WHEN A BIG BEAST of Gordon Brown’s calibre says the UK risks becoming a “failed state”, he will have chosen his words carefully. That term normally refer to countries like Zimbabwe, where consensual political order has collapsed, rather than an advanced capitalist state with permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
Yet as if to highlight Brown’s point, a poll over the weekend suggested that voters in both Scotland and Northern Ireland favour referendums on the breakup of Britain. The prospect of state collapse, whether orderly or disorderly, remains very real. That said, theoretical possibilities are one thing. Making it happen is quite another. States of Britain’s standing don’t just topple of their own accord. Any breakup of a venerable old imperial power requires concerted political agency – a plan, in short.
On Sunday, the SNP published its roadmap for independence, outlining, for the first time, how the party would handle Boris Johnson’s expected resistance to a legally-sanctioned referendum. Unfortunately, the outcome has been underwhelming and seems unlikely to win over the growing band of internal critics.
Most of the 11-point plan simply rationalises existing actions and approaches. “If the SNP takes office the Scottish Government will again request a Section 30 order from the UK Government believing and publicly contending that in such circumstances there could be no moral or democratic justification for denying that request,” it states. “If the UK Government were to adopt such a position its position would be unsustainable both at home and abroad.”
The issue, not acknowledged in the roadmap, is that the SNP Government has already achieved numerous “mandates” without the UK Government or the Labour opposition (minus a short phase in 2019) quaking in their boots. Since then, Labour’s position has hardened, as the party has moved back to the right. And their post-2021 election stance is becoming clear. The SNP has promised to hold a referendum once the pandemic is over, a position backed by public opinion. In that event, Labour’s stance will be delay: they will argue, the pandemic is not over until the economic emergency is over. The snag being that the economic damage of the pandemic will outlive the next parliamentary term…
The only real advance in the SNP’s document is a promise to take the challenge to the courts. However, as observed in the Scotsman, this contains something of a contradiction. The SNP leadership wants a referendum that “must be beyond legal challenge”, but has signalled that a legal challenge is precisely what will happen. There is an understandable desire to portray the transition to independence in the most consensual and consenting of terms. However, given what we know of the UK Government, this reassurance risks becoming actively misleading.
Equally, if there are contradictions in the SNP’s roadmap, the Union roadmap is a mess. As reported below, the Conservatives have collaborated with Brown on their own plans for combatting growing support for independence. Much of this is cringe inducing: plans include presenting a “warmer and more multicultural” image of the UK and challenging the “woke left” view that the Union is a hangover of Empire…
Anyone observing these rival plans can only conclude that the next parliamentary term will be dominated by unresolvable constitutional battles. Unionists have no plan to destroy the SNP; and the SNP have nothing like a foolproof programme to weaken unionist resistance. This increases the chances of Brown’s gloomy prediction coming true: the same old deadlock, accompanied by a breakdown in consensual order, with little prospect of a happy resolution.