The United Kingdom was always a fragile illusion – but what will replace it?

Posted By: June 03, 2021


There’s an astonishing lack of thinking about how to address the radical implications of Britain’s disintegration…

“Many think the UK in its current form is probably doomed, and that the break up of the union is inevitable.”


Alex Niven. The Guardian. London. Thursday, June 3, 2021

(Alex Niven is a lecturer in English literature at Newcastle University and the author of New Model Island).



There is a famous quote from the Italian writer Antonio Gramsci: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”


His argument could equally apply to the United Kingdom. Many think the UK in its current form is probably doomed, and that the break up of the union is inevitable. But outside the various nationalist causes, few people seem to have a clear idea about what should replace the dying dream of unionism.


With a pro-independence majority installed in the Holyrood parliament, it seems almost certain that Scotland will achieve independence in the near-ish future. Meanwhile, spurred on by Brexit and the destabilizing impact of Covid-19, Northern Ireland’s place in the union looks increasingly precarious — with a majority of its citizens expecting Irish reunification in the next 25 years. Even in Wales, where opposition to the UK is modest by comparison, calls for independence are growing louder by the year.


In stark contrast, the Unionist cause is beleaguered. While Scottish, Irish, and Welsh nationalist movements have gained in strength, underlined by the SNP’s decisive breakthrough in the May elections, The Union has become a hazy, marginal idea that is rarely articulated with much confidence or sense of belief.


Part of the problem is that British unionism has always been a fragile concept, underpinned by confused, overly broad notions of Englishness. The series of conquests and treaties that paved the way for the formation of the UK were almost all led by England (even if, as with the 1707 Act of Union that joined Scotland with England and Wales, there was often the pretense of an equal partnership). Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the rise of an “Anglo-British” state benefited English interests enormously, while more partial gains were awarded to its fellow nations.


But in the longer term, England’s ambiguous role within The Union and its empire was a problem when it came to more fundamental questions of identity. In order to absorb the surrounding nations of the British Isles, and then other territories throughout the world as the empire grew, England had to sacrifice its sense of self to the much vaguer notion of Britishness – an identity so wide and loose it could be applied to almost the entire world.


Underneath it, all, instead of a coherent nation-state with a written constitution lay the United Kingdom – a pragmatic trade venture held together for three centuries by the astonishing material success of the British Empire (not to mention, of course, the often brutal actions of its armed forces).


Fast forward to the 21st century, when the empire is a distant memory, and most people find it difficult to make a case for The Union without resorting to vague cliches about tradition and togetherness (sometimes joined, at the liberal end of the spectrum, by well-meaning, but equally vague, talk of multiculturalism).


While more coherent Scottish, Welsh, and Irish identities have developed in opposition to the hollowed-out, post-imperial UK, confusion reigns in England about our constitutional future and The Union’s place within it. Many in the liberal center – like some of the celebrities who signed a letter in 2014 opposing Scottish independence – are affluent English people who simply like the idea of being on the same geopolitical team as Scotland and Wales (often, it would seem, because of distant family ties or fond memories of holidays in picturesque parts of these countries).


A more nuanced approach is taken by older unionist establishment figures across the British Isles. The former prime minister Gordon Brown has talked recently about the “everyday benefits” of The Union – making a strong case for constitutional reforms to the UK that would prevent it from breaking apart entirely. Yet this latter-day New Labor strategy, whose support is strongest among the sorts of free-market voices Brown indulged when he was running the millennial economy, seems unlikely to succeed at a time when the ideals of the Blair years are widely seen as yesterday’s news.


Meanwhile, ironically, the electorally dominant Conservative and Unionist party seems to have accepted deep down that the union is a busted flush, and adapted to this new political reality. While some in the Johnson government, such as Michael Gove, have made token attempts to bang the drum for Unionism, the Tory grandee Chris Patten was probably right to claim recently that the Conservatives are now an “English nationalist” party in all but name. With a large majority based almost entirely in English seats, and mindful of the SNP’s continuing stranglehold on Scotland, it makes sense for the Tories to consolidate their power base in England.


Like that other failed Unionism of recent times – the campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union – support for the United Kingdom is hampered by association with a status quo that many people in the British Isles feel has not worked for them. And when arguments for Unionism have cut through, as in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, they have tended to rely on anxieties about the alternative (“project fear”) rather than deep-seated optimism about the UK itself.


As The Union limps on – for a while – with the aid of such small-c conservatism, there is an astonishing lack of thinking, especially in England, about how to respond to the rising tide of nationalism in the British Isles. While the Conservatives seem likely to retain Unionism’s traditional symbols (monarchy, patriotism, imperial nostalgia) in a rump UK encompassing England and perhaps Wales, far too many people on the English left simply haven’t stopped to consider the radical implications of the imminent break-up of Britain – namely, the risk of an eternally conservative Greater England rushing into the gap. In progressive circles, a sort of somnolent Unionism founded in distaste for nationalism is still too often a default stance.


Those on the radical left are sometimes fond of invoking the dream of a world with “no borders”. There is much to be said for this idea in the abstract, but it will not be much help as we look for a workable future for the British Isles beyond the UK. Should that future be based on a reimagining of England on federal lines or even actual independence for its constituent parts? Should we start to plan for a more modern, informal version of Unionism in the event of Scottish independence and Irish reunification? The time to answer these urgent questions is now because the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is heading for the history books.