At the outset of the pandemic it appeared that the Union could be strengthened rather than weakened. After years of visceral and sometimes toxic political debate, the UK’s four nations fleetingly united in solidarity against a virus that does not respect borders.
But the pandemic has since only magnified the Union’s fractures. In Scotland, support for independence has reached its highest ever sustained level (peaking at 58 per cent). In Wales and Northern Ireland, the secessionist cause has similarly advanced. And in Manchester and Liverpool, metro mayors have revolted against a remote and complacent Westminster. As Gordon Brown writes in his essay in this week’s issue, “it is too early to say whether Britain will break up, but we can say already that it is breaking down”.
This much was made clear by Boris Johnson’s remarks to as many as 60 Conservative MPs on the evening of 16 November. The Prime Minister declared that devolution had been “a disaster north of the border” and described it as Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake”. It is certainly true that devolution has not, as the former Scottish secretary George Robertson hoped, “killed nationalism stone dead”. Instead, as the late Labour MP Tam Dalyell anticipated, it appears to be “a motorway to independence with no exits”. But what purpose does it serve for Mr Johnson to echo this conclusion? His remarks have allowed the SNP to claim that the only way to protect the Scottish Parliament is for voters to support independence.
Since the No side’s victory in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, successive prime ministers have squandered opportunities to strengthen the Union. David Cameron barely paused at the end of the referendum before embracing the cause of “English votes for English laws” and redoubling austerity. Theresa May spoke often of the “precious Union” but her masochism premiership denied her any political space for reform. Mr Johnson has no such sincere commitment to the UK, nor do most of his supporters. He was not elected Conservative leader because party members did not know that he would threaten the Union, but because they did not care. A 2019 YouGov poll found that 63 per cent of Tory members were prepared to accept Scottish independence and 59 per cent a united Ireland in return for Brexit. Some Tory Eurosceptics have long relished the prospect of a UK parliament denuded of the social democratic influence of Scotland.
Time is now perilously short to save the Union. Should the SNP win a majority at next year’s Scottish election (as opinion polls suggest) it will have a mandate for a second independence referendum, but not one to be held at a time of the First Minister’s choosing. Any ultimate refusal by Westminster to grant this request would merely confirm the impression that it is losing the argument.
If the Union is to be saved it will not be through obstinacy but through enlightened reform. In his essay, Mr Brown outlines a four-part programme, including a fairer public spending settlement, the establishment of a decision-making Council of the Regions and Nations, the replacement of the antiquated House of Lords with a Senate of the Nations and Regions, and the drawing up of a new UK constitution. “The only Union that will survive is one that is built on more than ancient traditions and historic monuments,” he concludes.
Mr Brown is more alert than most to the forces disrupting the Union: it was in May 2007, the month before he became prime minister, that the SNP first became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament. He writes with candour of his own failures, of the naivety of the original New Labour devolution settlement, and of his doomed attempt to promote “Britishness” during his premiership.
In the years since, the need for a reconfigured Union has only grown more urgent, as we have long said. But successive leaders of all parties have lacked either the will or the credibility to achieve lasting reform. Without a new settlement, however, the United Kingdom will not endure. Nor should it.
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation