Vanishing (United) Kingdom?

Scottish independence?That the United Kingdom will collapse is a foregone conclusion. Sooner or later, all states do collapse, and ramshackle, asymmetric dynastic amalgamations are more vulnerable than cohesive nation states. Only the ‘how’ and the ‘when’ are mysteries of the future. 

So writes Norman Davies in his book Vanished Kingdoms, in a discomfiting (for Unionists), perhaps prophetic (Scottish nationalists will hope), section on the centrifugal forces that have been tearing apart the former United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland over the past century or so. Davies continues:

An exhaustive study of the many pillars on which British power and prestige were built – ranging from the monarchy, the Royal Navy and the Empire to the Protestant Ascendancy, the Industrial Revolution, Parliament and Sterling – indicated that all without exception were in decline; some were already defunct, others seriously diminished or debilitated; it suggests that the last act may come sooner rather than later. (p.679)

Whether Davies (writing in 2011) predicted that it could come as soon as a week next Thursday is doubtful, but over the past few days English complacency about the Scottish referendum on Thursday 18 September has been shaken by polls appearing to show momentum building for supporters of Scottish independence – even if, as yet, no opinion poll shows the Yes side with a lead over the Noes.

But even if (as still remains more likely than not) Scotland votes to remain in the Union, Davies would argue that this would merely be postponing the inevitable. Part of the problem is that New Labour left the process of devolution and decentralisation half-finished: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were given varying degrees of autonomy, but attempts at creating regional democracy in England foundered. The result has:

left the political architecture of the United Kingdom in the early twenty-first century inherently unbalanced. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cannot develop any sense of equality with their over-mighty English partner; and the English have little incentive to address the inbuilt instability. The kingdom is not well prepared for the next turn of the tide; resentments grow, and solidarity is sapped. (p.680)

Maybe a narrow No vote will finally jolt the English into addressing this imbalance, but I remain sceptical: Westminster will be reluctant to diminish its power and importance. And a No vote will increase the centrifugal forces in one respect at least: it is inevitable that Scotland will be given a much greater degree of devolution than it has now – and, as Davies observes, the history of states such as Austria-Hungary shows that “life in autonomous provinces provides a school for separatists.”

Davies also foresees that the departure of Scotland will push the residual UK towards further disintegration:

When Scotland departs, a crestfallen England – frustrated, diminished and shorn of its great-power pretensions – will be left in the company of two far smaller dependencies. Resultant discomforts will grow sharply. (pp.683f.)

Davies predicts what we might call a “Celtic realignment” between Dublin, Belfast and Edinburgh, leaving Wales “standing alone with England” – though with even its departure “only … a matter of time” (though this, as it happens, is the part of Davies’ argument about which I’m most sceptical). As Davies concludes:

The Welsh, who once were the original Britons, would end up being the last of the Britons.

Sombre stuff (if you’re English!), and perhaps we’re not quite there yet. But Davies’ sketch of Britain’s future unravelling does bring home how even a No vote will not be the end of the matter – and how the biggest threat to the United Kingdom is not Scottish or Welsh separatism, but English centralism.


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