November 18, 2020

There is a dispiriting, late Habsburg air to British politics at the moment, a sense that the old order is collapsing and no one in charge has any idea what to do to arrest it — if, indeed, anyone in Downing Street is actually in charge. The online jubilation of unionists upon seeing the latest poll from Scotland, indicating that our wavering compatriots wish to leave by a slimmer margin than previously, is depressing in itself.

That the Government is under pressure from the national and not just the Scottish press for calling devolution a disaster is a similarly depressing sign. Of course devolution was a disaster, for the British state: that was the express intention of the Scottish nationalists when they demanded it. If Blair’s intention was to arrest Scotland’s steady march towards secession, then the results were clearly yet another, and perhaps the most dangerous, of the many slow-fused time bombs he emplaced beneath the structure of the United Kingdom.

There are four possible outcomes now, and none of them is especially attractive: the first is that Scotland leaves the union, and the pieces fall where they will; the second is that Scotland’s government is persuaded to stay under the same roof, in the fraught and loveless cohabitation we are now accustomed to; the third is that we plunge headlong into a great constitutional reordering, a full confederalisation of the United Kingdom, incorporating either an English parliament, or an England broken into pieces small enough to assuage the periphery; and the last is that London calls last orders on the devolution experiment and rings the bell for Westminster rule once more.

The last idea, popular among some online Unionists, though far beyond the bounds of reality, would call for the dramatic reassertion of the power of the central state, a high-stakes gamble by the executive that the powers relinquished with such fanfare a generation ago can be suddenly reclaimed without aggravating crisis. Decisive as the idea may be, the hurdles it faces are most likely unsurmountable.

No matter how bloodlessly and bureaucratically the task was carried out, revoking devolution would surely inflame Scottish sentiment to a degree no Westminster government could long survive. Would the Scottish police, like their Catalan counterparts, put down the street protests that would likely ensue? If anything, Westminster is dependent on the Spanish state to wield the metaphorical baton for it, by blocking Scottish entry to the EU for fear of the precedent it would establish for its own separatist nations. 

But Britain is not Spain, and the idea of sending English police north of the border to shutter the Scottish parliament is unthinkable, not so much for any legal reasons but because the reaction of the London press would soon make the entire country ungovernable. The wave of political mania unleashed by Brexit, with its entire cast of resistance QCs and online political celebrities, buoyed by the grey-haired legions of Guildford and St Albans, would be dwarfed by the derangement unleashed by so stirring and romantic a cause; and a good proportion, perhaps a majority, of the English electorate would feel more sympathy for the Scots trying to escape Westminster’s rule than the government trying to enforce it.

This option must, then, surely be struck off the list of potential outcomes, at least as a choice for Westminster: yet if the Scottish government decides to hold an independence referendum against London’s will, as the Catalans did, surely these exact same dynamics would play out, and with the same results. The option to escalate is in Scottish hands and not English ones: Westminster is forced to stake the union’s existence on a hand no one would ever have chosen.

For those of us in what is irritatingly called the rump UK, clearly the time has come to make hard and serious decisions about our political future, before fecklessness and entropy make them for us. Could an independent England be a solution? If collapse is inevitable, or even probable, should we not start planning the successor state now, rather than leave it to be hashed out haphazardly in the courts and the press?

If the loss of Scotland would be painful, that of the Westminster apparatus would at least be some kind of liberation. At one stroke, if handled well, Westminster and all its baggage could be cut adrift and replaced with a more coherent and streamlined government, both closer to and less despised by the electorate.

An independent England would, it must be said, be a weaker state than we are accustomed to. Scotland possesses unique strategic and (through the solicitous self-interest of Labour governments past) industrial capacities necessary to maintaining our place among the upper-second tier of world powers. Perhaps a smaller, more inward-looking, even more Scandinavian England would not be a tragedy: we would be richer, for one thing, and we can always hope that the final severing of world power status would force a future English government to devote the attention to industry and infrastructure that has been neglected for so many decades.

For Tories, there is the minor consolation that an independent England would at least be a significantly more conservative polity than the UK, and a less congenial political home to the London media class cheering on our nation’s dissolution out of some strange and self-negating sense of Brexit schadenfreude. A divorce would be sad, of course — they always are — but some good may come of it, eventually. Perhaps it is England’s destiny to be born not with any great burst of enthusiasm, but with a shrug of resignation, and only after all other options have been exhausted. 

If such a breach is too much to bear, then we are left with the alternatives of keeping things as they are, and hoping that the Scottish electorate changes its collective mind, or with the grand experiment of confederation. An English parliament in the singular, or a collection of regional ones, all within a looser union, would effectively mean a trial separation, and would at least offer the benefit of allowing England some meaningful practice in governing herself, for herself, before she is forced to do so by events out of her control.

If it meant the shuttering of Westminster, this would be no catastrophe in itself: a certain contempt for the inhabitants of the Gothic confection on the Thames is one of the few things that unites this country politically, and its mothballing might offer a rare moment of national consensus. 

Federalism could come in many different forms: a unitary English state within a loose union, an England broken into regions or even counties, or even a parallel reconfiguration of Scotland and Wales, so that across the entire country local governance take the place of nationalist fervour and sullen resentment. The idea should be seriously discussed, at least, before the moment for compromise is lost: yet whether a Westminster long-regretting devolution and an Edinburgh already scenting nationhood could accept such a half-way house, and its diminishment of both their power, is surely doubtful.

In truth, none of the options available to us is appealing, but then the status quo is not sustainable either. It is intolerable that the political future of the entire nation is kept waiting on the finely-balanced whims of four million Scottish voters. One way or another, the situation that currently exists must be resolved. If the Government intends to make the case for the union, then it should do so now, and not leave the great ship of state drifting rudderless to crash where it will.

Trusting that the narrow economic self-interest of the Scottish electorate will make the case for the union on its behalf is madness: lurid warnings of economic disaster did not sway England’s voters away from Brexit, as Johnson well knows. The case for Scotland’s independence is a romantic one, like that of all nationalisms, and though the SNP shrinks from comparison to its sharper-clawed counterparts, it is a nationalist movement like any other, whose strange and irrational impulses will likely override any measured arguments made by Downing Street. 

Yet even if the Government devotes itself to maintaining the Union, it is long past time to begin planning for what comes after its collapse. Its heartland is in England, and England has been ignored in this debilitating psychodrama for far too long. Perhaps the birth of England as a coherent political entity will stave off rupture by proving to wavering Scottish voters that the stakes are real; perhaps it will do the opposite, and convince the nationalists that history is on their side; we do not know.

But a sober appreciation of the options available to the Government must surely underline that the responsible task ahead of it is to limit the damage that a disorderly and contested breakup of our nation will entail. Johnson is unlikely to go down in history in the manner he intended, but he can at least salvage something for the nation in the decisions he takes now, by preparing a working lifeboat for the mass of his electorate as we rush towards the rocks ahead.