Brexit and cultural dislocation

brexit
Image: @wgaronsmith (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence)

Brexit involves many dislocations: economic, political and (for those most directly affected, such as EU27 citizens living in the UK) personal.

Underlying all these, though – and a fundamental factor in why Brexit is happening in the first place – is the cultural dislocation that Brexit involves. That’s true whether the dislocation dismays or delights you.

This was called to mind when I read the following quotation today. It’s from Anthony G. Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner’s book, Minding the Law, but I came across it as the epigraph to Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament:

All cultures are, inherently, negotiated compromises between the already established and the imaginatively possible. … cultures in their very nature are marked by contests for control over conceptions of reality. In any culture, there are both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible. What is alternatively possible comprises both what seems desirable or beguiling, and what seems disastrous and horrifying. The statutes and conventions and authorities and orthodoxies of a culture are always in a dialectical relationship with contrarian myths, dissenting fictions, and (most important of all) the restless powers of the human imagination. Canonicity and the ordinary are typically in conflict with imaginable “otherwises”—some inchoate and even private, some vocal or even clamorous, some quasi-institutionalized as cults or movements of dissent. The dialectic between the canonical and the imagined is not only inherent in human culture, but gives culture its dynamism and, in some unfathomable way, its unpredictability—its freedom.

The idea that “cultures in their very nature are marked by contests for control over conceptions of reality” is of particular interest at a time when “post-truth politics” – politics where the “contesting” of “conceptions of reality” extends even to the denial of basic, verifiable facts – has been so widely discussed.

What jumped out at me, though, was the reference to every culture having “both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible.”

A point that numerous commentators have made about Brexit is how, until the referendum campaign began, opinion polls had rarely shown a majority of voters wishing to leave the European Union. However unpopular the EU may have been for many people, our political culture’s “canonical version of how things are and should be” was firmly one of continuing EU membership. The “countervailing versions about what is alternatively possible” promulgated by Tory eurosceptics and Ukip seemed doomed to remain nothing more than “contrarian myths” and “dissenting fictions” in the face of the “[literal] statutes and conventions and authorities and orthodoxies” of life as an EU member state.

What has happened since 23 June 2016 is a process – and still only the beginning of the process – of reversing the position of these “conceptions of reality”. As a previously “reluctant Remainer” prime minister intones that “Brexit means Brexit”, Brexit becomes the new “canonical version of how things are and should be.” Meanwhile, support for EU membership barely even manages to register as a “countervailing vision about what is alternatively possible.”

The point is that this represents a massive cultural shift, quite apart from the political and economic impact as Brexit unfolds over the coming years. Both Brexiters and “Remoaners” find ourselves with a new and unaccustomed cultural status, a reversal of our previous positions. Others (such as members of parliament) find themselves scrambling to endorse positions they would previously have disdained.

The result is undoubtedly a manifestation of cultural “dynamism”: it remains to be seen, though, whether events will vindicate those for whom the new orthodoxy is “desirable or beguiling,” or those of us who find it “disastrous and horrifying.”

Sufficient unto the day: Brexit and emotional health

Sermon On The Mountwith the Healing of the Leper Cosimo Rosselli, 1481
Sermon on the Mount with the Healing of the Leper, Cosimo Rosselli, 1481

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’

Matthew 6:25-34

It’s probably a measure of how sheltered and privileged a life I’ve led that it’s taken the Brexit vote to really bring home to me the value of what Jesus is saying in these famous words – particularly the final sentences, rendered in the Authorised Version as:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Is this really good advice? Can Jesus really be telling us not to buy insurance (as some Christians apply this) or not to save for a pension? After all, “take no thought for the morrow.”

I don’t interpret Jesus’ words that way, but that’s an argument for another day. However, I think at least a part of what Jesus is telling us here is about maintaining healthy patterns and habits of thought. I know I’m not the only one who has spent more time than is healthy in the last few days reading and arguing about the implications of Brexit and the likely consequences and outcomes. And one of the things that has become apparent to me is how easily my thoughts run away with themselves, as I go chasing off down some line of thought about all the dire possibilities of one or other of all the vast complexity of issues now to be addressed as we prepare to leave the European Union, and end up anxious, jittery, scared.

Who knows how all these matters will be resolved, but it’s probably unlikely that all the worst case scenarios my fertile imagination can come up with will come true. In the meantime, these are not healthy patterns of thought.

I dare say that in the days and weeks ahead there will be reports on the impact of the Brexit vote on people’s mental and emotional health. The shock and uncertainty and confusion is likely to be having a highly detrimental effect on some people, especially those who already suffer from mental health problems. But perhaps there is a specific danger for those of us, lacking experience (so far) of mental illness, who don’t realise the mental and emotional risks of obsessive concern over matters in which we feel powerless and confused.

So it’s at this point, as our mental terriers go chasing another Brexit rabbit down another rabbit hole, that we need to listen to Jesus’ words here: “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Worrying about tomorrow weakens our mental and emotional resilience to deal with what we have to do today – let alone the effects it has on our trust in God.

Yesterday I ended up having to turn off my phone and tablet during the afternoon to recover my emotional balance. In the evening I listened to classic disco music, processed holiday photos and started reading Three Men in a Boat (which I’ve never read, and which I discover – who knew? – is utterly hilarious). Whatever you need for your own #OperationHappyPlace, if you are distressed and anxious about the Brexit result, I commend a similar approach. Yes, engage with the news of what’s happening, but keep a watchful eye on your emotional state and your patterns of thought, and make sure you switch off and do something else when you need to (bearing in mind that, if you feel thirsty, that means you’re already dehydrated). Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Is Donald Trump a fascist?

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Photograph: Gage Skidmore.

It’s this question – being posed in various places – that prompted me to read Kevin Passmore’s superb book, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction (2nd ed).

Of course, before we can decide whether The Donald is an actual fascist, we need to ask what exactly the definition of a “fascist” is. The question of defining fascism is probably the major theme of Passmore’s book. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of the book is how this second edition interacts with the first edition, also by Passmore.

In the first edition, Passmore explains, he attempted to come up with a definition of fascism that reconciles the competing attempts that have been made by academics from different traditions. For example:

  • Marxist definitions, which see fascism as “the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary elements of capitalism”.
  • Weberian definitions, which see fascism as a reaction against “modernisation” by bewildered traditionalists.
  • Totalitarian theory, which sees fascism as just one species, along with state communism, of a wider category of “totalitarianism”.

Passmore sees strengths and weaknesses in each of these approaches, and his previous definition attempted to synthesise them. However, he concludes that even this attempt was fundamentally flawed, because in the end fascism was too contradictory a phenomenon to be reducible to a clear definition:

Fascism is a contradictory set of interrelated and contested ideologies and practices that cannot easily be categorized in terms of binary opposites such as tradition and modernity or radical and reactionary. (p.151)

Which isn’t to say that it’s a meaningless or useless term:

[O]ur inability to pin fascism down does not mean that we can’t say anything at all, or that it’s all just a matter of opinion. […] Thus, I cover movements and regimes that called themselves fascist or were called fascist by their enemies or by scholars. […] I use fascism as a convenient label, in the knowledge that it covers many meanings. (p.19, emphasis in original)

This leads on the question of whether modern far-right movements can be usefully described as “fascist”. On this, Passmore is sceptical:

There are genuine continuities between interwar fascism and the modern extreme right (extreme nationalism and discrimination against ethnic minorities, antifeminism, antisocialism, populism, hostility to established social and political elites, anticapitalism, and antiparliamentarianism). There are equally significant differences (lack of mass mobilization, paramilitary violence, and the ambition to create a one-party state). More often, the modern far right seeks to exploit the discriminatory potential of democracy rather than overthrow it. (p.107)

In other words, whatever the moral evils of the extreme right, it is not necessarily accurate or useful to describe it as “fascist” in the same sense that this term is used to describe interwar movements such as Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, or the Iron Guard in Romania. The differences – particularly the acceptance of democratic means by most far-right parties – are too great.

The obsession with deciding whether or not a given far-right movement is “fascist” can be counterproductive in more than one way. Take, for example, the Front National in France, which rejects the “fascist” label and has adopted instead the terminology first applied to it by pro-Fifth Republic political scientists, who:

depict the FN as a temporary ‘national-populist’ protest on the part of marginal ill-educated people, who seek simple answers for their difficulties in the age of globalization. Besides betraying a certain contempt for ordinary people, this interpretation plays into the hands of the highly educated professional politicians who actually lead the FN. It permits the FN to assert academic support for its difference from fascism and for its claim to represent the voiceless. It’s as if racism is acceptable as long as it isn’t fascist. It would be just as problematic though to label the FN as fascist. It’s potentially a way of discrediting the party, but since FN sympathizers don’t usually see themselves as fascist, one runs the risk of reinforcing their conviction that the movement represents honest people who are contemptuously dismissed by the elite. (p.153)

This, I think, begins to help us answer the question posed by this post’s title. Describing Trump as a “fascist” may make his opponents on the left feel better, but it raises two problems, both of which have highly practical political consequences. First, does this mean that Trump’s racist policies as regards Mexicans and Muslims would be “acceptable as long as [he] isn’t fascist” (thus opening the way for a more “moderate” Republican candidate to pick them up)? And does this labelling of Trump as a “fascist” just reinforce his supporters’ conviction that he “represents honest people who are contemptuously dismissed by the elite”?

In short: Donald Trump almost certainly isn’t a fascist, even if he is tapping into some of the same dissatisfactions, and some of the same unpleasant social and individual tendencies, that have been exploited by fascists. Indeed, Passmore himself has said as much, when asked the Trump question by Vox:

For me, the point about Trump’s proposals is not whether or not they are ‘fascist,’ but whether or not they are moral.

As Passmore puts it in his book:

[T]he question of whether or not the modern far right’s stance is ‘fascist’ has no bearing on the moral acceptability of its proposals. For instance, would the expulsion of non-whites from a country be more acceptable if it was the work of a non-fascist government? To reduce the far right to its similarities with fascism carries the risk of obscuring what is new about it and of diverting attention from the possibility that fascists may not be alone in advocating or practicing policies that others would regard as morally wrong. (p.152)

In the end, Passmore insists, we cannot abdicate responsibility for tackling the far right to academics, asking them to decree which movements are “fascist” (and therefore beyond the pale) and which are “non-fascist” (and therefore – well, what, precisely?). As he writes:

So are we letting the modern far right off the hook by avoiding the question of fascism? Ultimately, responses to fascism depend not upon scholarly assessments of what has happened in the past or on categorization. We cannot oppose the far right by defining it as fascist—however many similarities there undoubtedly are. We must focus rather on the dangers that it represents in the present, and indeed on the recognition that non-fascist movements, including groups that play by democratic rules, can also threaten decent values. (p.155)

In other words, the question we should ask is not “Is Trump a fascist?”, but rather: “Is Trump moral? Is he dangerous? Does he threaten decent values?” And I’m going to leave that as an exercise for the reader…

The wandering of peoples

Map from Europe: A History, p.216.
Map of first millennium migrations into Europe. From Europe: A History, p.216.

Norman Davies, in his book Europe: A History (see previous post), describes the waves of migration that transformed Europe during the first millennium AD.

One of Davies’ chief aims throughout his history of Europe is to correct the tendency to view history, especially European history, from an exclusively western European perspective. As he observes, this tendency has strongly influenced our view of “the Barbarian Invasions” during the twilight of the western Roman empire (or “the Roman empire”, as we’ve tended to call it in the west, ignoring the fact it continued for another millennium in the east).

In fact, the influx of Angles, Saxons, Franks, Jutes, Visigoths, Huns and the rest was:

[a] massive historical process which, from the standpoint of the Empire, has been called ‘the Barbarian Invasions’ and which, from the parochial standpoint of Western Europe, has often been reduced to ‘the Germanic Invasions’. To the Germans it is known as the Völkerwanderung, the ‘Wandering of Peoples’—an apt term which could well be applied to its Germanic and non-Germanic participants alike. In reality, it engulfed the greater part of the European Peninsula, East and West, and continued throughout the first millennium AD and beyond, until all the wanderers had found a permanent abode. (pp.217f.)

The waves of migration proceeded in a ripple effect, with the ultimate impetus for a westward movement often lying far away to the east:

The critical cause of any displacement might lie far away on the steppes of central Asia; and a ‘shunting effect’ is clearly observable. Changes at one end of the chain of peoples could set off ripples along all the links of the chain. Like the last wagon of a train in the shunting yards, the last tribe on the western end of the chain could be propelled from its resting-place with great force. (p.215)

Hence “the Huns caused ripples in the West long before they themselves appeared.” The Huns had been based in modern Turkestan, east of the Caspian Sea, but gradually shifted west. In turn they pushed the Ostrogoths and Visigoths into the Roman empire.

The causes of individual bursts of migration sound familiar to modern ears, as does the nervous reaction of “civilised” Europe:

The irregular rhythms of migration depended on a complex equation involving climatic changes, food supply, demographic growth, local rivalries, distant crises. For the Romans watching anxiously on the frontier, they were entirely unpredictable. (p.215)

Which brings us to today, and how to deal with what is variously referred to as a “migrant crisis” or a “refugee crisis” – mostly depending on how sympathetic the speaker is to the plight of those (literally) washing up on Europe’s beaches from the Middle East and north Africa.

Many will point out, quite correctly, that there is a difference between a “refugee” fleeing persecution, a “migrant” seeking better economic conditions, and an “immigrant” coming for a particular job or course of study. It is certainly possible to look at any individual, ask which of those categories they fall under, and have differing policies for each.

However, if we are (as seems likely) in a new era of “great migrations”, driven by many of the same factors as in the first millennium – climate change, demographics, war – then it can become absurd to make a Manichaean distinction between “good” refugees and “bad” migrants. If someone flees conflict and persecution in, say, Somalia, they are a “refugee”, and hence “good”; if they are born in a refugee camp just outside Somalia and, having endured abject poverty, flee in search of a better life, they are a “migrant”, and hence “bad”. A similar winnowing could have been attempted in the first millennium: are you fleeing the Huns who burned your village? Refugee. Climate change dried up your water supply? Migrant. It would have been as blunt an instrument then as it is now, and it wouldn’t have altered the overall process one iota.

The difference today is that we – the heirs, most of us, of those former waves of “refugees” and “migrants” into Europe, but often sharing the western-centric perspective of fifth century Romans – are not just fearfully standing on the imperial border waiting for the next ripple to arrive. We can see what’s happening far (and not so far) away. I don’t know what the answer is for how Europe should deal with this situation – but the UK approach of higher fences and each-country-for-itself is manifestly inadequate.

Praying for the election, with St Thomas Aquinas

Sign at polling stationThree days till polling day, and for many politically-engaged Christians (or is it just me?) the dilemma presents itself: how should we pray concerning the election? Should we pray for “our side” to win, or should we attempt to be more highminded – praying, as it were, for a “good clean fight”, regardless of outcome – lest we turn our prayers into an attempt to canvass the Almighty (“So can we put you down as an ‘undecided’? And will you be needing a lift to the polling station on Thursday?”)

Thomas Aquinas – via Denys Turner – can help us out here. At one point in his book, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, Turner discussed what Thomas has to say concerning voluntas, or the “will”. This is a problematic term for modern readers, Turner suggests:

Bluntly, Thomas’s voluntas is not best translated by the English “will” at all. It is more accurately, if more cumbersomely, translated as one translates Aristotle, as rational or “reasoned desire”, that is, desire rationally deliberated as distinct from instinctive or nonrational forms of desire such as is caused in a hungry person by the smell of food. (pp.174ff.)

Another way of putting it is that my “will” consists in what I “really” want – that is, in what will make me happy. This is not without its own problems, given the human capacity for self-deception, but for Thomas it lies at the heart of what “the moral life” is about: developing prudentia, “skill in seeing the moral point of human situations, what true desires are to be met within them.”

How can we do this? How can we start to strip away our self-deception, pierce the veil of our ignorance, and develop this “prudence” in desiring what will make us truly happy, give us what we “really” want?

For Thomas, the answer is: prayer. And Thomas advises that, when we pray, we should pray for what we want: not for what we think we ought to want. As Turner puts it, prayer is in part about self-discovery, and:

…our only available starting point for that practice of self-discovery is our wants and desires as we actually experience them. Therefore, Thomas says, we ought to pray for what we think we want regardless. For prayer is “in a certain manner a hermeneutic of the human will,” so that by way of placing our desires as we experience them before God we are asking also that those desires be “unfolded,” “explicated,” thereby to release their real significance, the real want that is wrapped up in, “implicated” in all their opacity in their form as experienced.

In other words, it is only by praying for what we think we want that we will discover both the real desire that underlies our “wants”, and thus how our desires need to change in order to conform to God’s will for us. The model is Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane:

Therefore, says Thomas, we ought to pray, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, “in response to our animal desire” (secundum sensualitatem). For when we pray as Jesus did then, out of animal need and desire – for Jesus was scared of death, as naturally any animal is – we are placing that animal need and desire within the interpretative power of the divine will itself, wherein alone we will discover our own real will.

Thus we should be praying for what we want, even if we don’t know that it is God’s will – and, what’s more, even if we know it is not God’s will:

Therefore, Thomas concludes, we ought always to pray for what we think we want; for Jesus prayed as he did in Gethsemane so as to teach us just that lesson, namely that it is “permitted for human beings naturally to desire even what [they know] is not God’s will”; and, as if in reinforcement of what for many is a startling thought, he cites the authority of Augustine to the same effect, commenting on the same prayer of Jesus: “It is as if [Jesus] were saying: ‘See yourself in me: for you [too] can wish something for yourself even though God wishes something else.'” Only thus, in the prayer of honest desire, is there any chance of our discovering what are our true desires, our real will.

So, if you are politically partisan, then the proper thing to do in praying about the outcome of the election, for Thomas, is to pray on politically partisan grounds: to pray for a Labour victory, or a Conservative victory, or a Green/Lib Dem/Plaid Cymru/SNP rainbow coalition, or whatever your desired outcome may be. Only by sincerely praying for what you actually want can you sincerely end your prayers with: “yet, not my will but yours be done.” (And even then, I’ll find it a struggle if the answer to that prayer is five more years of Mr Cameron in No.10.)

Christians and politics: “reformation” vs “betterment”

Martin Luther and his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German NationThe House of Bishops’ pastoral letter on the 2015 general election has stirred up a great deal of discussion, both on the merits of the document itself and on the propriety of Church of England bishops “interfering in politics” in the first place.

I should probably admit right from the start that I haven’t read the pastoral letter yet, so I can’t comment on its content. My interest at this stage is on the second question, of whether it’s legitimate for the bishops to issue such a document at all. One comment I saw suggested that the letter “violates Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms”. Others have suggested that the bishops have failed to realise that justice is principally a matter of “eschatology”, not something that can be achieved in the here and now; or that following the example of Christ means refusing to be “derailed or side-tracked” by the “provisionality” of earthly politics.

Now, Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms is a highly contested area of theology. However, Wikipedia summarises the essence of it quite succinctly:

The church should not exercise worldly government, and princes should not rule the church or have anything to do with the salvation of souls.

There’s a difference, though, between rejecting the notion of the church’s “temporal authority,” and saying that church leaders should be silent on political topics. Certainly Luther cannot be invoked as an authority for the latter claim, as Heiko A. Oberman makes clear in his book, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. In his second chapter, Oberman describes the distinction that Luther made between “reformation” and “betterment”. It’s a distinction that I think may be helpful in understanding how Christians (including pastors) are to engage with politics.

Oberman observes that “reformation” was a familiar word in the early 16th century. “Everyone was for it” (just as everyone today is for “democracy”), but no one was really sure how to implement it. Essentially it meant a return to the ideals of the early Christian church, of a community united again in love (p.50). Successive waves of reform movements from the eleventh century onwards had attempted to realise this vision of a renewed church.

Luther, however, did not think that what he was doing was “reformation”, let alone “the” Reformation. He rejected late medieval millenarian dreams of a “reformed” church. Rather, he saw what he was doing in the light of Jesus’ prophecy:

And the gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then the end shall come. (Matthew 24:14, quoted on p.72).

In other words: Luther saw it as his role not to “reform the church”, but to preach the gospel. The preaching of the gospel would provoke a furious reaction from the devil, which in turn would be followed (as he saw it) by the Great Reformation of the Day of Judgement.

However, this didn’t mean that Luther taught a quietism in which Christians just sat around enduring persecution and waiting for the end to come. Nor did he see it as his job solely to preach the gospel while leaving politics to the professionals. On the contrary: a great deal of his efforts were “directed toward order and improvement in the world”. As Oberman says:

It is of lasting significance that Luther’s rejection of historical utopias did not entail abandoning the Church and the world to chaos: Christians are threatened but not helpless, under attack but not defenceless. (p.76)

So Christians can, and should, be hard at work in trying to improve the civic and political order:

But for this dimension he used the sober, secular, practical, temporal and above all relative term betterment rather than the glorious Reformation. In short: Reformation is the work of God, betterment the task of Adam and Eve. (p.76)

An example of the “betterment” advocated by Luther can be found in his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, written in 1520. Oberman summarises Luther’s message of political reform in this treatise as follows:

Ostentatious luxury, “through which so many noblemen and wealthy people are impoverished,” must be curbed; trade must be regulated so that “German money [cannot] leave the land”; usury is “the greatest plague of the German nation … Should it last another one hundred years, it would not be possible for Germany to keep one single penny.” Business monopolies are equally immoral: “The Fuggers and their ilk should be brought under control”; and finally, “Is it not wretched that we Christians continue to allow public whorehouses”! (pp.78f.)

I’d love to know what people’s response would have been had the Church of England bishops released a document as strongly anti-capitalist as that. Not that Luther’s social programme is necessarily a template for them to have followed:

Though often misunderstood, Luther’s suggestions for improvement should not be regarded as Christian ethics in the sense of timeless directives. Luther did not leave governments and societies an unalterable plan for all times and all centuries […]. Faith shatters any claim to eternal validity, opening instead the eyes of the faithful for what is the most needful service to others. […] God entrusted the world to man and woman, and they must discharge their duties to the very last; in this and this alone can they be of help to God. (pp.79f.)

Luther’s eschatology is alien to most of us today, even to most Christians. But his distinction between “reformation” (God’s eschatological work in establishing final justice and restoration) and “betterment” (the “sober, secular, practical, temporal and above all relative” work of making life that bit better now, of identifying and fulfilling “what is the most needful service to others”) is a valuable one. What we can achieve through worldly politics is limited; perfect justice is unattainable. But we can, and should, be using what wisdom we have to try to make things better, and Christian pastors and leaders can play a role in helping encourage this process of “betterment”.

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.