Disunited Kingdom: the rebirth of nations?

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Sunday 10 October, Church House, London


According to many political commentators, the break-up of the UK is becoming inevitable. When devolution was implemented in the 1990s, one of the aims of its supporters was to head off rising support for separation. But the opposite has happened, with support for Scottish independence and greater Welsh autonomy growing even stronger. In Scotland, for example, the pro-independence SNP has now won four elections on the trot and has renewed calls for another referendum. Some commentators now believe that a politicised sense of Englishness is on the rise, too.

One factor is the differential impact of the Brexit referendum. People in England and Wales voted to leave the EU while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. The situation is full of contradictions and complications. For example, people emphasising a British national identity were more likely to vote Leave in Scotland and Wales but Remain in England. Those supporting the cause of ‘independence’ in Scotland and Wales want to remain within the EU, proclaiming the importance of free movement, yet their borders were imposed during the Covid crisis. The devolved government in Scotland favours rejoining the EU, yet others wonder how that fits with the desire for self-government.

On all sides, there has been a problem of legitimacy. Those who favour keeping the Union have struggled to espouse a convincing sense of what it means to be British. The result has often been a crude attempt to manufacture a sense of Britishness. For example, the Westminster government recently announced plans are being drawn up to protect ‘distinctively British’ television programming and asked Ofcom to provide a definition of Britishness for public-service broadcasters.

Meanwhile, contrary to the tradition that the push for statehood means demanding more democracy and freedom, the devolved assemblies appear to have amplified the illiberal impulses of twenty-first-century politics. In Scotland, for example, the government has devoted much of its energy to devising new ways to monitor, control and restrict people’s day-to-day lives: criminalising football supporters, attempting to impose a ‘named person’ to monitor children’s upbringing and passing a Hate Crime Bill that opponents regard as an attack on free speech.

Forty years ago, writer Tom Nairn said that the break-up of Britain would come, not because of the strength of the independence cause in any particular part of Britain, but because of a more general fading of support for the Union. Has Nairn been proved correct? Is the real issue not a democratic surge to independence but gradual separation by attrition? That said, there are signs that perhaps the break-up of the Union is not a foregone conclusion. In recent months, for example, opinion polls have suggested that support for Scottish independence has weakened.

Perhaps the real nail in the coffin is if the English lose interest in the Union. In his book How Britain Ends, journalist Gavin Esler argues that the UK could survive Scottish and Welsh nationalism, but English nationalism is the force that will break up the Union. Is he right?

With Brexit divisions and the impact of Covid, are we witnessing the fragmentation of the Union and a new sovereignty by stealth? How substantial are the differences between the UK and devolved governments’ approaches? Do those arguing for independence or more devolution offer the genuine possibility of a democratic future? Or does this trajectory risk creating a Union based on anomalies and a patchwork of competencies, in the process undermining the viability of UK democracy?

Dr Richard Johnson
writer; lecturer in US politics, Queen Mary, University of London; author, The End of the Second Reconstruction: Obama, Trump, and the crisis of civil rights

Penny Lewis
lecturer, University of Dundee; author, Architecture and Collective Life

Alex Salmond
leader, ALBA Party; former leader, Scottish National Party; author, The Dream Shall Never Die

Christopher Snowdon
head of lifestyle economics, Institute of Economic Affairs; editor, Nanny State Index; author, Selfishness, Greed and Capitalism

Max Wind-Cowie
co-author, A Place for Pride; former head, Progressive Conservatism Project, Demos; commentator

Alastair Donald
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question