Some parts of the British establishment seem to be waking up to the fact that the UK as it is presently constituted is heading for a crisis which it may not be able to survive. The culprit is not Scottish nationalism, it is the wakening beast that is English nationalism. The nationalisms of Scotland, Wales and Ireland could always be contained or marginalised by the British state, a marginalisation handily summed up in the dismissive phrase “the Celtic fringe”. But what can’t be ignored is the nationalism of the largest constituent nation of the four nations of the UK. English nationalism has the potential to consume and overwhelm the British state. The writer Neal Ascherson once described Scotland’s place in the UK as like being in bed with an elephant. The elephant is getting restless. It has not just taken all the duvet, but it threatens to break the bedframe too.
The point about the rise of English nationalism is well made in a recent book by the BBC journalist Gavin Esler. Esler is a self-avowed Unionist and no supporter of Scottish independence. The thrust of his book is to act as a warning that unless the UK undergoes significant and substantial constitutional reform, transforming itself into a federal structure, it will be unable to survive the rise of the nostalgic and backwards looking English nationalism which drove the Brexit campaign.
Gavin Esler makes the interesting observation that British politicians and commentators once spoke about England when they meant Britain – much to the irritation of people in the other nations of the UK. In more recent years however, this formulation has been reversed, now politicians, especially pro-Brexit Conservative politicians, speak about Britain when they mean England. This is clearest in the pronouncements of such avowedly English nationalist politicians as Jacob Rees Mogg and other patrician members of the current Conservative government in Westminster. Brexit is frequently described as the will of the British people when it is obviously no such thing. Brexit may have gained a – narrow – majority of support from voters in England and Wales, but it patently failed to come anywhere close to gaining majority support in Scotland. He again conflated Britain and England when he likened winning the Brexit referendum to ancient battles in England’s long mediaeval wars with France, saying,”this is so important in the history of our country… It’s Waterloo! It’s Crécy! It’s Agincourt! We win all these things!”
Any Scot can tell you that Scotland was not on England’s side in its wars with the French monarchy. Scotland was once such a close ally of France that the core of the French royal bodyguard was formed by the Garde Écossaise (Scottish Guard). However like the rest of the modern Conservatives,for Rees Mogg the fate of the entire UK is to be determined by the decidedly English nationalist project of Brexit, lost as it is in its fantasies and reveries of a mythical England standing alone against the world.
Esler’s fear is that when English nationalism comes to define the British state and determine its actions, there is no space left within the existing structures of British government for a distinctively Scottish political sensibility. As the joke has it – an Englishman, a Northern Irishman and a Scotsman go into a pub, but the Englishman wanted to leave so they all had to go.
What is even worse from a Scottish perspective is that the Conservatives are using the Brexit which Scotland didn’t vote for as an excuse to weaken and undermine the devolution settlement without the consent of the people of Scotland. The infamous vow which was made to Scotland in the final days of the 2014 has now been well and truly traduced. Not only did the No vote not secure Scotland’s place within the EU, the stronger powers that the Scottish Parliament was promised, and the closest thing possible to federalism are disappearing faster than a Gordie Broon escaping responsibility for his role in this debacle. It’s not just that Scotland is being forced to leave the pub against its will. It’s also being robbed of the bus fare back to where it set out from and kicked in the shins for good measure.
Meanwhile the Conservatives seem hell bent on repeating the same mistakes that Westminster made with Ireland in the late 19th century when most Irish people would have been content with some form of meaningful home rule which retained constitutional links to the UK. SNP politicians are routinely treated with derision and contempt by MPs on the Conservative benches, who either ostentatiously walk out or boo and jeer whenever an SNP representative takes to their feet to speak. The message is clear – Scotland, you won’t get a hearing in the Westminster Parliament.
Last week similar observations were made by the Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford who said that the centralising approach of the UK Government and Johnson’s refusal to engage meaningfully with the devolved governments was “putting the union in peril”. Speaking to the UK Parliament’s Welsh affairs committee he noted that he had had only one proper meeting with the Prime Minister and described the British government’s dealings with the devolved nations as “All ad hoc, random, and made up as we go along. And I’m afraid that really is not a satisfactory basis to sustain the future of the UK” He added ,”There is no institutional architecture to make the United Kingdom work.”
Echoing the thrust of Gavin Esler’s arguments the Labour First Minister said that he felt the United Kingdom “as it is, is over ” and added that a new union should be created to reflect a “voluntary association of four nations”.
Even the Guardian’s arch-unionist commentator Martin Kettle warns that something has to give. In a recent article for the Guardian he argues that Johnson’s centralising instincts and contempt for devolution are” threatening to aid the breakup of the UK not to prevent it”. Laughably, Kettle contrasts the hard-line English nationalist approach of Johnson with what he describes as the “more conciliatory” Michael Gove, which is a bit like describing Freddy Krueger as more conciliatory than Jason Voorhees.
Unfortunately for all these apologists for the British state the force which they identify as the biggest threat to the continuation of the UK in its current form, the rise of English nationalism and the capture of the Conservative party by a nakedly reactionary form of that English nationalism is also the force which is most likely to mount a successful resistance to the thorough-going constitutional changes which they see as being required to ensure the continuation of the unions that form the UK. Militant English nationalists in the Conservative party will fiercely resist any restrictions being placed on the absolute power of a Prime Minister with a majority in the Commons merely in order to placate an unhappy Scotland which they have long othered as an ungrateful grievance-monger.
Despite the focus on English nationalism it is of course the increasing possibility of another Scottish independence referendum which is driving the recent attempts to revive the corpse of the federalism fairy. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no credible pathway to the kinds of reforms that are required in order to restore Scottish confidence in the UK. None of the proposals aired so far solve the problem of an unwanted Brexit being foisted on Scotland. However we cannot simply rely on the strains and contradictions within the UK leading to the eventual demise of a UK union that is no longer fit for purpose. The cracks in the creaking edifice of the British state are widening and growing more evident with every passing day, but we must continue to make the case for independence as the only plausible route to a form of government in Scotland which is truly reflective of the needs and wants of Scotland and its people. Even so, it’s becoming ever more obvious that we are pushing at a Westminster door that has lost its hinges and bolts and is approaching collapse.
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