarian? As anybody who was expecting Starmer to at least acknowledge that Brexit has been an economic disaster now understands, things really can change utterly.

In the Oxford pub, Ciaran Martin and I set down our glasses. An enlightening and enjoyable couple of pints has left me none the wiser as to his personal views regarding the continued existence or otherwise of the United Kingdom. Outside the pub, he watches with interest as I try to unfold my ancient and now frozen Brompton bike. “That,” says he, “is the very definition of a contraption.”

“A bit like the UK?” I fire back, hoping to ambush him. Not a hope. As I lock the last clip into place, I try one more time:

“I mean, if the UK and Great Britain are history, who will the Ulster loyalists be loyal to? Scotland? That’s ridiculous. England? Britain is one thing, but has any loyalist ever proclaimed loyalty to wee sneaking perfidious England? Maybe, they just might decide…?”

Not a chink in that County Tyrone armour. Raising his collar against the harsh north wind, he disappears into the winter’s night, to resume his command of our virtual ramparts. Very Tinker, Tailor…. But as I watch him go, surrounded by buildings far older than Great Britain, never mind the UK, I recall that George Smiley’s creator, John le Carré, despaired, in the end, of this country, and chose to die an Irishman. Which “us” will Ciaran Martin be defending two or three years from now? As he put it to a Cardiff audience in December, “The position in Scotland is unsustainable.”

We can wish it away as hard as we like, but the crisis of the UK is coming.

James Hawes’ books include “The Shortest History of England” (Old Street)

[See also: Why Labour does not need London to win back power]

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This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better