An actual break-up of the British part of the UK Union is no more likely than it was in the referendum of September 2014, when the Scottish government offered voters an illusion of independence. Yet the Covid-19 crisis has sufficiently aggravated all the existing centrifugal pressures within the Union that this year could mark a significant step towards partial dissolution of the Anglo-Scottish alliance.
Months upon end in which the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish executives have exercised devolved powers in health and education, as Westminster ministers are forced to act as England’s government while still retaining UK-wide authority in other contested areas, has convinced ever more people that the Union should end. Opinion polls show support for Scottish independence at record levels, even though within the SNP bitter divisions between the Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond factions have deepened, and a breakaway independence party has become a genuine possibility. In Wales, this month the Senedd held its first ever debate on independence.
During this emergency, the Conservative government has found it harder to disguise its increasingly visceral dislike of the devolution settlement. This is partly circumstantial since the existing inter-governmental committees, conceived at the time of Scottish and Welsh devolution, have unsurprisingly proved inadequate for coordinated emergency decision-making. But ministers also palpably resent the reality that it is easier for politicians in power in Edinburgh and Cardiff to make political capital out of the Union’s troubles than it is for those in London.
In some circumstances, this might not matter as there is nothing the Conservatives can dare do legislatively to end devolution. But with powers coming back from the EU, not least on state aid, the Westminster government has the opportunity to recast the balance between reserved and devolved powers, and may well choose to take this opportunity through primary legislation.
It did not require the Covid-19 crisis to reveal that the constitutional arrangements for the Union have become chaotic, not least because they leave a void around English governance. Present electoral politics also render these arrangements practically self-destructive: only hubris can account for Tony Blair’s assumption that New Labour’s success was such that the party would be in power in perpetuity in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. Now, the Union is reaping the consequences of his conceited folly. The competition between the political parties actively destabilises the Union. A Conservative government at Westminster imperils Scottish consent. A minority Labour government propped up in the House of Commons with SNP votes would jeopardise English consent. A Labour majority government is hard to envisage without some resolution to the Scottish Question that Labour’s very weakness perpetuates.
The Union cannot be stabilised without the SNP returning to minority party status in Scotland, which is unlikely to happen in next year’s Holyrood election, and without a politics that generates a regular turnover in power between the two principal Westminster parties. Accordingly, the best contribution the Conservatives could make to preserving the Anglo-Scottish union would be to lose the next general election.
There is a viable political path out of the Union for Northern Ireland via Irish unification, albeit it would be enormously disruptive and carry a serious risk of violence. The question is whether a majority of people in Northern Ireland and Ireland wish to take it. But for Britain, and not just for Scotland and Wales but England, too, it is far from clear that independence is a sustainable answer to the Hobbesian problem of political authority on this island.
Political union was not the only possible historical answer to this question. But as the one that emerged, it cannot be readily undone in the economic and geopolitical world of the 21st century. Indeed, Scottish independence, at least as campaigned for by the Scottish government in 2014, was not in vital respects a project to undo that political union, either as a matter of identity or of external and internal solidarity, since it included ongoing currency and monarchical union, with all the historical symbolism of Britishness embedded in the monarchy.
The SNP’s position has since moved to a bolder independence model, but still favours a shared head of state and an effective security confederation. Its new desire for an independent currency is, crucially, more wishful longing than hard-headed strategy. No one looking honestly at the eurozone over recent years could deny that a shared currency requiring common fiscal rules, and where a nation state’s politicians have no influence over the central bank’s lender-of-last-resort capacity, raises profound difficulties around sovereignty and democracy. Nominal Scottish independence with ongoing monetary union would soon give rise to structural political pressure to re-create the Union. If there was a different path, it was the one not taken years ago when first a Conservative and then a Labour government decided the UK would not be joining the euro.
For England, Scotland, and Wales, the Union in some form must be made to work. That requires facing directly the constitutional questions, which are well beyond the point where muddling through will suffice. It also means finding, and then celebrating, the historical story about how from a Union constructed in ad hoc fashion over five centuries, from motives we might well struggle to understand, came a shared political experience of learning to live peacefully with appreciable political, cultural, religious and linguistic differences.