Even in these extraordinary economic, social and political times around the world the core essence of an advanced Nation’s status is rarely endangered. This is not, however, the case with the United Kingdom. More by accident than design the Union is threatened for the first time in generations at the same time that our membership of that other Union – in Europe – is imperilled. Britain’s first peacetime Coalition of modern times is wandering blindly down a one way street the end point of which could be the separation of our united nation into its four component parts and the breaking of our ties with our European partners. This outcome was in no British political party’s manifesto and, if it happened, it would be a result not of the putting in place of a coherent political strategy but of incompetent governance.
The United Kingdom as a nation, and the very concept of Britishness, dates back to 1800/1801 when Scotland and Ireland joined England and Wales. In the nineteenth century the administration in Westminster so woefully and arrogantly governed this Union that Ireland, whose people were savaged by absentee politicians and landlords, started to revolt. Had a Federal system been in place with national parliaments in Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff as well as London, and an acceptance of equality between the four nations, it is arguable that not only would the Irish have stayed in the Union but that a stable British nation, which coincided with the geography of the “British Isles”, would have prospered and survived to this day. But Ireland, despite its closely aligned culture and geographical proximity, was treated more as a colony of the English than an equal partner and the resultant independence movement and civil war was an inevitable consequence.
To lose one of the four parts of the UK, Ireland, could be seen as a misfortune but potentially to lose another, Scotland, looks like carelessness – but that is now in prospect. The Scottish National Party, through most of its life a fringe movement, is now running Scotland and under its charismatic leader Alex Salmond it could well win an Independence referendum. The leadership of the Labour Party from 1992 to 2010 was predominantly Scottish – John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were all born and educated in Scotland and whilst Blair is nominally English his Scottishness is stronger than he generally lets on. The conventional wisdom of these men, turned into action in the 1997-2010 Government, was that devolution – the creation on a Scottish Parliament – would at a stroke weaken the hands of the nationalists and cement the Union. It had the reverse effect and the trend towards Independence was accelerated when a Conservative-led Coalition took power in 2010.
The Tories, these days, have no noteworthy presence in Scotland and are of no political significance there. Indeed many Conservatives, especially those in the Shires, are openly hostile towards Scotland – a prejudice reinforced by the fact that many even boast about never having been there! This bias was reinforced by their attitude to Gordon Brown who was mocked as much for his Scottishness as he was criticised by them for his perfomance and policies. The Tory antagonism towards Scotland is not openly present in the Government but in the Party at large it is one of the factors (perhaps the main one) that contributes to the grass roots enthusiasm for an English Parliament. We may mock the “Little Englander” mindset as antiquated and parochial, but it is not for nothing that the phrase “Little Britisher” doesnâ€™t exist. Indeed for many Tories in the shires the idea of the break up of the United Kingdom with the oft-derided Scots being left to do there own thing is a far from unacceptable idea. They also point out with relish that the removal of Scottish MPs from Westminster (41 of the 59 Scottish members are currently Labour) would at a stroke massively help the Conservative ambitions to govern England alone.
The task of Government is to lead not to follow and it would be wrong to accuse David Cameron’s administration as being anything like as anti Scottish as many of its (Conservative) supporters in the Country. Cameron says that he believes in the Union and that he will campaign hard to retain it in a Scottish Independence referendum. In this the leaders of the other two main British Parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, will join him – but this may not be enough to save the Union. The combination of disapproval of the Coalition Government, genuine liking of Alex Salmond, a strong undercurrent of anti-establishmentism, a feeling of “nothing to lose” and national pride could well mean that the Scots decide to go it alone when they have the chance to choose in a few years time. The Scots are as much of a proud Nation as the Irish are and whilst in recent times anyway they haven’t in all honesty much to complain about from Westminster (rather the contrary) they may decide that as their unofficial anthem “Flower of Scotland” says that they “â€¦can still rise now and be the nation again”
Whilst the Union with Scotland is seriously in peril for the first time its existence so is the Union with Europe. Since the United Kingdom signed the Treaty of Rome in 1973 – a decision confirmed by a referendum shortly afterwards – there has rarely been a time when there has been total agreement across the nation that it was the right thing to have done. Arguably the British continue not to see themselves as European at all or, if they do, such allegiance is very much secondary to a raw nationalism that is among the fiercest of any European people. In truth the pro-European case has not been particularly well argued byÂ British politicians (Tony Blair, for a time, perhaps the exception). Successive British governments soon discover that the ties that bind us to the other 26 members States are virtually undissolvable and that, on balance, Britain benefits immensely from being a member of the EU. For the other major economies in the EU – Germany, Italy, France and Spain – the idea of withdrawing from the EU is inconceivable and, it goes without saying, that the same applies to the smaller nations as well. This is not to say that all is well with the Union nor that improvements in how it is governed and its scope cannot be made. But the EU is here to stay and no British Prime Minister would argue anything other than that Britain should remain a part of it – albeit a somewhat detached one because of our non-membership of the Euro single currency. So why is the UK’s membership of the EU in peril? The answer lies with the threat presented by the Conservative Right – by far the most active anti Europe grouping in Britain (along with their natural bedfellows in the UK Independence Party (UKIP)).
It is now fifteen years since John Major was defeated in a General Election into which he entered weakened by attacks not just from a rejuvenated Labour Party but from the anti EU rebels in his own party. These “Maastricht Rebels”, or “Eurosceptics”, gathered strength during the years of Labour Government and have arguably become as much of a thorn in David Cameron’s flesh as they were for Major. In December 2011 Cameron, under pressure from his Eurosceptic wing, wielded a British veto of a pact aimed at saving the Euro. The UK stood alone at that moment as all the other member States, whether in the Euro or not, supported the pact and decided to go ahead anyway. The Anti-EU Conservatives started partying shortly after Cameron returned from Brussels with Boris Johnson saying that the PM had “Played a blinder”. And Anti-EU cheerleader in chief, Douglas Carswell MP, said “the inexorable logic of today’s non deal in Brussels is that Britain now heads towards a Swiss-style relationship with Euroland”. In reality Cameron’s actions in Brussels had no effect at all and most commentators once they realised this saw it for what it was – empty posturing. Within weeks the Eurosceptics turned Cameron back from hero to villain again and normal service was resumed.
Realpolitik means that David Cameron, like all of his predecessors, has to operate from within a framework that should mean that the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU is not seriously brought into question. But as with the Union with Scotland this is far from the case. The real danger comes with the continued calls for a referendum on the subject – the so-called “In-Out referendum“. The Eurosceptics use the referendum as a surrogate for a call for withdrawal because they believe that the British public would vote for withdrawal – and opinion polls suggest that they are right. And although the prime movers are the Eurosceptic right of the Conservative Party there is some cross-party support for the idea. While it is unlikely (though not impossible) that a pro referendum bill could be passed in the current Parliament it is far from inconceivable that it could be in the Conservative manifesto in the 2015 General Election. And if Labour sees this as a potential gamebreaker in the Election who knows – it could be in Labour’s manifesto as well! The key event is the European Parliament election which will take place in 2014 and in which the stridently pro-withdrawal UKIP could once again do well (they were second only to the Conservatives in 2009). The move to manifesto commitments for a referendum could be unstoppable.
The British people (including the Scots) are essentially conservative (small C) and the status quo is usually preferred to radical change. But the current political climate north and south of the border is febrile and the combination of a weak Government in Westminster and the presence of a quite anarchic anti-politics mood is dangerous. The extraordinary success of the independent maverick George Galloway in a by-election in Bradford recently shows that people are prepared to vote for change, even in (maybe especially in) times of great economic uncertainty. David Cameron has failed to capture the public mood and like John Major before him a decent man is ducking and weaving whilst being sniped at not just from both sides of the political spectrum but from a dominant SNP in Scotland and largely contemptuous European politicians as well. Cameron has few friends and with the Murdoch media at his throat and the remainder of the Conservative media largely Eurosceptic he looks very lonely. The discredited Liberal Democrats might be his only allies were their own position not so parlously (some would say deservedly) weak. It is possible that with one bound Cameron will be free of his little local difficulty in Scotland and his ongoing troubles in Europe but it is difficult to see how this will happen. Almost by default David Cameron could be the Prime Minister who broke up the United Kingdom and took us out of Europe – but without really meaning to!