The Rise of English Nationalism and the Balkanization of Britain

The Rise of English Nationalism and the Balkanization of Britain

Mini Teaser: What if not just the institutions but the allegiances and even the identity of Britain were fundamentally to alter? Until quite recently such a hypothesis would have seemed risible. But suddenly it is not.

by Author(s): Robin Harris

Consequently, it is only reasonable to assume that an appeal to
English nationalism now would probably bring Scottish independence
somewhat closer. And such a prospect, it must be repeated, is
hazardous for all concerned--including Britain's allies and neighbors.

Scottish nationalists, of course, imagine that they will launch the new state on a sea of black gold. But even if Scotland comes out of the inevitable legal tangle enjoying the lion's share of current British North Sea Oil revenues, there will remain a gaping deficit in its public finances from the loss of the English taxpayer's subsidy. At present Scotland receives 10.25 percent of UK public expenditure but only provides 8.9 percent of UK tax revenue. The SNP already promises to raise taxes; but on these figures it would have to hike taxation still higher than it envisages if it wants to balance the books. Nationalist socialism north of the border would also lead to further drainage of home grown talent and foreign investment from Scotland. The SNP assumption that the European Union will bail out Scotland with transfer payments is a pipedream. Doubtless, many Europeanists would relish seeing the break-up of Britain, which would then be less strongly placed to frustrate their sort of federalism. But with the EU already committed to extend eastward, taking in more industrially primitive and heavily agricultural members, the chances of the Scots enjoying the kind of largesse that currently boosts the economies of Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece are negligible.

In fact, clean contrary to what the Nationalists believe, one of the strongest reasons the English governing elite has fought to keep Scotland within Britain is the fear that an independent Scotland may, for all these reasons, suffer an economic collapse that would cause a flood of destabilizing migration across the border. There is a still worse scenario. From the hard-left socialism of the Scottish Labour Party and the extreme nationalism of the SNP there could emerge a People's Republic of Scotland that might prove no end of a nuisance - not just to the English, whom it would continue to blame for its predicament, but to foreign multinationals, banks, and doubtless (like other socialist Third World countries) America. In short, an unstable left-wing regime in Scotland could prove a major international headache.

There would also be special problems for the other non-English who remained behind in English-dominated Britain. The Welsh would certainly lose out, albeit modestly. The limited significance of Welsh nationalism would become more limited still, and Wales' ability to claim special treatment in central government programs would be lessened, as the British state became still more firmly focused on London.

Far more serious, though, would be the implications for Northern Ireland's position within the Union, already fragile and uncertain as the so-called "peace process" slowly results in the fulfillment of Irish Republican demands. For historical reasons the English have never felt as committed as the Scots to the defense of Ulster. So Matthew Parris directly links the fates of Scotland and Northern Ireland:

I am giving up the increasingly strained attempt to include in my commentary on 'our' political scene the unspoken implication that this includes Scotland. In these twilight days of the Britain we were born to, we English must learn to let go. Scotland is another country. So it is in the sense of 'our' that I say that the Northern Irish are not English, do not feel to us like 'our' people.

With Scotland a separate country, and with pro-Irish Republican American pressure on a weaker British state correspondingly more influential, the Unionists in Northern Ireland look even more likely finally to be abandoned to their fate of incorporation into the South. Paradoxically, this "success" of American and Irish policy will most likely rebound on both; for the Republican and Loyalist terrorists show no sign of disarming, and without the threat posed to their activities by the British armed forces it is an odds-on bet that one or other group will eventually find a reason to renew the conflict. If that results in a new peacekeeping mission, it will most likely be the Americans, certainly not the British, who will head it.

A Dysfunctional Nation?

What of the position of the English within truncated Britain? Nations, like men, do not live by bread alone. Because of the historical congruity between Englishness and Britishness, there is a real loss to England if a part of Britain secedes. Retreats easily become routs. The retreat from Empire made perfectly good sense, and was reasonably well managed, but it left scars on the nation's psyche, scars that were wide open when Dean Acheson made his notorious jibe about losing an empire and not finding a role, and which are still not fully healed. Even the recent unavoidable retreat from Hong Kong prompted nostalgic regrets. Collective psychoanalysis may be even more uncertain a science than the individual kind. But a nation does need to retain the will to hold on to what it is and has - and perhaps even suffer the occasional temptation to expand - if it is not to become dysfunctional. Dysfunctional nations are also unreliable allies. It is not just its checkered history that prevents Germany from taking an active part in high-profile international military operations. Germany's angst, its tortured mixture of self-loathing and self-assertiveness, is the condition that rules it out, at present at least, from being accepted as an "ordinary" country. English Britain after dismemberment might be saner than Germany, but it too could well experience a nervous breakdown.

There are also risks of more tangible English losses. There has been little serious discussion of the military implications of separation, but they are large. For example, the British submarine-based nuclear deterrent has for many years been very satisfactorily stationed on the Clyde in Scotland. It would quickly have to be relocated in an English port. The business would be costly and disruptive, and it might open up all sorts of opportunities for unpleasantness between the two countries. (The tensions between Russia and Ukraine that arose from the division of USSR military assets do not provide an encouraging precedent.) The SNP has already started publishing the elements of the British military arsenal it imagines it will carry off as booty. Certainly, the famous Scottish regiments would be weakened if not destroyed. Scottish soldiers remaining in the British army would overnight effectively become mercenaries.

Then there is the matter of Britain's permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. In theory this should not be affected, for in fact and in law it will be clear that English Britain is the successor state of the United Kingdom. But that may be over-optimistic. British Security Council membership is already a source of resentment among a variety of European and non-European powers and might be subject to renewed challenge. Membership, with its right of veto on actions threatening the national interest, is the practical public expression of Britain's world power status. Loss of it would represent a major downgrading of the country's role, not least as the most steadfast ally of the United States - something the Americans themselves might also have cause to regret.

The truncation of Britain would also have implications for the already difficult relationship with Europe. True, some Conservative intellectuals - as Peregrine Worsthorne predicts - might be so aesthetically repelled that they fall back into Euro-federalism. But that hardly seems the likely general reaction. Particularly if Scotland achieved membership of the European Union - which of course Britain would still be in a position to veto, but probably would not - English resentment against the EU would undoubtedly increase, as the English taxpayer was expected to make a substantial net contribution to the EU annual budget, benefiting the Scots.

English interests would thus altogether be best served by staying with the present arrangements that include Scotland within the UK. That would be better too for the Welsh and Ulstermen. Britain's allies, particularly America, would be spared new uncertainties. The Scots alone fail to see the dangers they face.

Amputate to Save the Patient

But, all that said, by any realistic assessment the status quo is no longer a long-term option. If the United Kingdom has lost the support not only of the Scots but of a substantial section of the English too, it is only sensible to recognize the fact and act upon it. English nationalism then begins to make sense.

And there are some compensations. A better articulated English nationhood might help heal the inevitable psychological scars of separation. It would certainly make easier a clean break with the Scots on terms that give neither side lingering cause for regret. There is still a risk of further last-minute constitutional concessions to appease the unappeasable. Outright British federalism, with sovereignty itself divided between two or even more parliaments, would appeal to the Liberal Party because it is federalist by conviction, and to Labour because it might become federalist by convenience. But such a program would further undermine Westminster, worsen English government, and only encourage the SNP.

Essay Types: Essay