England’s political narcissism could break up the Union

The display of English arrogance and contempt over Brexit is laying waste to traditional ties. 

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Whither the English Unionist? Properly put to the test by Brexit, those who have for so long professed their damp-eyed commitment to the integrity of the UK have been found wanting. Asked “if Brexit means the collapse of the Irish peace process, what is your choice?”, they reply “Brexit”. Asked “if Brexit leads to a United Ireland, what is your choice?”, they reply “Brexit”. And asked “if Brexit means Scotland leaving the Union, what is your choice?”, they reply “still Brexit”. This really does bring new meaning to the idea of going it alone.

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. The pathology stands horribly exposed: pub-fight cocky, a sense of self lifted from the pages of Commando, gullible purveyors and purchasers of the freshest bullshit, laying waste to alliances and the ties that bind, home and abroad.

No lie: from Scotland, Westminster appears absurd. And very, very far away. The values and calculations being brought to bear on the EU negotiations, and on the discussions within and between the two main parties on this and other issues, are alien and often nauseating. There is no moral centre that one can fasten on to. There is only raw politics, for personal and for party advantage, being done good and hard by the kind of people who only come up here to shoot things or to patronise us with empty socialist platitudes they (wrongly) think we’ll agree with.

I honestly don’t know where all this will leave the Union. But I do not think the display of English arrogance and contempt will be easily overcome, on any side. Now awakened, English nationalism is unlikely to quiet itself any time soon. The decision to leave the EU is an English one, taken against the firmly expressed wishes of Scotland and Northern Ireland. The (relatively popular) Scottish government, and the Scottish viewpoint, has been treated as an irritant throughout the process. Internal Westminster Tory politics is all that has mattered. Corbyn’s Labour has been shamefully complicit throughout.

Three-quarters of Tory voters would risk the peace process to secure Brexit and a majority would happily see Scotland become independent. We need to ask ourselves what, in fact, the purpose of the United Kingdom now is. Is it merely a cold economic arrangement (in which case, what’s in it for England)? It it a simple consequence of geography? Are we still the same peoples, wanting the same things? Is Brexit an anomaly, or an outsize indicator of ever greater divergence?

In Scotland, all the parties, including Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives, wish to see higher levels of immigration. In London, that’s not an argument you hear knocked around all that much. The front pages of our newspapers carry different stories from the Fleet Street editions. Our evening news bulletins are dominated by people and issues of which you’ve barely heard.

At the last Holyrood Budget, the finance secretary Derek Mackay used the parliament’s new income tax powers to raise tax on the wealthiest – only by a small amount, but the point was made. If the Tories cut taxes in next year’s Westminster Budget to provide a Brexit stimulus – and this is the chatter I hear from Tory cabinet ministers - what does Mackay do? Does he keep Scottish taxes higher on the basis that his values dictate such a course of action, and risk a significant competitive disadvantage? Or does he accept that the Scottish parliament controls income tax in name only, and will always be bounced around by the fiscal decisions of Westminster? Humiliation is a real possibility.

Theresa May is unlikely to be prime minister going into the next election. Who replaces her? Who is tolerable to the Conservative Party? Who is tolerable to the country – including its extremities? How much are we all willing to put up with from each other?

To a Scot living in Scotland, Westminster has never looked and sounded more English. Parliament’s frontbenches have for centuries rung to the sounds of prominent Celtic accents, but are now a Home Counties-fest. If you do hear a Scottish voice, its owner is speaking on behalf of an English seat. Every big job is in English hands, on both sides of the Despatch Box. Is this ever going to change or is it the new normal? If the latter, what should a Scottish voter think about that?

The Union has worked for more than three centuries in part because the English have allowed the smaller nations of the UK a disproportionately large role in shaping decisions, policies and tone. But Westminster is now England talking to itself, about itself. Perhaps in time a new, tolerable settlement, within the existing model, will emerge. But it feels as if the likelier outcome is a Union that either dissolves itself or rethinks its purpose and structures from the ground up. It also looks as if England will drive this process.

When Palmerston said that "we have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow," he was talking about the country’s foreign policy. Today it stands as England’s take on its fellow UK nations. A Union so constructed may be incapable of survival.  

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).