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The Great British Break-Up

Can the United Kingdom handle another, far greater, constitutional crisis?

7 May, 2021

Illustration by Zeyd Anwar / First Minister of Scotland / Flickr

On May 1 2021, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will turn 314 years old. It is an impressive age on the stage of statehood, surpassing the United States of America (245 years old), the European Union (28 years old) and the Soviet Union (69 years old). Some unions and alliances grow stronger and are reinforced by years of tradition and convention forming a protective seal of togetherness. Others age like the human body, growing weaker and frailer with each passing day, held together by fraying and over-exerted joints. Within months, it will be clear which one the UK resembles.

Or maybe it has been clear for some time. Gordon Brown was credited with delivering “the speech that saved the Union” the day before the 2014 Scottish referendum. The health of a three century-old Union ultimately resting on a quarter of an hour spent in Glasgow tells us all we need to know about the tenuous unity of the Kingdom. Seven years, a couple of black-swan crises, a European divorce and a global pandemic later, the unchartered future of the Union looms large. As well as the anniversary of the Union, May marks the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the upcoming Scottish and Welsh elections, where the SNP is projected to win 73 out of 121 seats in Holyrood. In other words, come what May, the UK could face its next low-probability, high impact disaster.

But the UK has run out of time — and room — for understatement and deflection. It cannot afford to indulge in the blind Johnsonian optimism that has guided the response to the pandemic and has led to over 100,000 deaths. Nor can it afford to make the same mistakes as the last referendum — stereotyped, factually distorted and underestimated — at the expense of a national grasp of what is truly at stake. The LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance estimates the economic cost of Scottish independence to be up to three times greater than Brexit. With the blessing of post-Brexit break-up clarity, we need to ask: how sustainable is the Union?

In 1066, the Normans conquered England and decided to prioritise its territory above the rest of the regions in the British Isles. The subjugation of Wales followed, until it was eventually absorbed into the English shire structure (counties bearing the “shire” suffix) by 1535. At the same time, the Normans and the English had their eyes set on colonising Ireland. At the heart of this was control over Irish Parliament: Poyning’s Law of 1494 allowed Irish Parliament to meet only once authorised by the English king and vetted by the English Privy Council. Not long after, it was subsumed into the new national Parliament, and by 1920, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Unlike the Welsh and Irish cases of domination, Scotland was a different kettle of fish. It entered the stately equation through a voluntary Treaty of Union. Some have argued this was due to shared identity over ethnicity and religious affiliation with Protestantism. “Lowland Scots,” writes Professor of Constitutional Law, Martin Loughlin, “shared with their English counterparts the narrative of maintaining Saxon liberty against the threat of the Norman Yoke”. Such “seeds of union” were already being sown in the early 1600s, when James VI of Scotland acceded to the English throne (as James I). Indeed, the Act of Union 1707 unified both Parliaments, established a common fiscal and legislative union — all while affording protections to Scottish law, education and system of Church constitutive of the Scottish identity.

From the outset, then, each of the three regions have unique relationships with England. Yet the British constitution did not evolve to reflect these values. The unwritten and uncodified British constitution developed piecemeal through the Magna Carta, Petition of Right, Bill of Rights and the English common law. Some, like Gordon Brown, argue that — among other things — Britain requires a comprehensive, codified piece of legislation that reflects the regions if it is serious about saving the Union. This post-Enlightenment argument for a modern constitution echoes Tocqueville, who, in Democracy in America wrote, “in England, the constitution may change continually, or rather it does not in reality exist.” To Loughlin, “the British Constitution is, at heart, an assemblage of customary practices… This is a traditional constitution, an inheritance, a partnership between past, present, and future”.

Britain’s penchant for tradition has so far outweighed calls for modernisation. Unable and unwilling to change its constitution, another tool was created to strike a balance in the Union: devolution. Under Blair’s government, the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh National Assembly and the Irish Good Friday Agreement hinged on carving-out power for regional bodies. It was not long until it became the default quick fix used to plaster over pro-independence support or any other sign of discontent. Nowhere was this most notable than in the run up to the 2014 referendum. Coalition leaders Cameron and Clegg — along with Ed Miliband — personally pledged the solemn vow that a “No” vote would deliver faster, safer and better change than independence would. This instance of over-promising and under-delivering proved costly: while a timetable was agreed to deliver additional powers, no actual agreement was reached on the powers themselves. The “solemn vow” for Scottish voters brought back a deeper memory for the Welsh, “cofiwch drywern” (Remember Tryweryn). Both serve as reminders of the empty promises of English politicians.

Yet devolution is fundamentally a balancing act. On one end of the spectrum, too little devolution is a futile attempt to decentralise power and resources from London to the rest of the Union. On the other end, “devo max” brings extreme fiscal decentralisation and the full fiscal responsibility that accompanies it. According to a UCL study, Scotland’s revenues would be inadequate without cuts of £7-8bn to maintain fiscal autonomy. Wales and Northern Ireland would likewise be in similar positions due to their large structural fiscal deficits. Each region would be responsible for setting and collecting taxes, no longer benefiting from the Barnett formula, while the UK continued to bear the risks of monetary policy (akin to an EU-style structure). In other words, devo max-plus would be a sure precursor to independence.

There is also the “West Lothian” question that rests somewhere between both ends of the devolution spectrum. In other words, whether English voters should get to decide English laws. The current balance means non-English MPs from other regions have the authority to vote on laws only affecting England, without the converse being true. The appeal for “English votes for English laws” captured the sentiment of rebalancing representation of English voters on regional issues —  such as tuition fees — without being diluted. A successful model of devolution, then, aids “separate togetherness”; not as a policy but as an institutional mind-set. But the fragmentation of Whitehall machinery paints a different picture: only six centres are responsible for implementing devolution policy along with three junior Secretaries of State. Without relevant committees, Cabinet Ministers, territorial sub-committees and Ministers of State, devolution’s half-life may be in near sight.

Perhaps the cracks in the Union are long past the point of being plastered over. With the majorities of Northern Ireland and Scotland voting to Remain in the EU, in contrast with England and Wales, a constitutional rift has been on the cards since 2016. The starkest illustration of this is the re-emergence of a trade border down the Irish Sea as a result of the Brexit-induced Northern Ireland Protocol. The Protocol tries to sit somewhere between a rock and a hard place, providing a sovereign Brexit deal for the entire UK, and preventing a hard border with Ireland that would contravene the Good Friday Agreement. Going forward, Northern Ireland will have to comply with EU regulations, a thorn in the Union’s promise of unfettered internal trade that will spike small Northern Irish businesses the hardest. The result? A fragile Northern Ireland, and a mounting Unionist storm in Stormont.

On the other side of the Union, emboldened by the grandeur of re-joining the EU, Scotland has more incentive to call it quits. To add to the list of growing pains, as the UK focuses on its domestic market, competences like environmental protection and agriculture that were once held in Brussels will be a continued source of tug-of-war between the four nations.

Just when things could not get worse, coronavirus invariably deepened this wound. Health has been under the control of devolved administrations since Blair, which lay stark the divergent responses on how to deal with the pandemic. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed five consecutive COBRA meetings, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon commenced regular briefings on 20th March 2020. Where Boris boasted of shaking the hands of hospital patients, Sturgeon remained cautionary and deferred to the facts. 100,000+ deaths later, and billions of taxpayer’s money pipelined in questionable contracts, the allure of Scottish independence has never burned brighter. True to this, an Ipsos MORI poll gave Sturgeon a net approval rating of +61, compared to Boris’s -43 rating.

Of course, this also factors in the prime minister’s divisive reputation in Scotland. “He represents a lot of things that the Scots hate about modern Toryism”, according to Scottish historian Tom Devine, who accurately captures the regional sentiment. This upsurged in the aftermath of Boris’s careless remark on devolution being Blair’s “biggest mistake” and a “disaster north of the border”. To senior figures in the SNP, he is the ideal opponent to Sturgeon in terms of temperament and character — a poster boy of the incompetence and privilege of Westminster leadership. In comparison to his predecessors May, Cameron, Brown and Blair, Johnson’s attitude towards the Union has been one of continued recklessness. A YouGov poll from June confirmed that a majority of Conservatives would rather see a broken Union than a broken promise to deliver Brexit. To add insult to injury, Johnson placed Oliver Lewis — the architect of UK’s “hard Brexit” model —as Head of the Union Unit; a sure way to reaffirm Scottish contempt towards him.

In many ways, it is fair to say Johnson has a reverse Midas effect: everything he touches turns to shit. The one — and perhaps only important exception — is the national vaccination response. His government take some credit (along with the NHS) for delivering on one promise: the UK world-beating vaccine rollout rate. By promptly withdrawing from the EU vaccination programme and confronting the backlash, the government quickly authorised the mass purchase of vaccines, set up voluntary trials, and beat all the others to receive regulatory approval for a vaccine. It then proceeded to administer 24 doses per 100 people. Vaccine nationalism shows the potential of the Union at its best: unprecedented levels of collaboration at times of national crisis.

This took shape in the form of national COBRA meetings to coordinate a national lockdown, Quad meetings to organise along the Irish border, a joint Coronavirus Action Plan, and a collaborate legislative effort to produce The Coronavirus Act 2020. In addition, thanks to the Barnett Formula, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are yet to receive further per capita funding to channel into their regional policies. In a time rife of polarisation, perhaps the pandemic was the black swan event to renew the case for a political union.

For far too long, the functions of the Union have been taken for granted. According to the UCL report, “They need to be spelt out. The economic union provides the UK with a single market, with a single currency and strong central fiscal regime. The social union provides the social solidarity which binds the UK together, by redistributing revenue, and pooling and sharing risk… In the political union, every part of the UK is represented in the Westminster Parliament… the sovereign parliament [that] can itself reshape the political union.” But if we have learned anything — does rationalisation really matter in the face of identity and a sense of belonging?

When Britain was an Empire, the national narrative was one of conquest and rule. During Enlightenment, it was one of intellectual superiority and civilisation, enabled by an elaborate education system. In post-modern Britain, it is often quipped that the closest thing the country has to a national religion is the National Health Service (the pandemic certainly vindicates this claim). Locating the source of national pride beyond healthcare has become precarious and uninspiring within a diminished nation living vicariously through the nostalgia of its former self. Some have argued the key for rebuilding national identity lies in reform: a Senate of Devolved Nations and Regions to replace the House of Lords; a Council of Region & Nations for decision-making; a need-adjusted Barnett Formula; and a codified British Constitution. Others go further, arguing that Britain needs to come to terms with a new internal accommodation entirely.

These are fair ideas. If they — and all else — fail, the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may see legitimate grounds to vote for independence. Such a result should be accepted and understood, not disputed. But the silver lining may be this: perhaps the terms left after a break up are more important than the break up itself. What made Brexit so destructive was not the departure of Britain from the EU — but the vitriol, racism, disregard for fact and resentment towards other identities that poisoned the atmosphere far after the ballot box closed. What could make the break-up of the Union a real possibility is the open wound left by the Northern Ireland Protocol, ripe for poisonous lines of sectarian divide to fester inside, and sway Northern Ireland in fleeing south.

The break-up of Great Britain would be a constitutional tragedy, one whose fate rests on the conditions at Irish Sea rather than in Holyrood. It would also carry the initials of Johnson’s government all over it: the prime minister responsible for Brexit; a nasty pandemic death toll; and now — most damaging of all — the break-up of a historic United Kingdom. In other words, the final crack in the British Empire’s legacy, and its fall from grace — and greatness.


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