For the past year, coronavirus has raged through the UK, and England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all gone their own ways in responding to it. With the decisions of the devolved governments front-and-centre like never before, and the UK government in London effectively acting as an English government in many ways, it can sometimes feel as though the UK as we remember it no longer exists. Of course, in reality, it does, but the media seems to agree that it’s hanging on a shoogly peg. Independence movements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all emboldened post-Brexit, and unionists across these islands are more and more anxious. So, it’s worth taking this moment, before something resembling normality resumes, to examine the state of the UK union. What threats does it face? And what’s the prognosis for the future?
The core problem for the UK’s continued existence is that, simply, people don’t feel as British as they used to. This didn’t start with Brexit, or devolution, or any other event in the lifetime of most people likely to be reading these words. Rather, it’s a long-term historical process which is only just now bearing fruit politically. The UK has never been especially good at assimilating and nationalising the constituent peoples of its territory. Compared to its neighbours – particularly post-revolutionary France – the national identities which predated the construction of Britain survived fairly comfortably as constituent parts of a composite whole. Languages like Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic were admittedly marginalised by the state, but attempts to actually annihilate an idea of “Scotland” or “Wales” were half-hearted failures. The only place which was in any sense subsumed into an idea of Britain was England – but I’ll get back to that.
For people on the Celtic periphery of the British state, Britishness was experienced primarily through social institutions, rather than individual identity. UK-wide institutions like the military, the Empire and the Protestant faith were binding agents, bringing English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh people together to a common project (while also, it should be acknowledged, excluding a great many more – Irish Catholics and the vast majority of imperial subjects being only the most obvious examples). But, of course, these institutions are not what they once were. The military is a shadow of its former size and has no role in society comparable to what it did in the Imperial period. Secularisation has dramatically cut back the salience of religion for people across these islands. And the Empire is, well, you probably heard.
As these binding agents slowly decayed over the course of the twentieth century, the sense of British identity felt by people in Scotland and Wales began to gradually decay. Subsequently, the legitimacy of a centralised political system, where the Westminster government controlled all aspects of government, began to gradually collapse along with it. This gradually resurrected nationalist movements in both countries, which were viable enough to, after a few false starts, deliver devolved self-government for both countries. The creation of these devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales (and, concurrently, in Northern Ireland) was the shock to the system which awakened England and Englishness from its comfortable slumber. The nature of the union was changing, from a coherent – if composite – nation-state, to a decentralised conglomeration of nations. Not to be left behind, England changed with it; the proportion of people in England identifying as “English” steadily rose from the 1990s on.
The incentives this created for politicians resulted in a feedback loop which may be is fatal for the union. Conservative politicians – first David Cameron’s campaign against the SNP in 2015, then the Leave campaign in 2016 – have won by tapping into English voters’ anxieties about “foreign” influence, be they Scots or Europeans. These successes have produced contradictions within British politics, as the expressed preferences of the devolved nations on fundamental questions like Brexit diverge from those in England. These contradictions reduce people’s faith in the value of the UK as a political unit: when people’s affective ties to the state are weakened, divisions over straightforwardly political issues can become fatal to national unity.
If you need an illustration of this, consider Boris Johnson’s government. Its electoral project, to the extent that it has any long-term aims whatsoever, is to unite socially-conservative voters in England behind the Conservative Party. This requires taking the maximally-divisive stance on basically any salient political issue – be it Brexit or statues – to stir up a culture war between urban progressives and what they imagine as the flat-capped, conservative proletariat of the towns and countryside. The results of the 2021 local elections in England suggest this project is progressing at pace.
However, the old Newtonian law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, applies in politics as well. In England, on the same day that we saw the Conservatives rip through the so-called “red wall” of Brexit-voting former Labour heartlands, an equivalent “blue wall” of Conservative areas in the south of England began to look increasingly fragile. Labour flipped two Conservative-held regional mayors, in Cambridgeshire and the West of England, while the Liberal Democrats and Greens made substantial gains in local elections in the Home Counties. These victories appear to be driven by the same force: affluent, educated, socially liberal voters abandoning the Conservative Party. In other words, the inevitable and opposite consequence of Boris Johnson’s attempt to realign England’s electoral map.
It’s in this context which we must understand the immediate challenges the union faces in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Under Johnson’s leadership, support for Welsh and Scottish independence has grown among precisely the same kinds of voters the Conservatives have alienated in England. Even before the pandemic, Scottish nationalists considered Johnson the best recruiting sergeant the independence cause could hope for – and, indeed, support for independence rose among Remain voters over his premiership. The coronavirus pandemic, and particularly voters’ positive assessments of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership relative to Johnson’s, has continued this trend. In Wales, meanwhile, support for independence is much lower. However, polling suggests it has made significant inroads among younger, urban voters in South Wales. This would be a significant milestone for a movement which has seemed perpetually trapped within its heartland of rural Welsh-speakers. Nevertheless, whether or not this momentum can be sustained remains to be seen.
Northern Ireland is more complicated – as Northern Ireland is wont to be – but similar forces are acting upon politics there. Despite great excitement among Irish republicans and their international cheerleaders, the fact that Northern Ireland will imminently have a majority-Catholic population will not immediately result in Irish unity. The old cliché, that all Protestants are hard-line unionists and all Catholics dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary republicans, is less true now than it has been at any point since the start of the Troubles in the 1960s. The post-conflict generation is more comfortable with hybrid identities, and while the religious divide persists in education and housing, it has less salience in social life. The political consequence of this is the rise in support for non-sectarian political parties. The primary beneficiaries of this shift have been the Alliance Party, a centrist, liberal cross-community party which is neutral on constitutional debates. Alliance is drawing support from both nationalist and unionist parties, and, according to polling, is in contention to come first in next year’s elections to the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly.
The immediate threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, therefore, comes not from a surge in support for Irish nationalism, but from what you might cynically call Irish unity through stealth. Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal has drawn a hard regulatory border between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales, effectively ensuring economic unification with the Republic of Ireland and the wider EU. This has caused a significant crisis within Northern Irish unionism, with both main unionist parties ejecting their leaders in recent weeks. However, as it stands, there is no mechanism by which they can prevent Northern Ireland drifting further and further towards the Republic. The UK government are fundamentally disinterested in giving up the hard Brexit which a border with Northern Ireland enables. The only way, therefore, to reverse course would be for the Northern Ireland Assembly to vote to scrap the Brexit deal. However, there is no majority for that in the Assembly, and given the religious dealignment and subsequent rise of Alliance, there is little prospect of the next election delivering such a majority. Therefore, even if conditions differ somewhat, the same processes – religious dealignment and the current government’s political project – are destabilising the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The uncomfortable truth for unionists, in all four countries of the UK, is that the ad-hoc nature of the UK’s political system is wildly unsuited to solving this problem. In the century since the first devolved government was created (in Northern Ireland, if you’re wondering), there has been no concerted effort by unionists to imagine a constitutional system for the UK which is both responsive to the political claims of nationalism, and internally coherent. The Blair government was perhaps the worst offender for this. Although they were created within a year of one another, the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were essentially treated as solutions to discrete and unrelated problems – and so varied enormously in their level of power and organisational structure. Meanwhile, the ramifications of this fundamental change in the political system for England – where, lest we forget, 85% of the UK population lives – were not seriously considered, despite warnings at the time that this would produce the backlash we are now seeing. Obviously, the ad-hoc nature of the union has not just failed to resolve, but rather exacerbated, the tensions within the state.
To resolve this problem, and set the UK union on a more stable footing, you would need a political system which is both responsive to political claims by nationalists in all nations, and coherent enough to avoid triggering future grievances. This would, to put in mildly, require significant constitutional change: probably a written constitution, an English Parliament, and a more confederal relationship between the nations.
The current political conditions make anything like that fairly improbable. The currently-ruling clique around the Conservative Party are almost allergic to the decentralisation of power within the UK. Boris Johnson’s dislike of Scottish devolution is well-documented, but more subtle is the way devolution within England, designed under David Cameron and implemented by Theresa May, has essentially ground to a halt under the current government. Despite the successes of devolved Tory administrations in place like the West Midlands and Tees Valley, Boris Johnson and his allies see devolution as little more than a way to empower political enemies, like Nicola Sturgeon and Andy Burnham. If the current government finds the devolution of minor powers to regional mayors unpalatable, it seems hard to believe they would radically reorganise the British state, even to future-proof its very existence.
The solution they prefer is a sort of pork-barrel unionism – burying the devolved nations under endless infrastructure projects festooned with union flags. This spending spree might accidentally be useful: many areas in these countries, like the Scottish Highlands, Mid Wales and western Ulster, have suffered from chronic underinvestment. But it is an answer to the wrong question. The threat to the union is rooted in identity and political values, and you can’t buy those with all the money in the world. The union may survive for a while yet. But unless someone figures out what it is for and how it should work in the modern era, it will only be on sufferance.
Aran Prince-Tappe [he/him]
[Photo credits: Dylan Bueltel]