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19 August 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:00pm

Why the Covid crisis will hasten the break-up of Britain

After a long period of nationalist dominance in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has been acting during the crisis like the head of an independent nation in waiting. 

By Alex Niven

In the mid-1930s the British socialist Basil Bunting wrote to his fellow poet and friend, the American fascist Ezra Pound, lamenting the difficulty of achieving radical change in Britain.

Bunting told Pound that the nation’s “owners” had “the whole press in their pocket and an opposition led from Eton and Oxford”. At times of crisis, he argued, conservative statesmen could always play “confidence tricks” to maintain the status quo, undermining their opponents and whitewashing their own failings with the help of a servile media. Bunting concluded with weary pessimism that “what seems quite certain is that not only no great change, but not even any substantial alleviation of the lot of the poor in England is going to be possible in future without civil war”.

Almost a century later, as Britain struggles to emerge from a global crisis that recalls  the social and economic turmoil of the 1930s, it is hard not to agree with Bunting’s gloomy summary.

Despite its disastrous handling of coronavirus and its effects, and the onset of a major recession, Boris Johnson’s government maintains a clear lead in the polls – and this after a decade in which the Conservative Party has presided over falling living standards, public-sector decay and countless political emergencies. Whatever tricks our establishment is playing with public confidence, they appear to be working.

But for all the sly resilience of British conservatism, Bunting’s claim that nothing ever changes on these islands does not quite cut it. It is true that Britain and its establishment have never been fully overhauled – at least not since the 17th century, following the Civil War and Glorious Revolution. But there is evidence to suggest that times of crisis eventually lead to profound changes in the way our polity is organised, even if they are suppressed or downplayed by the ruling order.

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Might the upheavals of 2020 give rise to radical adjustments in the geopolitical shape of these islands? Or will we merely fall back into traditionalism and the established forms of governance once the crisis passes? Given the precarious status of the Union prior to the events of this spring and summer, the maintenance of the existing order seems unlikely.

As we try to work out how Covid-19 will impact the long-term fate of British nationhood, it is helpful to see what history teaches us about the relationship between crisis and constitutional change.

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In spite of the stereotype that Britain is impervious to disaster, the historical record shows that modern British history has unfolded in response to crises, even if our “owners” – Bunting’s word – tend to suppress signs of rupture.

The cliché that Britishness hinges on stability and the maintenance of order emerges from a fundamental misreading of our modern history. The UK is a multinational state without a written constitution but instead a set of legal conventions so numerous and arcane that it is difficult for most citizens to grasp their meaning. In keeping with this “uncodified” identity, we might – as 19th-century Whig historians did – see the development of the UK as an informal, consensual and benign process. In this view, the several nations of the British Isles came together amicably over the centuries on the ground of common endeavour. As Thomas Macaulay put it in his History of England (1848), the national narrative was a story of how, “by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible”.

In reality, Britain’s development was more chaotic and dependent on the unpredictable violence of short-term events than this upbeat summary suggests. Contrary to liberal clichés about British gradualism, the UK is a Hobbesian affair – the product of centuries of fierce internal conflict, climatic shocks and even viral devastation.

The unexpected collapse of Anglo-Saxon England in 1066; the Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Welsh wars of the 13th and 14th centuries; the Black Death and its weakening of feudal structures; the early-modern cataclysms of the Reformation and the Civil War – all point to a clear conclusion. For several hundred years English life tended to follow a pattern of periodic disaster followed by imperfect recovery.

From today’s vantage point, there was an ecological narrative underlying all this. The latter part of the first English millennium – from around the 14th century – was overshadowed by the damaging effects of the Little Ice Age (circa 1300-1850), which depressed agricultural production throughout Europe and created the conditions for recurrent bouts of disease (largely in the form of bubonic plague) and waves of political unrest. Historians now look on this climatic cooling as a fundamental event in the unusually fractious nature of European history in this period.

Whatever the causes, the broad outline of British history in the run-up to the Civil War between 1642 and 1651 was marked by successive crises, each one deeper and more apocalyptic than the last.

Arriving at a critical moment, the “United Kingdom of Great Britain” created by the Act of Union of 1707 (and expanded to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after the 1801 Acts of Union) represented a departure from the turbulent late Middle Ages and early modern periods. After the bloodletting of the Civil War, and the bureaucratic Glorious Revolution of 1688 – which gave birth to Britain’s modern constitutional framework and ensured the supremacy of parliament over the monarchy – the establishment of a strong state that formally unified the island nations brought stability.

However, it is important to stress that the UK started from a position of vulnerability. As the historians Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson noted in a famous series of articles for New Left Review in the 1960s, that Britain accelerated towards a point of total collapse or revolution in the 17th century was precisely the reason its modern settlement was unusually primitive, precarious and artificial in comparison with other European nations. Rather than being founded, so the argument goes, on the national narratives of later revolutions – with their declarations of rights, populist anthems and unifying anniversaries – the British state that emerged from the 17th century was an awkward, patched-up compromise of clashing aims and identities, centred on a politically and religiously complex alliance between Scotland and England.

Far from being an outgrowth of the “wise and resolute good faith of its citizen”, the United Kingdom was a set of exaggerated myths of consensus and harmony, worked up by an establishment in order to bury the dissent and division of the preceding era. In short, the UK was a response to, and ultimate defence against, crisis.

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But if the UK and its hazy constitution emerged at the start of the 18th century as an anxious reactionary settlement after the convulsions of the previous era, it would prove remarkably resilient over the next two centuries.

The 18th and 19th centuries were not free of major disturbances for the Anglo-British state (most notably the Jacobite risings and the Napoleonic Wars, not to mention the campaign for Irish Home Rule). But it is true that, powered by the twin engines of capitalism and imperialism, the UK was bound firmly together from the 1707 Acts of Union to the early 20th century.

The centre could not hold, however. If the UK emerged from the catastrophes of the 17th century as an efficient and durable empire, which managed to keep domestic crisis at bay for two centuries, its post-Victorian existence has been a process of steady unravelling.

The major shocks to the British political system in the 20th century were the two world wars. In both cases, war did not lead directly to the break-up of the UK (at least not on the scale of the collapse of the Ottoman empire after the First World War, or the partition of Germany after the Second). Rather – and this has important implications for the present moment – they crystallised existing weaknesses in a fragile settlement, which had been artificially sustained over the previous 200 years by empire and industrial growth.

In the case of Irish independence – the first great crack in the edifice of the UK in 1919 – it is probable that some form of schism would have happened even without the impact of the First World War. But the external shock of large-scale conflict resulted in an Irish secession far more violent – and in the long-run more damaging for the Anglo-British state – than would otherwise have happened in peacetime with gradualist parliamentary reform.

The example of the Irish Revolution (and the bungled solution of Irish partition that followed it in 1922), underlines how the British state has historically responded to crises with short-term compromises that try to delay and mitigate existential shocks.


The centre cannot hold: William Gladstone introduces the second Irish Home Rule bill, 1893. Credit: Culture Club/Getty Images

The Second World War and its aftermath followed a similar pattern. The war led to the disintegration of Britain’s empire in Asia, which was the source of the UK’s  geopolitical energy during two centuries of national stability and global dominance.

Again, instead of a total collapse, the war led to more concessions and patch-ups in the UK’s constitutional order, many of which would store up problems for the future. A good example is the botched implementation of the Redcliffe-Maud Report of 1966-69, which was a response to calls for regional devolution. It resulted in a series of half-measures such as the creation of metropolitan areas and a short-lived shift to two-tier, regional-national government.

Meanwhile, what Tom Nairn, a Scot, called the “Break-Up of Britain” accelerated in the postwar period. While the Irish problem returned with fresh violence with the onset of the Troubles in the late 1960s and 1970s, the breakthrough of Scottish and Welsh independence movements in the same period raised serious questions about the long-term viability of an incoherent multinational state with no unified purpose following imperial collapse.

And yet, as the postwar Keynesian consensus unravelled in the 1970s, the appetite for reform of the UK’s outdated structures gave way to a revival of traditional patriotism in the Thatcher years. The British project had fallen back into a sort of post-  modern afterlife – a vague yearning for a time before the break-up of the British empire, which precluded a deeper renewal of national identity.

Thatcherism fused economic liberalism with cultural conservatism; it favoured a strong central state and had little time for devolution or even local government. As a result, notwithstanding the brief devolutionary upheaval of the Blairite millennium, a nostalgic post-imperial nationalism has been the norm – in England at least – since the 1980s.

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By the third decade of the 21st century, in spite of major threats such as the knife-edge result of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the British state was just about surviving in the absence of any disruptive external shocks. Covid-19 will change all that. The Conservative establishment in England looks stronger than ever, with a large parliamentary majority, and a leader in Boris Johnson who remains popular.

Buttressed by a long period of nationalist dominance at Holyrood (and now also firm control of the Scottish fraction at Westminster), Nicola Sturgeon has been acting during the crisis like the head of an independent nation in waiting. In contrast to the muddled messaging emerging from Westminster, Sturgeon’s communications to the Scottish public during lockdown resembled those of more level-headed northern European nations in their clarity and decisiveness.

With support for independence consolidating north of the border, and with a savage contraction of the UK economy looming, it seems possible that the SNP will secure a second independence referendum before the end of the 2020s. In that event, it is likely that the Yes vote will prevail.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the pandemic has exposed the absurdity of the constitutional anachronism that is partition. As Northern Irish residents were forced to look to a distant London government for overall leadership during the crisis, nationalist calls for an all-island response to the spread of the virus seemed increasingly persuasive.

With demographic changes likely to create a Catholic majority in the North in the next decade, and with Sinn Féin now a major force both north and south of the border, it seems reasonable to suggest that pressure for a border poll on unification will grow. (Dublin is far better positioned than London to coordinate an effective local response to emergencies such as Covid-19.)

Even within England, coronavirus has increased demands for greater devolution of power. Towards the end of the 2010s, the combined effects of a housing crisis and an increase in remote working had started to reverse the London-centric economy of Britain, as professionals who did not have to be physically present in the capital started migrating to cheaper provincial cities.

The revolution in home working sparked by the lockdown will expedite this process. How long until the migratory flow away from London dovetails with debates about regional inequality to produce fundamental reforms in the governance of the English regions? For all the hollowness of Conservative talk about “levelling up”, Covid-19 and its accompanying recession will intensify the urgency of calls for a fairer spread of power and resources throughout England in the 2020s.

Given the enduring resourcefulness of British traditionalism, we should not expect a full-on, imminent collapse of the UK. But the history of the British Isles suggests that fundamental political change does often come about – after an interval, and with an element of messiness and compromise – in the wake of sudden and unforeseen disasters. Whatever comes next, let’s hope that it offers a better, more egalitarian model of statehood than the British unionist fantasy of stable, unchangeable national foundations that never really existed. 

Alex Niven is the author of “New Model  Island: How to Build a Radical Culture  Beyond the Idea of England” (Repeater)

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This article appears in the 19 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Failed