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Artillery Row

Face facts: the Union is a dead duck

English nationalism is returning from its long slumber, ready to stand proud once again

I have never understood why the term “Little Englander” is considered the ultimate political insult. In any event, whether the vast majority of Britain’s population who live south of Hadrian’s Wall like it or not, it is a label that we had better get used to, for the Union is surely doomed.

I was born British – a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and was happy to be so. But that political construct is clearly coming unstuck at the seams, and we should start to think about what will follow it. Today’s Union is not set in stone as an eternal verity. In fact, it is a relatively recent creation of political convenience.

Let’s consider Northern Ireland first as it is the newest component of the Union. The six county statelet came into existence exactly a century ago as what was thought to be a temporary “fix” to appease the wishes of the Protestant majority in those six counties of the province of Ulster. The Protestants didn’t wish to be part of the new Irish Free State – now the Republic of Ireland – as they feared domination by the omnipotent Roman Catholic Church.

But Northern Ireland had a substantial Catholic minority which made it inherently unstable. Discriminated against in jobs and housing, the Catholics’ discontent exploded into violence in 1968.

Three decades of murder, mayhem and terrorism, spilling over to the British mainland, followed, poisoning politics for the rest of the twentieth century. By the time the Good Friday agreement brought a halt to the savagery, most British people were heartily sick of the province’s problems and would have been glad never to hear of them again.

Surprisingly to some, the extreme polar opposites of Ulster’s divided tribes – symbolised by the unlikely partnership of the “Chuckle Brothers”, the IRA’s Martin McGuinness and the Rev. Ian Paisley – found they could rub along well enough together after all.

Meanwhile, change was afoot south of the border. The power of the Catholic Church, undermined by child abuse and unmarried mother homes scandals, went into decline. With the liberalisation of abortion, contraception, and divorce laws, the Republic today is a secular state very far removed from the reactionary, priest-ridden theocracy once rightly feared by the Protestants.

By re-joining the EU, the Scots will merely swap one master for another

The Protestant majority in Northern Ireland has been steadily whittled away by the demographic increase of the Catholic community, and within the near future they will become the majority. The growing gulf in the Irish Sea was recognised by Boris Johnson – for all his obfuscating language – when, as part of the Brexit withdrawal deal, he allowed Northern Ireland to remain inside the EU’s Single Market to avoid re-erecting a hard border and risk re-igniting the Troubles. Bearing in mind that a majority in the province voted Remain in the Brexit referendum, this means that the island of Ireland has de facto been reunited, though the political structures and parties have yet to catch up and recognise this reality.

If watching the recent history of Anglo-Ulster relations has been like witnessing the messy end of an unhappy marriage, it has been nothing compared to the fractious and long-drawn-out divorce between England and Scotland. The deterioration of the relationship probably began as long ago as the original Act of Union between the old enemies in 1707, achieved largely by English bribery and Scotland’s dire economic state after the collapse of the Darien scheme.

The milestones in the slow collapse of this unnatural union followed thick and fast. The two Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745 and the Highland clearances that followed left many Scots angry and resentful, justifying P. G. Wodehouse’s famous witticism that it is never difficult to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and a Scotsman with a grievance. A shared enthusiasm for the spoils and administration of the British Empire (and participation in both World Wars) papered over the cracks for a time until the decline of Empire. But by the 1970s – just as the Irish Troubles were erupting – grievances over “Scotland’s oil” and the election of the first SNP MPs to Westminster had relit the fires of Scottish nationalism.

The Westminster establishment tried to appease and buy off the nationalists with the sop of granting a Scottish Parliament, but this halfway house to complete independence only made the SNP more determined to achieve the full McMonty. After totally eliminating the Labour Party in its Scottish stronghold, the SNP are well on their way to creating a one-party state bent on severing ties with the Sassenachs. It is futile for Unionists to point out the economic price of cutting the cord. As we know from the Brexit referendum, emotion trumps economics, and nothing looks likely to prevent a total rupture and separation.

The sleeping spirit of English nationalism is certainly rousing from its long slumber

Brexit has proved a watershed for nationalism in all four nations of our fractured United Kingdom. As has been repeatedly pointed out (with no apparent effect): in achieving “freedom” from Westminster rule but re-joining the EU, the Scots will merely swap one master for another, exchanging the neighbouring enemy they know for a more distant ruler who will demand a high price for their adhesion – including adopting the Euro and all that will entail. The Scots should ask the Greeks, the Catalans, and indeed the Irish how much notice Brussels takes of the rights of small nations once they are absorbed by the Empire.

So, given the near certainty of separation, where does that leave the remaining two nations of the UK – the ones who voted for Brexit? As an Anglo-Welshman, educated in Wales but living in England, I am hopeful that my half-countryman west of Offa’s Dyke do not follow the path of their fellow Celts, but if they do my loyalty will be to the country of my birth rather than the land of my fathers.

The breaking up of federations composed of differing peoples can be a tragic and bloody business, as the collapse of Yugoslavia proved, and as the future unwinding of the EU may show. But in democracies, once a people are set on going their own way there is little that can be done to stop them.

The sleeping spirit of English nationalism is certainly rousing from its long slumber. Witness the plethora of St George’s flags that drew the scorn of Emily Thornberry.

If a referendum were held in England today on whether Scotland should go it alone, I am certain that a majority would not plump for keeping the Union. For centuries England was a lone entity: small, but proud and free. It seems to me that those days are returning.

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