Preserving the UK?

My essay two weeks ago on the challenge of preserving the UK, and the importance if this is to be achieved of addressing the question of England, how it is governed, and how it relates to the UK and the other three home nations, produced a bigger postbag than any of my articles for at least the last five years, back at least to the EU referendum in 2016.

Strikingly (and despite a relatively international readership for my pieces), the replies came almost exclusively from people who would I suspect identify as English. And even more strikingly, they were almost all on the theme not so much of “What will it take to keep the Union together?”, as I had positioned my essay a fortnight ago, as “What is the reason for trying to preserve the Union at all?” It was a surprise to me, I confess, to hear so many English voices asking this question.

A good place to start in response is to consider why the Union was formed in the first place, and what has sustained it (very successfully) for most of its existence to date.

What then was the Anglo-Scottish federation for (for with all due respect to Wales and Northern Ireland, this is the heart of the Union and also the link most at risk)? For England in 1707, the attraction was the resolution of an external problem: a hostile Scotland could create trouble for the northern English counties (and had done so countless times over the previous 500 years), and offered a dangerous back door into England for any continental power seeking to invade. The Union therefore solved an English defensive weakness at acceptable cost; it was a relatively straightforward matter which did not change England itself very much.

For Scotland, the rationale was different. By 1705 Scotland was effectively bankrupt (the Darien project, an ambitious colonisation project in central America, had failed miserably and had swallowed 25% of the country’s GDP), and increasingly its best and brightest were migrating to England. The aristocracy of Scotland were facing ruin as their currency devalued (by 1705 one English pound bought 12 Scots pounds), the climate was turning against them (the mini ice age which gave the ice fairs on the Thames and the snowy Victorian winters we are so familiar with from Christmas cards), their agriculture was failing, they had no money to invest in industry and the English were becoming more aggressive at raiding their merchant ships and destroying their trade.

The deal England offered the Scottish aristocracy was very simple: personal financial rescue (debts made good by the English exchequer at the artificial exchange rate of £1 sterling for each £1 Scots), seats in parliament at Westminster (House of Lords for the titled, House of Commons for the gentry), and England’s navy defending not attacking their trade. For this the Scots elite sold their country’s sovereignty.

This win-win solution explains why the Union was formed. The ordinary people of Scotland were never asked their opinion, and if they had been it would probably have been hostile. And the Highlands were undoubtedly and implacably hostile, which led to the 1715 rebellion – in theory an uprising to support a Scots pretender to the throne, but only possible because the clans were so hostile to the union with England to start with and therefore ready to rise up on any pretence. But the Union survived the rebellion, and also a similar one in 1745.

Note though that right from the start it was an unequal union, and not just because England was many times the size and had many times the wealth of Scotland. Fundamentally, England solved an external problem (its defensive weakness) and was little changed internally, while Scotland solved an internal problem (its bankruptcy) and was changed entirely.

Nevertheless, and whether or not it is actually “the most successful union of two states in history”, as the English claim with that characteristic lack of modesty they are known for, the Union not only survived but prospered.  What sustained it for the best part of the next 250 years was the project of Empire, building the world’s pre-eminent superpower and then running a quarter of the globe.  The Scots, by virtue of the Union, were offered a chance to take part in this project, and in fact contributed disproportionally to its success.  Put simply, being part of the UK gave Scotland, and ambitious Scots, a platform they would not otherwise have had.

So to the present day, and the question of “what is it that will keep England and Scotland together?” Neither the economic reason that drove Scotland into England’s arms in 1707 nor the project of Empire that kept the two countries together for over 200 years thereafter now exist. But it is not immediately obvious what new reason for the Union has arisen to take their place, what benefit England and Scotland, indeed any of the four nations, derive from its continuation.

This is a question that the three smaller nations in the Union have been asking themselves for much longer than most people realise[1]. But it is not one that the English have hitherto given much thought to. Indeed in most English minds the fact that there is a Union at all is not obvious, with the distinction between “England” and “the UK” somewhat blurred and the terms used almost interchangeably[2]. And even when they have thought about the Union, for most people in England it has up until quite recently been seen to be axiomatically a Good Thing, and therefore Worth Preserving.

But it does now seem that there is a growing realisation in English minds that the Union is not inevitable or immutable. And it is a short step from that, to asking whether it is in England’s interest to stay part of it.  And this revolves around how England fits into any revitalised UK.

There is no doubt that the question of the governance of England and its relationship with a reformed Union – which I touched upon in my previous essay but did not offer any solution to – is very difficult to resolve. Any federal UK would always face the challenge that the English are over 80% of the population of the UK, and well over 85% of its GDP. This situation, this dominance of a federation by one of its components, would be without any parallel in history: the largest “sub-units” of a federal state – if one ignores the extreme cases of Trinidad and Tobago, and Zanzibar’s link with mainland Tanzania – are widely considered to be Ontario in Canada (40% of the whole) and New South Wales in Australia (32%), and nothing like the position that England would have in a federal UK has ever been seen[3].

It is not at all clear how a federal UK with one very dominant member (who would moreover in most economic scenarios be permanently transferring money to the other three) would operate. But any attempt to provide a more balanced union by splitting England into smaller units would simply not work at all;  it has been a single country and, jokes about northerners and southerners apart, a single people for nearly 1,100 years, and there is no appetite that I can see for breaking it up, and very little for regional assemblies – the last Labour government tried to introduce them some 15 years ago but failed completely to generate any support for them.

It is this reality that those wishing to preserve the Union need to counter. Whatever the economic arguments for being stronger together – and unionists will certainly make the economic case, but as countless separations have shown, from the personal tragedy of divorce to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, economics seldom prevails in emotional decisions – any possible union of the four home nations (for example in a looser more federal UK) will never be a partnership of equals, because of the respective sizes and wealth of the four countries. It would be uncomfortable and unsatisfying for the three smaller nations, because England would always dominate it. And it would in the end be unsatisfying for England too: quite apart from being a financial drain (which a more visible English government would draw attention to) and constraint on their actions, even the English will eventually tire of being resented by the other three. And this would lead to a union which not only the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish would have reasons to leave, but so would the English.

I started this trilogy of essays from the point of view that the Union of the UK was at risk, and that the risks were greater than many in England seemed to realise. This led to my second piece, in which I considered some of the reforms to the governance of the UK that would in my view be necessary for the Union to survive. Feedback from those two pieces has led to further thought, not so much on how the Union can survive as to the more fundamental question of whether it should at all, and who benefits from its continuation.

This last is a question which has been debated in the three smaller nations for some time, but which is now starting to be asked in England as well, and the Conservative party – which has had a strong English Nationalist fringe for a number of years – is no longer alone in asking it. And the more one thinks about the question, and the more I read the many comments from my readers – by no means all rabid England-firsters – the more difficult it is to avoid the thought that there is not in fact very much to keep the Union together at all except sentiment, tradition and a fear that it will be tedious to dismantle it.

And if those are the main reasons for defending the Union, it will not survive.


[1]              The case of Northern Ireland is sui generis, as the people of Ulster were forced to consider the issue of whether to remain in the UK by the creation of the Irish Free State 100 years ago. But in Scotland too, the debate over the value of the Union is longstanding – the SNP was formed in 1934, 87 years ago, and Winnie Ewing, its first MP, won election to Westminster as long ago as 1967.

[2]              Most obviously when referring to the national central bank, which is of course the Bank of England not, for example, the Central Bank of the UK. But it runs much wider than this, including to the national cricket side, which is called “England” despite representing the whole of the UK (and despite in the last 50 years alone having at various times been captained by a Scotsman, a Welshman, an Irishman and a number of South Africans).

[3]              The most dominant sub-unit in a major state in history was the RSFSR – the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic – which was about 65% of the USSR. The USSR proved unable to survive conflict in 1991 between the central government, led by Gorbachev, and the Russian government, led by Yeltsin; ominously for those who propose a federal UK with a self-governing England as one of the components, it was the central government that collapsed, leading directly to the break-up of the Soviet Union. (I am grateful to Andrew Rozanov for this observation from history).