Will ‘New Britain’ mean the End of the UK?

Jeremy Blackburn

Originally published in 1998/1999, Issue 2

It cannot have escaped any layman’s notice that the United Kingdom will very soon cease to mean anything to anybody at all, if it does indeed mean anything to anybody at the moment. Nationalism and devolution have ripped the soft underbelly of the Union apart, exposing long forgotten histories and ill-conceived identities. The dawn of the 21st century will see the British Isles, and its peoples, dramatically changed.

The political entity that is the United Kingdom can often baffle its own population as much as it may baffle visiting tourists. Its main units are England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, its peripheral areas including the Shetlands, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man, while a number of anomalous dependencies exist such as Scilly, Sark, Jersey and Guernsey. Within these areas exist the definitive regions of the U.K. generally based around a cosmopolitan centre, each with its own specific character and opinions, all overlaid by either the ‘North-South’ or the ‘East-West’ divides. The U.K. as a phrase is more of a historical catch all, within in which the personal identity of an individual citizen is hard to predict. In fact, the collective history of the U.K. is almost a foreign country to the majority of its citizens.

The coming devolution of three-quarters of the United Kingdom has brought Britain, and especially England, into the centrifugal force of nationalism. Stirring in the hallways of power and in local pubs is a search for identity: this was more than obvious during recent cultural events. After World Cup ’98, St. George flags took noticeably longer to come down than after Euro ’96, as if people were looking for an excuse to keep them flying. And in a sense, the English are, because they are feeling a resurgence of identity. For many years this was a Celtic monopoly, but now as England’s political classes respond to devolution, so George’s flag no longer flies only on secluded parish churches. The West Lothian Question in particular has brought those uninterested in democratic niceties into the political arena. For many years the nations within the UK were resented as peoples willing to take Westminster’s grants, yet also willing to show sheer hatred towards the hand that fed them; for years the English invited such treatment by arrogant behaviour and regularly regarding Britain and England as synonymous. But now, the English are no longer making the mistake, and indeed, have gone further.

England once identified itself as the land of late summer evenings in which cricket matches were endlessly played, by stout folk who regarded the Monarchy as a venerable institution, the Church of England as their second home and Morris dancing as a worthwhile hobby for grown men.  A vision which saw it’s last attempted re-birth with the Major Government, a twin to the abortive classless society. This is perhaps the idyll some English people keep in the back of their minds, locked away until they can reminisce in safety about a ‘golden age’. Today’s England is not this; when polled most teenagers cited fish and chips, ‘Britpop’, the English football team and EastEndersas symbols of their England – noticeably, the Houses of Parliament didn’t figure. The countryside was entirely missing from our cultural traits; no one expressed an identity linked to rural issues; indeed the popular rural reaction of the ‘Countryside Alliance’ was mocked as a march of Tory buffoons. England is now a highly urbanised nation, proud of its regional identities, building new political allegiances and re-appraising its cultural heritage.

This England cares little about its Celtic neighbours; it is itself dubious of the Union. This dubious attitude is being translated into not only in a reinvigorated ‘Englishness’, but also in more expressive regionalism. Indeed, within the month, from the Northeast to the Southwest, Yorkshire to the West Midlands, John Prescott will create eight new, more powerful development agencies. Until recently, Prescott’s vision of a new constitutional settlement for England, matching the looming transfer of power to Scotland and Wales, was not shared in political circles, especially the Cabinet. Now, Prescott’s ‘super-quangos’ with powers to oversee industrial development, urban/rural regeneration and strategic planning, have become the forerunners of yet more powerful political bodies. Recently, Prescott has talked of 1999 as the year of a “co-ordinated second wave of devolution and power sharing for the English regions”, followed by a special Commons committee for England and guaranteed seats for the regions alongside Scotland and Wales in a reformed second-chamber. In truth, the emergence of ‘Regional Assemblies’ depends heavily on Blair’s government being returned to office for two or three terms, safe in the knowledge of a mandate for English devolution.

There are important cultural differences within England, which in time should be allowed greater political expression – but ‘Regional Assemblies’ will not solve the English question. There is demand for assemblies, a current of feeling running below the surface of resurgent nationalism, but it is not popular demand on the scale of say, the vote for Scottish devolution. Nevertheless, the Northeast, Yorkshire and the Northwest are clamouring to be heard. They will have to wait, just like the people of England as a whole, until a referendum is instituted by Central Government. Though New Labour promised them ‘in time’, demand could become unstoppable unless a lead is given to the new English identity, rather than allowing regional aspirations to destabilise the devolutionary process.

Once the example of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly begins to bite, it is only a matter of time till other areas of the UK, whether Cornwall, the de-industrialised cities of Northern England or the medley of Home Counties, clamour for political recognition. As devolution leaks into the byways of England, so alternative power centres will attempt to assert themselves, some with more claim than others. If the truth is, as Andrew Marr jokingly asserted, “Newcastle always seems more Scots than English to me”, then the division between ethnic ‘Englishness’ and civic ‘Britishness’ will only exacerbate this regionalistic trend.

Into the 21st Century

It is anything but certain where this new English patriotism will lead over the next 20 years. England may continue to drift in a post-imperial twilight, trying to patch up its constitutional anomalies and despised by a growing body of citizens for taking no definitive step in any certain direction. We may, as 59 per cent of teenagers believe, find the courage to become a member of five separate nations within the British Isles.  Some pro-Europeans look hopefully to the day when England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are linked symbolically by the crown, and with the Republic of Ireland by a non-executive Council of Isles, in the overall context of a ‘Europe of Regions’. That though, would hardly come close to ending our problems.

Even if negotiations were handled with the care that brought the Good Friday Agreement to fruition, with the bait of independence lauded at all stages, a majority of the Northern Irish and at least half of the Welsh would be unhappy at a complete dimantlement of the Union. The Scots however, would find independence, in or out of the E.U., the fulfilment of a long struggle. The English regions seeing political power within their grasp might bring Westminster to its knees, destroying the very last vestiges of centralised government. And what of the many islands, hamlets and isolated communities who ring Great Britain, what will the end of the Union do for them? In a sense, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are intractably linked by the manner in which they define themselves with reference to each other; the same can be said of the smaller entities, such as the Isle of Man or Sark. Like a dysfunctional family, no matter how much they disagree and bicker, they are still linked by blood and consciousness. Fair enough, the vast majority of the blood has been spilt historically fighting each other, but should we allow biased nationalism mixed with misconceived ideas of supportable independence for any of us, get in the way of economic and political reality?

The ‘British’ Union exists today more as political counterweight to continental Europe than as a fully functional nation-state; ‘British’ is a political, not an ethnic, term. ‘Britain’ may seem a flag of convenience for ‘Greater England’, while retaining imperial connotations, but it also represents the authority of treaty and national compromise vested in a civic device. Britain as a term is as relevant in parlance as it has ever been, though rather than denigrating it, perhaps some should realise that when using it they invoke a history which they do not understand. While no ‘common foe’ exists today, the interests of the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish and the English are still bound together. I for one do not believe that England, Scotland or Wales can healthily survive without its brothers in the Isles. We are intractably linked by history, culture, geography and identity; attempt to deny that and you miss a truth that should be blindingly obvious.

‘The Old’ Begets ‘The New’

England is recovering its soul, becoming again the freedom loving, dissenting, liberal England of old – an England that is becoming capable of contemplating devolution, not just for Scotland and Wales, but for itself also. Indeed, the implications of a burgeoning English identity within the government’s radical constitutional agenda go further than most commentator’s have realised; the combination of devolution, reinvigorated local government, elected mayors, House of Lords reform and a referendum on proportional representation points towards the most profound transformation in the British state, since its very inception. More important still, is that the process of devolutionary change will create a dynamic of its own, carrying this transformation much further than its creators ever intended.

The issue of devolution for the nations of the United Kingdom cannot be taken without reference to the developing European state, whatever its political and cultural identity. Similarly, regionalism relies on a belief in a viable existence within a Europe geared to lower levels of power sharing. Ultimately, for all constituents of the British Isles, there is a vested interest in using the Union and its ‘Britishness’ as a counter-weight to European integration on terms we do not like. Despite the symmetry of New Labour to the American Democrats, our future does lie in Europe, not in pan-Atlantic alliances. Once we realise this we may yet mange devolution effectively, recognising that we can only rely on our fellow UK members as a concentrated lobby, as we move towards eventual EMU.

What is certain in this myriad of argument and hypothesis, is that the new Englishness is here to stay. If government continues to reject it, if intellectuals continue to sneer at it, if they even fob it off with regional assemblies thinking they have diverted the problem, they will come to regret their myopia. As G.K. Chesterton famously wrote, “smile at us, pay us, pass us, but do not quite forget us, for we are the people of England who have not spoken yet”. Already, a move is afoot by some to make sure that its partners in the Union do not leave behind England. In January of 1997, Teresa Gorman placed a bill for an English Parliament before the Commons, offering home rule for the English under the Union, with all four assemblies operation in conjunction with a still supreme Westminster. The English will have to decide upon devolution and Scotland upon independence; other, smaller cultural entities might well be lost as larger nations shift politically. We exist in an atmosphere of change, in which people begin to flex their identities with greater self-belief than ever before.

This patriotism, whether national or regional, should not go unheard. The chance to channel it into a radical modernisation of England, indeed the entirety of the United Kingdom, via Westminster, cannot be missed. This patriotism however, must be educated to realise it will have to work with its neighbours not against them. Our future is not separate, whether Scottish or Welsh, Cockney or Geordie. Very obviously, as the U.K. moves into the next millennium we as collective islander’s face some paradigm shifts the like of which make up the very body of history. It is our challenge to face them.


 About the Author

The author is from rural Northumberland; a northerner in favour of devolved power, who considers himself British above English, is essentially sceptical of a European super-state, and is a member of the Liberal Democrats. For all this he believes solidly in the continuation of the United Kingdom.