Leader: The disunited kingdom

The UK, the imperial multinational state that once sought to reorder the world, may prove incapable of saving itself.

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At the close of the last century, the United Kingdom appeared to be moving towards a new constitutional settlement. Devolution had been granted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1998, and the New Labour government had declared its intention to put Britain “at the heart of Europe”. But the ghosts of empire merely lay dormant, waiting to be reawakened by forces that mainstream politicians only dimly understood. Far from “killing nationalism stone dead” in Scotland, as the Labour cabinet minister George Robertson hoped, devolution empowered it. The EU, though a supranational institution, inspired secessionism by encouraging small nations to pursue the dream of “independence in Europe” under its umbrella. Austerity, which ravaged deindustrialised regions, and the Conservative Party’s rigid commitment to neoliberalism triumphed over more paternalistic instincts.

The 2014 Scottish independence referendum, in which 45 per cent voted Yes, exposed Scotland’s divisions; the 2016 Brexit vote exposed those of the wider UK. England and Wales voted to Leave, while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain. The United Kingdom is, increasingly, united in name only.

In this week’s issue, we launch a new series on our “Disunited Kingdom” and the constitutional crises assailing it. As the historian David Reynolds writes in his introductory essay, Boris Johnson’s pledges to “deliver Brexit” and “unite the country” are contradictory.

By proposing a new customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, Mr Johnson has reanimated the Irish Question and threatened the historic achievement of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The success of the agreement lay in dissolving the sectarian binaries that had blighted Northern Ireland, allowing people there to identify as “Irish or British, or both”. But Brexit permits no such ambiguity and thus would destabilise both Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Through their carelessness, the Conservatives have also gifted the Scottish National Party (SNP) a new argument for independence. The 2014 referendum was a warning to Westminster; Mr Johnson’s pursuit of a hard Brexit and the  Faragist vote is confirmation that it has not been taken.

Conservatives are increasingly indifferent or even openly hostile to the Union. In June 2019, a YouGov poll showed that 63 per cent of party members were prepared to accept Scottish independence and 59 per cent a united Ireland in return for the UK leaving the EU.

However, the Union is threatened by much more than Brexit. The post-imperial British state is fragmenting; the ties that once bound us together have frayed. And no party leader has sought to provide an overarching answer to the ambiguities of the British Question. They will soon be left with no choice. The SNP, which is forecast to gain seats at next month’s general election, has demanded a second independence referendum in 2020 and, although this is likely to be rejected, it will do so repeatedly until appeased.

The creation of a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will conjure up the spectre of a united Ireland. And should Britain leave the EU, England’s Remain cities will increasingly define themselves against a Brexiteer-led Westminster.

For the United Kingdom to endure it must (as we have long argued) be reconfigured. A new constitutional settlement is required, including radical devolution to the nations and English regions, the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected senate, and the introduction of a more proportional voting system.

But how late it is, how late. As the United Kingdom confronts the demons unleashed by the Brexit process – and grapples with issues of identity long unresolved – the imperial multinational state that once sought to reorder the world may prove incapable of saving itself. If so, the Conservative and Unionist Party will be left to ponder how it presided over the end of not one but two unions.

This article appears in the 20 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over