Ex-BBC man GAVIN ESLER believes the break-up of the UK is inevitableJanuary 16, 2021
The slow death of Britain: Ex-BBC man GAVIN ESLER is coming to believe that the break-up of the UK is inevitable… and it’ll be even messier than Brexit
I live in England and am a Londoner by choice, although I have lived in all three other capital cities – Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff
Like most Scots of my generation, I have several identities. Born in Scotland, I am from a Scottish and Ulster unionist family stretching back to the 17th Century.
I live in England and am a Londoner by choice, although I have lived in all three other capital cities – Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff.
I’m Scottish when watching rugby or football, British when watching the Olympics and feel European walking the streets of Berlin, Salzburg or Rome. I place more emphasis on one or other of these identities depending on circumstances.
A Scottish friend, who has similarly complicated loyalties and identities – and who voted ‘No’ to independence in the 2014 Scottish referendum – expressed the frustration of many Scots when we met at the time of heated Brexit debates in the summer of 2019.
He said to me: ‘Like you, I am Scottish and British and European. But now these bastards in London are telling me I have to drop one of my identities. Well, I am not going to stop being European. And I cannot stop being Scottish.’
There followed a pause. ‘Are you saying you would now vote for independence?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘And so would most of my friends and family.’
He explained what had changed. Namely, that in 2014, people were told that voting No to independence meant Scotland would stay in the European Union. ‘Well, that’s not true, is it?’ he stressed.
Voting against the upheaval of independence had been the conservative option, but he now believes voting in favour of it next time would also be the conservative thing to do, separating his country from the ‘wreckers’ south of the border.
Two old Scots words – ‘scunnered’ and ‘thrawn’ – are useful when trying to understand this so-called Scottish Question. Scunnered is a word for ‘sickened’ or turned off by something. Thrawn means stubborn, perhaps beyond your own best interests. Some of my fellow countrymen are at times proud to be described as thrawn (me included).
If a nation of five million people can be summed up in two words right now, it is these two. Most Scots are scunnered by events at Westminster since 2016, notably by Brexit and what they see as the incompetence of Boris Johnson and his Government.
In December 2019, along with every Westminster Election since 2005, Scotland overwhelmingly did not vote for the party that formed the British Government. Indeed, it pulled in the opposite direction with an even more impressive landslide for the Scottish National Party.
The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has made it clear that many Scots believe there is a profound democratic deficit for their nation – that their views on Brexit (and other matters) did not count, and that if Scots wanted to leave any union, it was the one known as the United Kingdom.
She stated: ‘I have a mandate to give Scotland a choice for an alternative future.’ By that, Ms Sturgeon means a second Scottish independence referendum.
Whether you are a British unionist or one of the several versions of Scottish, English, Welsh or Irish nationalists, the truth is that the United Kingdom is now united in name only.
The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has made it clear that many Scots believe there is a profound democratic deficit for their nation – that their views on Brexit (and other matters) did not count, and that if Scots wanted to leave any union, it was the one known as the United Kingdom
The choice before us is either to come together and make profound changes to the way we are governed, or to accept that the UK is ultimately a failed state and agree to split apart.
There have been doom-filled prophecies of the end times before. The UK survived the attentions of Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and his successors – although perhaps it is more accurate to say that it survived because of the attentions of Napoleon, Hitler and the others.
I have a strong unionist background and inclination, yet I have come to believe that Britain may indeed be coming to its end. It is not alarm bells I hear. It’s a death knell.
On the day we officially left the EU a year ago, Mr Johnson promised to bring the United Kingdom together, and, like Abraham Lincoln after the American Civil War, bind the nation’s wounds. The pandemic gave him a perfect opportunity to advance his levelling-up agenda – war and national emergencies have for centuries galvanised us into patriotic ‘Britishness’.
There was co-ordination between London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and talk of forming a government of national unity or an advisory group of former prime ministers. But it soon became clear that none of that was part of Mr Johnson’s definition of ‘together’.
Rapidly, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland shrank to becoming the Prime Minister of England only – and at times only parts of England.
The global health emergency prompted different national solutions, but in the UK the pandemic once more raised serious questions about our multinational state.
Ms Sturgeon said she had no idea what Mr Johnson’s nebulous ‘Stay Alert’ message meant, and that anyone going into Scotland ‘for reasons that are not covered by those essential purposes, then you potentially would be breaking the law’.
The Welsh Government, too, made it clear it would not be following Mr Johnson’s lead, and Northern Ireland also went its own way.
Many institutions, including the NHS, are devolved to the nations that make up the UK and are administered differently. There is a common ethos and central funding, but in different parts of the country they have different structures and priorities. To take one example, there are four chief medical officers – one each for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Their existence points to a strength of the union of the UK, but also a weakness. The strength is that the UK has enabled considerable diversity within the four nations, so that what works best in one region can be copied elsewhere. The weakness is the way in which disagreements can deepen without a clear mechanism to resolve them.
We are sliding at a glacial pace into a constitutional crisis.
For years, some politicians and scholars have fetishised the supposed glory of the UK’s ‘unwritten’ constitution. More accurately, Britain has a written but uncodified constitution. It is a jigsaw of laws, judgments, traditions and precedents which are excessively complicated and open to broadly different interpretations.
Another myth is the idea our institutions of state just evolved and have remained largely unchanged for centuries. In fact, since the 1603 union of the English and Scottish crowns, the UK has been reformed, renewed, reinvented and sometimes renamed.
We have seen the Union of Parliaments, the Revolution Settlement, the Protestant ascendancy, the union with Ireland, the 1832 Reform Act, the partition of Ireland, the agreement over power-sharing in Northern Ireland and the creation of devolved parliaments and assemblies, not to mention joining and then leaving what became the EU.
None of these ‘just evolved’. They were the product of crises – the 1603 crisis was to find a suitable Protestant Monarch to succeed Elizabeth I to the throne of England – and in some cases either riots and bloodshed, or an attempt to forestall them.
Every one of these massive changes was created by those working to build or maintain a union based on shared values. One result of this continuing attempt to defuse the tensions of uniting four countries is that we are not quite as uniformly British as you might imagine.
(The Scottish writer and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy described Scotland’s relationship with England as being ‘in bed with an elephant’. And over the past 20 years, the pachyderm has grown increasingly restless.)
When we ask ourselves which institutions bind us together and are definitively British, the Monarchy and Armed Forces spring to mind. But many supposedly British institutions are not very ‘British’ in the way they operate.
For example, the NHS generally tops the list of ‘things that makes us most proud to be British’, according to pollsters. But in practice the NHS is one of the most devolved and decentralised of our institutions, going way beyond the formality of having four separate chief medical officers.
The responsibility for NHS Scotland lies with the Scottish Government, which sets its budget and introduces policies, such as targeting problem drinking by becoming the first country in the world to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol. In Northern Ireland, the health provider brings together – sensibly – health and social care. NHS Wales is also a devolved responsibility directed by the Welsh Government in Cardiff.
How about a British school system? There isn’t one. Neither is there a unified British examination system – Scottish Highers are very different to English A-levels. A British university system? No, that doesn’t exist either. There are, of course, British schools and universities but no truly British education system.
When the history of these islands is taught to our children, it is taught – as I can testify from my school days in Edinburgh – very differently in different parts of the UK.
Even though we all have the same Monarch, in terms of religion we each have very different official relationships with Her Majesty.
In England, the Queen holds the title ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’. She took an oath to ‘maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England’.
In Scotland, meanwhile, she attends church only as an ordinary member of the Church of Scotland, which regards Jesus Christ as its head. Meanwhile, the Anglican church in Wales and Northern Ireland is disestablished and therefore forms no part of the state.
Similarly, the law is different in different parts of the UK.
Broadcasting organisations may present themselves as British national institutions. Yet they, too, are run very differently in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
To take one example, at the start of the pandemic, the Scottish businessman and SNP adviser Andrew Wilson posted a screen-grab on Twitter from an ITN News bulletin broadcast on the Scottish television channel STV. It showed a map of hospital bed ‘Critical Care Capacity’ in England and Wales, with Scotland cut off. Wilson’s ire was clear: ‘Come on. Make an effort, you are broadcasting to the whole UK.’
Even the BBC, as a cherished institution paid for by everyone through the licence fee, is frequently lambasted for exhibiting precisely this kind of unthinking metropolitan bias.
Indeed, the more you examine our ‘national’ institutions, the more separate our UK already appears to be. In fact, we have federalised the UK by stealth.
Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and to an extent London are places where residents understand they are different from other parts of the country – not just in how they feel about their identities but in the public institutions and services which are a part of their lives.
Yorkshire, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, the West Country and East Anglia may all have strong local identities, but that identity is often not validated with their own clearly devolved public institutions, because England-outside-London is not allowed to have them,
Federalism, I believe, can be seen as a strength that allows ‘British’ institutions to react on a local level. The question for the future is whether that devolutionary impulse can be made more coherent while maintaining the idea of a United Kingdom, with clear written rules.
One possibility that would address the sense of democratic deficit felt in all regions of the UK might be the ‘Home Rule for all’ model championed by Joseph Chamberlain in the late 19th Century.
Reinvigorating this idea would require devolving more powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus rethinking the relationship between the regions of England and Westminster.
Since so many of the things that affect our daily lives – schools, hospitals, universities, the law – are already devolved, should we explore and legislate for some kind of federal solution, ensuring that English voters and their representatives have a clearer voice on purely English issues, perhaps through a devolved assembly?
Ultimately, I believe there are now two likely outcomes.
One is that in the simmering rage of English nationalism, we are witnessing the first whispers of how Britain ends. The second possibility is that this discontent will prove to be the catalyst for a reinvention of the UK as some yet unclear but nevertheless newly Re-United Kingdom. A third option is maintaining the status quo – but following Brexit that is no longer possible.
If a genuine reinvigoration is not achieved, or if it is botched, then the separation of England from Scotland, and possibly Northern Ireland, would lead to a full-blown political crisis.
The end of Britain would be much more complicated, messy, costly and bitter even than Brexit.
Imagine creating an EU-England customs border somewhere between Carlisle and Dumfries and forcing Britain’s Trident submarine fleet to seek a new home away from its current naval base at Faslane.
In the event of separation, Wales may tag along with England. Whether a continuing England- and-Wales union could legitimately be described as the ‘Rest of the United Kingdom’ is a matter of debate, since Wales is not by itself a kingdom, leaving aside the inelegance of the name.
More importantly, there is no reason why England or England-and-Wales would automatically retain permanent member status on the United Nations Security Council. Nothing can be taken for granted.
The people of these islands have to decide whether what we call the United Kingdom is worth saving, giving an ancient political settlement a second, third or even fourth chance.
If so, we then have to ask whether it can be reinvigorated and reshaped in the 21st Century as it has been reformed every hundred years since it was first created.
Home Rule for all nations will not be easy. But it is probably the last chance of saving the many good things about our United Kingdom. Another British reformation is overdue.
© Gavin Esler, 2021
Extracted from How Britain Ends – English Nationalism And The Rebirth Of Four Nations, by Gavin Esler, published by Apollo on February 4, priced £14.99. To pre-order a copy for £13.19 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before January 31. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.
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