The break-up of Britain is in the interests of neither the English, the Scots, nor the US. Scottish nationalism is "a game played at the end of history"by Francis Fukuyama / May 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
I was asked by the editors of Prospect to write about Tom Nairn’s After Britain, and the possible break-up of Britain, because they wanted an outsider’s perspective on what has been a largely inside-the-family debate. They have picked the right person, since I have been-until now-blessedly free from an excessive burden of knowledge or opinions on the question of Britain’s future. My only first-hand contact with Scottish nationalism came in 1995, when I was in St Andrew’s, shortly after a showing of Braveheart, and a couple of English students were roughed up by some overexcited Scottish filmgoers. But the United Kingdom’s future does raise some important questions about the future of world politics. It also has significant consequences for American interests.
Tom Nairn, a Scottish ex-Marxist, predicted the break-up of Britain back in 1978, in a book by the same name. The central conceit of his new book, After Britain, is that Tony Blair’s Britain is like the Austro-Hungarian empire of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Musil depicted a Vienna preparing, at the turn of the century, for a grand celebration of its empire, insouciant of its own imminent demise. The present Labour government, cloaked in a mantle of “youthism,” change and technology worship, has only served to divert attention from the fact that Britain is heading for break-up and decline just as certainly as the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The constitutional crisis facing the United Kingdom, according to Nairn, concerns not just devolution but the fact that it lacks a written constitution, retains a reformed but still obsolete House of Lords and an increasingly dysfunctional monarchy, and vests unfettered political power in parliament. These issues are interrelated: even after Scottish and Welsh devolution, the centralised nature of the British state constitutes an obstacle to any form of effective federalism which might stem the demand for Scottish or Welsh sovereignty. So does the absence of a modern upper chamber which might serve-as it does in the US and in Germany-as the voice for territorial sub-units. Nairn believes that Blair has tried to apply sticking plaster where only an axe will do. Instead of celebrating its own coolness, the government should get serious, and try to solve all these constitutional problems in one fell swoop. The break-up of Britain will benefit everyone involved, not only the Scots and Welsh, but also the English who will now be liberated to think about their identity outside the confines of an imperial state.