Will Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales wend their own way? Credit: Graham Service/Action Plus via Getty Images

July 16, 2019   5 mins

As members of the current government bid their farewells, one valedictory message has been unduly neglected. It came from the Prime Minister’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, during answers to MPs in the House of Commons last week, and it reinforced a warning he had given in a recent newspaper article about how a “no deal” Brexit might result in the break-up of the UK.

This is a scenario, of course, that has lurked in the wings ever since the EU referendum produced the result it did, with Scotland and Northern Ireland notching up substantial majorities for Remain. Victory for Leave was only achieved thanks to the vast numerical superiority of England. The UK of June 2016 was already a disunited Kingdom.

Where others concerned about the Union’s future have focused on the prospects for an independent Scotland or a united Ireland, however, Lidington turned to the English. “In England,” he told The Times, “I think that there is an indifference to the Union, a sense of taking for granted. It is something that is there as part of the landscape rather than something that you’ve really got to make a conscious effort to work to sustain.”

His argument, however, presupposes that there is support among the English in general, and English Conservatives in particular, for preserving the Union, and that the English are just not paying attention. But is this so?

A recent YouGov poll produced the startling finding that members of the Conservative Party across Great Britain had leaving the European Union as their absolute priority – and if that meant the break-up of the Union, well, so be it.

Some 63% of those polled said they wanted Brexit to happen even if it meant Scotland would vote for independence, while 59% said they wanted Brexit, even if it precipitated a united Ireland. That Unionist element, as in “Conservative and Unionist”, it would seem, might not be as deeply rooted as many believe.

But could the “indifference” of the English really foster, or even contribute, to the break-up of the UK? Those who disagree might cite the unusual flexibility of the UK’s institutions and argue that the varying forms of devolved government introduced by Blair’s Labour government in the late 1990s have in fact enabled the UK to muddle along with the Union intact.

That is one way of looking at what is now going on. But there is another – and, for those who prize the Union, it is far less comforting.

The old Soviet Union, while obviously very different from today’s UK in almost every way, was analogous in one significant, structural, respect. It was a country that that purported to be a federation, even as one of its constituent republics – the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic as it was known then – was as dominant as England is in the UK. The RSFSR was nominally just one of 15 republics, but it accounted for more than three-quarters of the USSR’s territory and more than half of its population and GDP, creating a federation that was out of balance, to say the least.

There is another parallel with England, too. Despite the dominance of ‘their’ republic in the Soviet Union, Russians could legitimately claim to be under-represented and under-valued, echoing complaints made by the English in the UK. Of the 15 Soviet republics, the RSFSR was alone for much of the USSR’s existence in not having its own Communist Party organisation or any permanent assembly or executive to represent its interests.

So long as regional aspirations were held in check and Moscow essentially ruled each republic through proxies, this went generally unchallenged. Russia and the Soviet Union could be regarded as essentially the same. Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and President of the Soviet Union, but also, de facto, leader of Russia.

As national aspirations grew, however, and Gorbachev’s glasnost (transparency) and perestroika (restructuring) made it possible for such sentiments to be expressed, Russia and Russians began to air their resentment. Once upon a time, their lack of direct representation could have been parried with the argument that Russia and Russians ruled, so they did not need their own institutions. Suddenly, though, they did.

Compare this to the UK. When Scottish devolution prompted new calls for England to have its own parliament, the disparity between England and the rest was advanced as the main reason why not. England’s dominance was so great, it was argued, that the UK could never be a genuine federation along the lines of, say, Germany. England’s Parliament was Westminster, even if it was shared.

When the calls could no longer be ignored, the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, proposed a compromise that entailed a more federated national structure with regional assemblies for England. This, however, was roundly rebuffed by the North East, which had been designated the pioneer. This looked less like representation for England than divide and rule. Devolution has been limited to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to this day.

The fate of the Soviet Union stands as a salutary example of what could happen next, and why David Lidington’s warning about the attitude of the English to the Union is so apposite. For break-up is not only about separatism at the periphery. It is also about the capacity, even the will, of the centre to hold.

The collapse of the Soviet Union is commonly ascribed to the unsustainability of the planned economy, the iniquities of Soviet communism, incipient bankruptcy forced by the USSR’s (vain) effort to keep up with the United States militarily, and growing separatism in some (but not all) of the constituent republics. Often disregarded, though, is another factor that played a big, even decisive, role: the frustrated national sentiment of the Russian majority.

Far from feeling privileged, many Russians felt that the other – mostly poorer – republics were a drag on their own well-being and development. A Rand Corporation report of 1991, published before the Soviet collapse, identified “a strong movement for self-assertion among the Russian people” and saw some of the writing on the wall.

Boris Yeltsin, the quintessential Russian in so many ways, gave voice to that resentment. He rode the wave of Russian aspiration, claiming the chairmanship of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet (a hitherto toothless legislature) in 1990 and winning the new post of President of the RFSFR a year later in a direct election. The RSFSR also set up its own Communist Party structure. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.

In championing the interests of the Russian Republic, Yeltsin found himself challenging, and then destroying, central, Soviet power. But this happened not just because of his force of character – though that was a consideration. It was also the reality that Russia could never be just one constituent republic of a genuine federation, or even first among equals. It was too big and too dominant in every way.

Within months of the RFSFR Supreme Soviet gaining real, in theory devolved, power, Russia’s new and revamped institutions were vying for precedence with their Soviet equivalents. Through the autumn of 1991, sections of power transferred almost by the day from the Soviet organs of state to those of Russia. Key personnel and money followed.

We have not yet reached that situation of dual, rival power in the UK, in part because England does not have the institutions that might allow it to realise its ambitions. But just as the part played in the Soviet break-up by frustrated Russian nationalism should not be underestimated, nor should the extent to which Brexit has been an English phenomenon, representing frustrated English national sentiment at not having its own institutional voice, unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Not to be underestimated either is the part in the Soviet break-up that was played by Russians’ indifference towards the Union. There came a point when Russia, as the dominant republic of a lop-sided federation, whose citizens felt they had been neglected by the centre and milked by the periphery for decades, lacked the will to keep the federal show on the road.

Brexiteers might note that the story of post-Soviet Russia has been the story of Russia’s national rebirth, with all the pluses and minuses that entails.

The English voice in the Brexit process might have been muted, but very similar forces are in play: unrepresentative state structures, a lop-sided devolution and an aggrieved majority. Giving the Russian Republic real devolved power contributed directly to the Soviet collapse. But not doing so is unlikely to have saved the Union, because by then Russia was – to use David Lidington’s word – profoundly “indifferent”, if not actually hostile, to keeping the Union intact.

This, quite as much as any move by Scotland or Northern Ireland to leave, is what could precipitate the break-up of the United Kingdom, too.

Mary Dejevsky was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.