Disunited Kingdom

from Georges Gritsis

February 24, 2023

Disunited Kingdom.

Will Nationalism Break Britain?

by Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton F. O'Toole in Foreign Affairs

The current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is a technocrat at heart and seems to have little interest in identity politics. Yet if the economic reality continues to look grim, his party may have little option but to double down on the defense of an archaic Britishness. An intransigent Conservative party that somehow wins reelection by appealing to English voters to stand firm against the rebellious Scots and rally around the existing political order could turn a slow process of dissolution into an immediate crisis. It is not hard to imagine that, amid a deepening economic recession and with Sturgeon already a hate figure for the Tory press in England (in December 2022, one column in Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun compared her to the mass murderer Rosemary West), some Conservatives might actually relish a “patriotic” rhetorical war against Scottish and Welsh nationalists. The result, however, would be merely to exacerbate divisions and speed up the end of the United Kingdom.

The current likelihood, however, is that Labour leader Keir Starmer will be the next prime minister. Starmer has endorsed a plan, drawn up by a commission headed by former Prime Minister (and proud Scot) Gordon Brown, to clean up the British Parliament, replace the unelected House of Lords with an elected second chamber of “nations and regions,” and devolve more power to local governments in what Brown calls “the biggest transfer of power out of Westminster . . . that our country has seen.” If Starmer does achieve power, he may not be quite so enthusiastic about giving it away. And even these reforms may not be enough to save the United Kingdom. The case for the creation of a fully federal state seems strong. It has worked well for the former British dominions of Canada and Australia. If Quebec, which came very close to voting for independence in 1995, has settled down as a distinct society within a larger union, might not the same be possible for Scotland and Wales? But the English habit of muddling through—what Winston Churchill called KBO, for “keep buggering on”—is a powerful force for inertia.

The United Kingdom created a beta version of democracy in the eighteenth century: innovative and progressive in its day but long since surpassed by newer models. The country has, however, been extremely reluctant to abandon even the most egregious anachronisms. The biggest transformation in its governance was joining the European Union, and that has been reversed. It now has to make a momentous and existential choice—between a radically reimagined United Kingdom and a stubborn adherence to KBO. If it chooses the latter, it will muddle on toward its own extinction.