On the disintegration of Britain

On the disintegration of Britain

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The country I was born into is fading away into memory. In truth, this has been a long and gradual process. In the last century, Britain has gone from a world-leading global imperial power on which the sun never set, to a second-tier regional power, and now to the verge of disintegration altogether.

The undoing of the global empire was inevitable, and good. Empires that arbitrarily carve up the world and rule by force over hundreds of millions of subjects are an unsustainable, undemocratic absurdity. The transitions to independence of nations subjected to British imperial rule may not have been entirely smooth. But they were, at least, a matter of undoing external imperial rule.

The disintegration of Britain itself would be no such thing. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not ruled by England, contrary to what nationalists regularly claim. They are part of a democratic union. In fact, they are over-represented both within the British parliament and in terms of the regional parliaments that they have and England doesn't. British governments have pandered to these historically independent regions, as they continue to do today with promises to Scotland of so-called "Devolution Max" if Scotland votes to remain in the union. Public spending today is £1300 higher per head in Scotland than in England.

Indeed, this entire referendum — whereby Scottish voters determine the future of the UK — is emblematic of the democratic deficit between England and Scotland. This is my country, too. Where is my vote?

Yet pandering to the Scots with cash, excess representation and privileges, it seems, may not be enough to preserve our 307-year old country. 

While the British empire itself may have been an unsustainable absurdity, the country we have built at home in Britain is not. It has its own strong and stable currency, the pound. It has freedom of movement throughout both itself, and the wider European Union. It has a highly-ranked national health service that provides medical treatment free at the point of need. It has a world-renowned publicly funded broadcasting service. It has a trustworthy court system, and a low degree of state corruption. It has a relatively-generous welfare state. It has national parks and natural conservation schemes. It has representative democracy with universal suffrage. It has a cohesive national and artistic culture. It has a common language. It has a relatively high degree of freedom of expression whereby we are mostly free to criticize and insult our leaders.

Yes, there are imperfections and miscarriages of justice, and poor economic policies that lead to recessions and mass unemployment. But is the answer to that to erect new borders where once there were none? To erect new barriers? I don't think so. The answer, in my view, is to elect better British governments.

Judging by the polls, though, many Scots just want out, for many reasons. Nationalism, oil money, British Tory governments that Scots didn't vote for, the fantasy of a Scandinavian Scotland with an oil-driven economy comparable to Norway. A desire for an end to more of the same, and the possibility of a new adventure. And if that is what Scots truly desire, then they have the right to pursue it.

Yet — if it goes ahead — I doubt that this will be a happy divorce. The seeds of oppobrium are scattered all over. The key trouble for Scotland beyond the problematic matter of currency and the crazy notion of setting up a currency union in the wake of the euro crisis is that Scotland would not enter the post-referendum independence negotiations on good terms. It would enter the negotiations with a severely wounded and perhaps increasingly reactionary British government keen to tell Scots "I told you so". Scotland has no real leverage to negotiate favourable terms other than the result of the referendum and a few vague gestures about Britain's currency being underpinned by North Sea oil. The UK is the one with the army, the NATO and EU memberships and the nuclear submarines. 

Alex Salmond can hand-wave and pontificate as much as he likes, but he will have to accept independence on terms dictated to him by Westminster. His desired formal currency union, off the table. British military bases including Trident in Scotland, irremovable from it. Areas of Scotland that voted against independence — possibly including Shetland and Orkney — and their coastal waters may remain part of the UK. Scotland may only receive a fraction of the oil revenue it hopes for. Salmond may point to Scotland's share of the national debt. But the UK can withhold many things Scotland needs — including currency reserves and oil revenues — if Scotland won't accept its share of the debt. And although I expect the current UK government to respect the outcome of the referendum, after the 2015 election, a right-wing coalition may seek to prevent Scottish independence altogether.

And what would happen to the rest of the UK? Would we default to being the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, or England for short? A black, red and white union jack? I don't know. Redefining a national identity following the forcible disintegration of the previous one is a difficult and introspective process. But the chances are that the loss of the left-wing Scottish electoral bloc would see reactionary, nationalist forces empowered south of the new border. Current polls in Britain including Scotland place UKIP and the Tories together on 47 percent of the vote. Without Scotland, they rise to 52 percent of the vote. That spells a Tory government, or perhaps a UKIP-Tory coalition followed by a possible exit from the European Convention on Human Rights, and maybe the European Union, a far tighter immigration policy, an isolationist foreign policy, and a more right-wing economic policy. Cameron and Osborne — forever derided as the men who lost the union — may slink off into obscurity, but they are likely to look like moderates compared to the right-wing nationalist forces that Scottish independence would unleash in England.

In my lifetime I always imagined the world moving closer together culturally, linguistically, economically. And I grew up on an island with no national boundaries and a single currency. Yet it seems like that could soon end.


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