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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?

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 first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

Arsène Wenger. Credit: Getty
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My biggest regret of the Wenger era? How we, the fans, treated him at the end

Arsenal’s greatest coach deserved better treatment from the Club’s supporters. 

I have no coherent memories of Arsenal before Arsène Wenger, who will leave the Club at the end of the season. I am aware of the Club having a new manager, but my continuous memories of my team are of Wenger at the helm.

They were good years to remember: three league titles, seven FA Cups, the most of any single manager in English football. He leaves the Club as the most successful manager in its history.

I think one of the reasons why in recent years he has taken a pasting from Arsenal fans is that the world before him now seems unimaginable, and not just for those of us who can't really remember it. As he himself once said, it is hard to go back to sausages when you are used to caviar, and while the last few years cannot be seen as below par as far as the great sweep of Arsenal’s history goes, they were below par by the standards he himself had set. Not quite sausages, but not caviar either.

There was the period of financial restraint from 2005 onwards, in which the struggle to repay the cost of a new stadium meant missing out on top player. A team that combined promising young talent with the simply bang-average went nine years without a trophy. Those years had plenty of excitement: a 2-1 victory over Manchester United with late, late goals from Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, a delicious 5-2 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur, and races for the Champions League that went to the last day. It was a time that seemed to hold the promise a second great age of Wenger once the debt was cleared. But instead of a return to the league triumphs of the past, Wenger’s second spree of trophy-winning was confined to the FA Cup. The club went from always being challenging for the league, to always finishing in the Champions League places, to struggling to finish in the top six. Again, nothing to be sniffed at, but short of his earlier triumphs.

If, as feels likely, Arsenal’s dire away form means the hunt for a Uefa Cup victory ends at Atletico Madrid, many will feel that Wenger missed a trick in not stepping down after his FA Cup triumph over Chelsea last year, in one of the most thrilling FA Cup Finals in years. (I particularly enjoyed this one as I watched it with my best man, a Chelsea fan.) 

No one could claim that this season was a good one, but the saddest thing for me was not the turgid performances away from home nor the limp exit from the FA Cup, nor even finishing below Tottenham again. It was hearing Arsenal fans, in the world-class stadium that Wenger built for us, booing and criticising him.

And I think, that, when we look back on Wenger’s transformation both of Arsenal and of English football in general, more than whether he should have called it a day a little earlier, we will wonder how Arsenal fans could have forgotten the achievements of a man who did so much for us.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.