The demise of the United Kingdom has been foretold many times — in wars civil and foreign, amid religious strife, and across upheavals political, economic and industrial.
In every age, the doomsayers scry the same vision: Britain has had a good innings but, thanks to a combination of hubris, ignorance and immutable progress, our fading days are upon us.
The Cambridge historian Robert Tombs detects ‘the revival of an old and familiar malady: “declinism”, a periodic fear that the nation has declined and is declining from some earlier time of strength, cohesion and success. Declinism is a syndrome: it assumes a combination of moral, political and economic failures.’
Tombs cites the 1880s and 1970s as past examples and sees in the intellectuals’ Brexit lamentations a fresh bout of Apocalyptic prophesying.
This superstition holds a certain appeal to a certain caste of mind. The intelligentsia may have succeeded in driving Christianity from the public sphere but they have failed to free themselves from the dogmas of secular eschatology. Every policy they disdain, every vote that goes against them is a sign of the end times.
However, Tombs argues that ‘declinism is at best a distortion of reality, and mostly mere illusion’ and contends that Britain’s political and economic prowess is infinitely greater today than in the past.
Brexit is not the only vessel for this myth. Scotland’s present dalliance with separatism has convinced some of our finest minds — and some of the more humdrum — that the dissolution of the UK is now unavoidable. What’s more, the psychic trauma of the public’s Leave vote has so disturbed political, academic and cultural elites that many now will the break-up of Britain as a fitting punishment.
Those so-minded have seen Scottish Labour’s worst week since its 2015 wipeout as an opportunity rather than a gaffe. It began on Tuesday when Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told an audience at the Edinburgh Fringe that a Labour government would not stand in the way of a second referendum on independence, explaining: ‘Nicola Sturgeon said by late next year or the beginning of 2021. We would not block something like that.’
This revelation prompted panic and dismay in Scottish Labour’s ranks and, eventually, the party’s nominal leader Richard Leonard issued a statement mildly contradicting Jeremy Corbyn’s second-in-command. But the Shadow Chancellor doubled down and Leonard was left helpless, while Labour MSPs drafted a scathing statement reiterating their support for the Union and lashing out at McDonnell.
This sparked renewed factional conflict between Left and Right and prominent party moderate Jackie Baillie, arguably Labour’s staunchest Unionist MSP, was branded the leader of a ‘right-wing, kamikaze Unionist faction’. It’s like one of those awful family rows at a funeral. The old boy’s in the coffin, the children are screaming at one another, and the neighbours don’t know where to look.
Labour’s indyshambles may present like private grief best not intruded upon but the implications are serious. McDonnell’s intervention is Labour’s first major overture to the SNP, suggesting Team Corbyn expects to need the Nationalists’ support in the event of a snap election that returns Labour as the biggest party but leaves them shy of a majority.
This puts Indyref2 back on the table as more than a hollow threat by a powerless Nicola Sturgeon. While the Tories have ruled out another referendum during this Scottish Parliament, the Labour leadership is sufficiently desperate for power and ideologically anti-British enough to risk the very existence of the United Kingdom.
What this week confirms with damning clarity is that Scottish Labour is split between the awkward Unionism it adopted to win the 2014 referendum and the soft nationalism it had practiced for the decades beforehand. It was Scottish Labour that demonised the Tories as anti-Scottish, pilloried Westminster as out of step with Scotland’s values and devised devolution to solve the problem, only to hand the SNP their very own parliament from which to pursue separation.
It hardly matters which of these factions wins because, as John McDonnell has made plain, the decision will be made by the UK leadership. The Scottish party can pledge to delete the word independence from the dictionary and paint Holyrood red, white and blue; the voters know that it is the UK Parliament that determines whether the SNP gets another referendum. In Labour Party politics, Westminster decides, Holyrood abides.
Perversely, this means that the party that headed the successful effort to save the Union in 2014 could become the midwife of separation. Their unofficial campaign slogan, unspoken by candidates but very much in the minds of voters, will be: Vote Labour, get independence.
For those who believe there must be a party that represents workers, and that this involves safeguarding their jobs from the economic shock and awe of independence, this past week has been troubling. Labour already alienated much of its base by equivocating on Brexit and now that it has done the same on secession there is every chance the party will implode into irrelevance in the near future. Its 9 per cent in the European elections was a forewarning of what could lie in Labour’s future.
If Scottish Labour and its sympathisers are in the doldrums, rivals cannot believe their luck. Scotland’s three Unionist parties appear to be downsizing to two and neither intends to let the opportunity pass. A leading Tory insider says the party plans to step up its outreach to Labour voters, focusing on crime, technical education and, of course, opposition to a second referendum.
Meanwhile, a senior Lib Dem says: ‘With Labour now in a state of open civil war, their policy shift is offending large sections of their base who care about Scotland’s place in the EU and in the UK. They are letting down people who voted for them in good faith as defenders of the UK and those who wanted Corbyn to stop Brexit. That opens up a huge space for us as the only party who now speak for the majority of Scots that care about both unions. It’s why we overtook them in the Euro elections, and after this week, I’m certain there’s more of that to come.’
The prize for Ruth Davidson and Jo Swinson is a reordered political landscape with two main pro-UK parties, one centre-left and the other centre-right. Each would rather cannibalise the other but there are stubborn hurdles: some Labour voters would sooner set their hair on fire than vote Tory and many Tory voters couldn’t countenance a switch to the trendy tree-huggers of the Lib Dems. Plus, each party has learned the lesson of the SNP-Green alliance — two parties with the same constitutional posture don’t necessarily split that vote and may even maximise it.
What both pro-Union parties will need firm positions on is the question of legitimacy. John McDonnell and others in Labour have echoed the Nationalist logic that says a mandate already exists for a second plebiscite on separation. The SNP bases this in its 2016 manifesto and the fact it retained government as a result of that election.
For those who uphold the constitutional status quo in which the Crown-in-Parliament is sovereign, this is insupportable. The Scottish Parliament is a creature of the UK Parliament, to which constitutional matters are reserved and where the only mandates related to them are possible.
No party at Holyrood can attain a mandate for an independence referendum — or any other constitutional change — because that parliament lacks the authority to exercise or enforce such a mandate. The voters can instruct Holyrood to seek Indyref2 only in the sense that they may also instruct it to build a bridge out of mist or replace the nation’s airplanes with flying unicorns.
This is a strongly conservative view of the constitution but those who take a more dynamic approach can be equally suspicious of the SNP’s mandate claims. The Nationalists were returned in 2016 but without a majority this time, indicating that the voters did not place the same confidence in their 2016 manifesto as they did its 2011 forebear.
They also lost the 2014 referendum after pledging it was a ‘once in a generation’ and even at times a ‘once in a lifetime’ vote. True, they achieved an historic victory in the 2015 General Election, but independence was not the major issue in that campaign, and two years later they lost 21 of their MPs after a year of Nicola Sturgeon agitating for Indyref2.
This series of events could be described in many ways but a clear mandate for a second referendum is not one of them. For those who do not rule out the possibility of Holyrood enjoying a mandate at some point in the future — this would encompass most Lib Dems and some soft-Unionists within the Tories — there must be another way to achieve this.
One possibility is a multi-pronged test that must be met before it becomes democratically incumbent on Westminster to grant a fresh vote. Such a metric could require the SNP to win an outright majority of either seats or votes in a Holyrood election, on an unambiguous manifesto commitment to Indyref2, followed by a stretch of polls (perhaps running between three and five years) showing more or less consistent public demand for another referendum.
This would strike a balance between Westminster’s legal sovereignty and perceptions of democratic legitimacy. Either the hard- or soft-Unionist approach would recognise that there could be no second referendum before the 2021 Holyrood election on the strength of the SNP’s previous manifesto. The only chance for the Nationalists before then would be if Labour won a snap general election.
These are instrumental questions but the Union is not simply a matter of dry constitutional argument. It is the heart and soul of the body politic. If there is no Union, there is no United Kingdom, and three centuries of solidarity, shared struggle and common triumph will have been cast aside as though history meant nothing and the peripatetic passions of the moment everything.
A Union that, for good or for ill or for a little of both, once ruled a third of the world, would have elected to abolish itself. And for what? For inflamed sentiment, for pretended differences, for a bluer hue of fabric atop a flag pole.
Independence, like every other omen of Britain’s decline, is not inevitable. For a time, after 2014, when the SNP won almost every Scottish seat at Westminster, it seemed so, but we have seen since that the Nationalist beast can be wounded and driven back. It overreaches on independence, underperforms in devolved matters and has a leader who sharply divides public opinion.
It is formidable but there is no reason to fear it anymore. The tides of history wax and wane and while nationalism is battering Britain’s shores, it will retreat back into the distance one day. Independence be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.
In the meantime, those who cherish the Union will continue to look for a solution that keeps nationalism at bay for good. Liberal Democrats will pursue federalism, telling us as Labour did with devolution that it will render nationalism stone dead.
Federalism has many merits in practice and is hard to fault in theory — the greatest nation of all, the United States, is the epitome of federalism — but it is alien to Britain’s political DNA. We are not a nation of clear lines and rigid structures; we are muddlers and makers-do and it has served us well, thank you very much.
While constitutional conservatives should respect federalists for their sincere efforts to change the Union for its own good, they will have to step up their own response to nationalism, namely that it is politics, not the Union, that needs changing.
Those of us who have argued for the UK Government to take a more active role in the day-to-day governance of Scotland, including by spending on health, education and transport directly from Whitehall, were heartened this week to see influential Tory think tank Policy Exchange echoing this call. They urged the Prime Minister to build the much-promised, never-delivered rail link between Glasgow Central and Glasgow Airport.
This is a first step towards a more assertive strategy for subduing nationalism. The UK Government must have the confidence to know it is Scotland’s primary government and to act accordingly. The SNP respects neither the spirit nor the letter of the constitutional settlement and substitutes its own expansionist interpretation, which has been embraced without hesitation or critical reflection by Scotland’s political, media and academic elites.
The UK Government should reject this doctrine of devolution as nascent independence and reassert the constitutional reality that Westminster is sovereign, Holyrood its creation and devolution simply a means of making government more efficient and responsive to local concerns. The age of deference to the SNP must end and be replaced with a genuine respect agenda: respect for the devolution Scots voted for and for the country’s clear No vote in 2014.
Spending directly in Scotland, circumventing the resentment super-collider at Holyrood, regularly decamping the Cabinet north of the Border, curtailing Nicola Sturgeon’s burgeoning air miles portfolio — these are all sensible elements of a fightback but work must also begin on forging a consensus at Westminster for a new Scotland Act clarifying and limiting the powers of Holyrood.
Measures meriting consideration include reversing the convention that matters not explicitly reserved are deemed devolved, scrapping the self-denying ordinance that the UK Parliament will not legislate on devolved matters without Holyrood’s consent, prohibiting the use of Holyrood parliamentary resources in relation to reserved matters, and requiring ministerial visits overseas to be signed off by the Scotland Office.
Labour’s abandonment of the Union does not presage the decline of the Union, an institution that will long outlive the Labour Party. It should, however, be a catalyst for a rejuvenated, confident, assertive Unionism, one that is done accommodating nationalism and finally ready to push back. That fight will take multiple guises and not all proponents of the Union will wage battle in the same way.
One of Unionism’s strengths is the diversity of traditions and philosophies that feed into it. Those who advocate outsmarting the Nationalists quietly rather than cudgelling them at full-throat are no less committed to the Union. Tribalism and internal strife over loyalty and fervour should be left to the other side.
The demise of the United Kingdom is not inevitable. If politics has taught us anything in recent years, it is that nothing is inevitable. There is always a fight to be had, debates to be won or lost, opportunities to upturn political conventions and entrench new ones.
Nothing the Nationalists do can imperil the Union as gravely as the failure of Unionists to defend it. If they learn to do so with vigour and intelligence and not a little cunning, we may live to see a stronger Union and the demise instead of nationalism.