Leader: The break-up of Britain

Britishness is a noble idea. However, as a wave of populism and nationalism breaks across Europe, are these the end of days for the United Kingdom?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Tom Nairn’s book The Break-Up of Britain. Mr Nairn’s fundamental insight was to recognise that the United Kingdom was an imperial construct – what the Cambridge historian and NS contributor David Reynolds has called a “mini-English empire” – and that the ties that once bound the people of these islands were fraying. The forces that had forged the British nation state – European wars, empire, Protestantism, cross-border class solidarity, industrialisation – had become much less relevant in an age of globalisation, mass immigration and post-imperial decline.

In her 1992 book Britons: Forging the Nation (1707-1837), Linda Colley wrote:

The factors that provided for the forging of the British nation in the past have largely ceased to operate. Protestantism, that once vital cement, has now a limited influence on British culture, as indeed has Christianity itself. Recurrent wars with the states of continental Europe have in all likelihood come to an end, so different kinds of Briton no longer feel the same compulsion to remain united in the face of the enemy from without. And crucially both commercial supremacy and imperial hegemony have gone.

Britons was published during a period of Thatcherite hegemony in England but crumbling Tory authority in Scotland. Five years later, Tony Blair’s New Labour won a landslide victory and set about introducing the new devolution settlement, which the former minister George Robertson predicted would kill Scottish “nationalism stone dead”. In the event, devolution and the creation of the Holyrood parliament fired the nationalists’ separatist ambitions.

The 2014 Scottish independence referendum, which was won by the Better Together campaign, did not settle the Scottish question. Rather, it reawakened English nationalism and strengthened the Scottish National Party (SNP), which won 56 of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats at the 2015 general election, routing the Labour Party in the process. Once the natural party of government in Scotland, Labour, as Nicola Sturgeon pointed out this week in her speech at Bute House, Edinburgh, has “collapsed” north of the border. Left-liberals have embraced nationalism and unionists are turning to Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives rather than to Labour.

In this context, it was inevitable that the SNP would use the uncertainty created by Brexit to call a second independence referendum. The Prime Minister is correct not to allow the SNP to dictate the date and terms of this second referendum but wrong to accuse the SNP of game-playing. Politics is a deadly serious business, as Theresa May said on Monday, but it is also a game of strategy and tactics. Ms Sturgeon understands that England’s Brexit difficulty is the nationalists’ opportunity. A second independence referendum will, indeed, be divisive and even destructive, but it is inevitable. Brexiteers such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson who boasted during the EU referendum campaign that Brexit would bolster the Union were foolishly wrong.

Scotland is a proud European nation. A convincing majority of Scots voted Remain and have no wish to be dragged out of the bloc by zealots such as Liam Fox and Iain Duncan Smith. Whether their faith in the bloc is rational is another matter, but it is their deeply felt conviction – and the Brexiteers, with their vision of a buccaneering, free-trading England, knew this.

In a speech last week, Alain Juppé – the former prime minister of France who lost out to François Fillon in the contest to become the centre-right presidential candidate – warned that the Fifth Republic was imperilled. “Our country is ill,” he declared. “Resistant to reforms that it knows are ­necessary, angry with its political elites but susceptible to demagogic promises, it is experiencing today a terrible crisis of confidence.”

Something similar could be said of the British state, whose disunities have been exacerbated by Brexit. The United Kingdom is the most successful multinational state in modern history. Britishness is a noble idea. However, as a wave of populism and nationalism breaks across Europe, are these the end of days for the United Kingdom? Or will the rickety old British state survive a second Scottish referendum; survive even the crises-ravaged European Union?

We shall know soon enough. 

This article appears in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

Free trial CSS