|THE SNP’s COMBINATION of electoral success and internal chaos has been well documented. But one result of the Salmond-Sturgeon psychodrama is that we risk ignoring a yawning crisis of unionism. This was highlighted by further resignations from Boris Johnson’s “Union unit” last week. As with the ongoing SNP soap opera, personality clashes masked a deeper crisis of purpose. Nobody, not even those savvy Vote Leave veterans, seems capable of telling a story of what Britain is about.|
Once upon a time, British identity was founded in granite specificity: it was about the Empire and Protestantism, Queen and Country. But those have been of declining significance since the fifties, which, not coincidentally, was when the Scottish Conservative/Unionist vote reached its peak. Latterly, Britishness was replanted in welfarism against the backdrop of wartime unity. However, the idea of a benevolent redistributive state has been retreating since the twin discoveries of North Sea oil and monetarism.
As Michael Keating observed on Sunday, the unionist prospectus today is altogether thin. We are asked to hold firm to “British values” defined as “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs”. That poses dual problems. On the one hand, it sounds like banal HR speak, running scared of saying anything specific enough to offend. Indeed, it feels ironically like some half-formed Brussels claptrap, precisely the sort of politically-correct humbug that Johnson himself would have mocked.
On the other hand, the very blandness is itself offensive: are the above values contradictory to those of the SNP? Is the British Government necessarily a better embodiment of the rule of law than the Irish government? Or the Swedes? Or any other advanced capitalist democracy?
Efforts to revive and reformulate Britishness are a neurotic counterpart to devolution. Witness the era of “Cool Britannia” and “People’s Princesses” under New Labour. Gordon Brown was savvy enough to realise that such thin gruel was too insubstantial to join four incoherent national projects. The result was a succession of efforts to revive interest in the Commonwealth, with Brown himself touring round Africa talking up Empire, while Tony Blair readied new “humanitarian interventions” on grounds that would have been startling similar to his liberal imperialist predecessors. Yet that spirit of Britain as the crusading “internationalist” had its counterpart in a more narrow vision: Britain closing its doors to “bogus asylum seekers” and “Islamic terrorists”.
Johnson’s government tries to square the same circle. Brexit seems to suggest a plebeian nostalgia for closed borders (to liberal alarmists, “fascism” is at hand). Conversely, the underlying aim of Brexiteers, outlined in such infamous documents as Britannia Unchained, is a higher project of globalisation: “Singapore on Thames”, and a revival of Commonwealth trade links in a world of European decline. Johnson’s multiethnic cabinet also defies suggestions of an Enoch Powell-style regression. It’s thus rather better to see the banal continuity that links Johnson’s national project to earlier modes of Britishness.
Emptier still are those efforts to revive a “federal Britain”. As Keating observes, such projects like run aground of the fact that English people have no interest in federal projects – for perfectly legitimate reasons. Little passion attaches itself to such nebulous units as “North East England”. The basic problem with such formulations is providing a technocratic, Fabian fix to a democratic problem and a crisis of legitimacy in state managers. It’s like referring a failing domestic marriage to a human resources consultant.
Independence still faces a raft of issues, which are arguably the true foundations of the Sturgeon-Salmond affair (see this account from another of Scotland’s constitutional experts). But let’s not fall for a contrary delusion. There is no hope of reviving an all-UK democratic project under the current constitutional framework. And the current crisis of capitalism – stagnation, inequality, coronavirus, climate – demands a democratic revolution.
There were further resignations from Boris Johnson’s “Union unit” last week. As with the ongoing SNP soap opera, personality clashes masked a deeper crisis of purpose. Nobody seems capable of telling a story of what Britain is about.