Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Untied Kingdom?   posted by DavidB @ 5/01/2007 05:06:00 AM

Today is the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England and Scotland. But many commentators doubt whether the Union will last another decade. I discuss some of the issues this raises below the fold.

First, will it happen? The immediate reason for expecting the breakup of the Union is that the Scottish National Party is likely to win the forthcoming elections to the devolved Scottish Parliament. The SNP will then have a mandate for a referendum on independence. The result of such a referendum is not a foregone conclusion. Much of the current support for the SNP is a protest vote against the ruling Labour Party, at both Edinburgh and Westminster. In opinion polls the majority of Scots do not want full independence. Before any referendum takes place, Tony Blair (a crypto-Scot) will be replaced as Prime Minister by Gordon Brown ( a Scot). But there is also likely to be a general election to the UK Parliament before any Scottish referendum. If the Conservatives under David Cameron (an Anglo-Scot) win the UK election, the secession of Scotland is almost inevitable. [Added on 2 May: This is probably an overstatement. Let's just say that a Conservative victory would greatly increase the pressure for independence. ] On the other hand, if Labour is re-elected, the Scots may be satisfied with something short of full independence. But this raises another intriguing possibility. If Labour wins the UK election, but only by virtue of a majority in Scotland and Wales, or with the support of the Liberal Democrats (led by Menzies Campbell, a Scot), there may be agitation for leaving the Union by England. [Added 2 May: This is also an overstatement. There would be agitation for more equitable treatment, rather than breaking up the Union.] Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the balance in a United Kingdom Parliament being tipped by Scottish or Welsh votes. It has happened several times in the past. But that was before devolution. The creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly has given the Scots and Welsh a degree of self-government which is denied to the English. If the English find themselves governed by Scots and Welsh, whom they subsidise, but over whom they do not have reciprocal power, the sleeping dog of English nationalism may finally wake up. The West Lothian Question would be raised with a vengeance. But the outcome would probably not be independence but just some arrangement within the UK Parliament for purely English matters to be reserved for English MPs to decide.

Second, what about Wales and Northern Ireland? At present the Welsh seem much less enthusiastic for independence than the Scots. Support for Plaid Cymru is weak outside the Welsh-speaking areas. So I would bet against Welsh secession from the Union in the foreseeable future. Northern Ireland is a very different matter. I suspect that there will be some form of united Ireland within the next 15 years, regardless of what happens in Scotland. The flourishing economy in the Republic is one factor, but recent political realignments are equally important. The most startling political sight of the last year was that of the Reverend Ian Paisley laughing and joking with the Taoiseach in Dublin. The reality is that the progressive elements in Irish society and politics detest Sinn Fein almost as much as the Unionists do. So I would expect to see some kind of revised Irish Constitution - secularised and with safeguards for the North - that the majority of the Northern Irish can sign up to. And if both Scotland and Northern Ireland have left the United Kingdom, the remainder will surely need a new name. I suggest 'Kingdom of England and Wales', which abbreviates nicely to KEW.

Finally, is all this desirable? Viewing it from an English perspective, I don't care strongly either way (though I would care rather more in the event of the 'West Lothian' nightmare scenario). In politics, as in other matters, 'if it aint' broke, don't fix it'. I cannot see anything so badly wrong with the present system that a breakup of the Union is necessary as a remedy. Breakup would also involve a host of complications over international obligations, the EU, finance, the monarchy, and the armed forces. But I assume that these could be resolved without insuperable difficulties. In particular, I assume that Scotland, a united Ireland, and KEW (or whatever) would be members of the EU, so that free movement of goods, labour, and capital would continue. The loss of revenues from North Sea oil (asuming that these go mainly to Scotland) would be roughly balanced by the end of tax subsidies from England to Scotland. The economic effects of a breakup would therefore be modest.

Subject to these complications being dealt with, I think there would be considerable potential advantages for England. The centre of political gravity would shift towards the free-enterprise right, and both Labour and Conservatives would respond by reshaping their policies. But the greatest advantage might be psychological. With the end of the United Kingdom, we could draw a line under the errors of the post-war years, with their delusion of continuing great power status. We could stop pretending to be a world policeman, and reshape the armed forces for the purpose of national defence and internal security. The UK's nuclear weapons could be decommissioned or converted to a small, flexible, genuinely independent 'force de frappe' (i.e., not under de facto American control, like the present Trident system). [Added: The Bliar government characteristically refuses to give a straight answer to questions about whether Trident could be used without American agreement, from which I take it that the answer is 'No'.] We could stop apologising for the British Empire, which was as much Scottish and Irish as English anyway. We could pursue foreign, internal security, and immigration policies based on national self-interest. But I stress that these are only potential advantages, and they would depend on finding English politicians with balls, which have been in short supply in recent years.