It is widely believed that Brexit has been thoroughly bad for the United Kingdom’s internal unity and coherence.
First, Scotland’s move for independence, and hopefully trying to join the European Union, (possibly with complete separation from its bigger English neighbor), has been strongly reinforced — despite bitter current internal struggles inside the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party. Elections to the Scottish Parliament in May could give the breakaway movement a majority and bring the issue of a new Scottish referendum on independence to a head.
Second, Northern Ireland’s anomalous post-Brexit position, both within the EU single market and yet also within the now-separate U.K. internal market, is rousing growing tensions and re-awakening debate about the province’s future status, which could even lead, as so often in the past, to violence.
Third, Welsh leaders are talking the nationalist talk with much more confidence than in the past.
The moderates in all three of these smaller nations are calling for England to offer a better form of union than in the past, to hold the kingdom together. The more extreme nationalists are urging a complete break, a sort of Scottish national resurgence, even though the global environment for small nations, which looked so good a few years back, has now grown distinctly less favorable.
Nevertheless, among these obvious negative trends there are also some traces developing of a more positive kind that could yet be pulled together by skillful statesmanship and turned into a different and better story for the continuation of the whole United Kingdom.
The most encouraging of these trends is the greatly renewed focus being given, both in London and the regional capitals, on how to hold the kingdom together — how to replace the old constitutional “glue,” which has done it so well for the U.K. in the past, so as to meet the new challenges of the digital age, namely, the information revolution and the powerful centrifugal forces that have now been generated.
This in itself is an advance. In the past it was too easy to take the fact for granted that the full union of Scotland and England had lasted 314 years and been an outstanding success, even though it had a slightly dodgy start back in 1707. The ensuing centuries brought amazing achievements, by the standards of those days, in which brilliant Scottish talent often led, whether in industrial power and progress, in cultural influence or in sheer military prowess.
But a past, which seemed at least to some glorious, is turning out not to be enough to cement a very different future. Minds are now searching over every conceivable variety of federalism to be found in the world or in recent history to assemble a new formula that works — a better kind of union, a stronger binding glue to counter the centrifugal pressures of the internet age.
Countries with similar-sounding challenges, notably Spain, with its Catalonia problem, or Canada with its Quebec sovereignty movement, are being studied closely. So, too, are the successful frameworks that hold other modern nations together, such as federal Germany or France with its prefectures, or Japan with its subtle commitment to being at once both collectivist and increasingly decentralized, or the United States, still in one federal piece despite its many divisions.
But while there is a lot to learn from these models, none of them conform directly with the unique British situation. Moreover, most of them date back from before the full flowering of the age of the information revolution, with its surging identity pressures and grass roots populist empowerment, which have so transformed (and convulsed) many relationships today.
A second possible positive in this increasingly febrile scene is that it has focused minds on the dangers and costs, as well as the joys, of breaking away from past alliances.
“Small is beautiful” was an intoxicating message in the last century, but in today’s world of dark cyber subjugation, hacking and fake information, plus financial insinuation and a host of other threats, it suddenly begins to look safer, and wiser, to be tied in closely with strong neighbors, just as Scotland has been so long with the much larger England.
Threats to national security nowadays clearly require cooperation on a far deeper and bigger scale than any small exposed nation can afford or muster. Maybe now is not the best time for a small nation, however talented or steeped in history, to try going it alone.
This is even more so when a separate Scotland will be very short of cash, with the revenues from oil drying up and the flow of social support from British taxpayers being cut off.
A third positive factor working against breakaway is that we are in the age of big data — information, that is, of immense detail about everybody and everything on a gargantuan scale and in continuous flow. This makes conducting certain aspects of unitary governance (although not all) on a big scale more efficient as well as very sensitive. The recent remarkable U.K. success with unrolling the COVID-19 vaccines has proved a good example of that kind of benefit.
None of this is enough to deter the hardest line Scottish advocates of full independence. But for more middle-road Scots it does give cause for a pause for thought and a re-examination of what independence really means.
Does it mean, for example, breaking with the British Crown after all these years? Or leaving issues like foreign policy, defense and security with the central power at Westminster? These are key issues on which Scottish voices have been quiet — for the very good reason that there is no real agreement in Edinburgh on what is really being sought.
All in all, the momentum for independence, which until recently looked unstoppable, may be slowing and the immediate threat to U.K. solidarity may not materialize, at any rate not from Scotland. But the need for radical reform in the British system clearly remains, with an end to the monopoly of power at Westminster that has been the British way for so long. And that will be quite a constitutional challenge enough.
Lord David Howell, Baron Howell of Guildford, is a member of the House of Lords and a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. His latest books are “Look Where We’re Going” (2019) and “The Japan Affair” (2020).
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