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
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.
For Americans with no immediate emotional stake in either Scottish nationalism or the survival of British identity, there are two questions. The first is what we are to make of the general disintegration of larger political units into smaller ones on the basis of claims of group identity such as nationality or ethnicity-of which the break-up of Britain is one special case. In terms of universally valid political principles, is this to be celebrated or deplored? The second question is the narrower one of what Americans should think about Britain’s possible break-up in terms of their own national interest.
It is clearly impossible to make a general political judgement about the breakdown of larger political units; this depends on the nature of the larger unit and of the smaller ones which emerge from it. Certainly no one would celebrate the multinational communist empires constituted by the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, but one would certainly deplore the politics of Belarus or Serbia and argue that imperial breakdown meant political regression in both cases.
Nairn, and other proponents of Scottish independence, make the point, quite correctly, that the Scottish case has little in common with these former communist successor states, much less with the various Rwandas of the world. Group identity based on nationality or ethnicity is always troubling from a liberal point of view, because it implies some degree of non-universalism and exclusivity. But, as in the case of Qu?bec, an independent Scotland would remain a liberal democracy embedded in a host of institutions (such as Nafta in Qu?bec’s case, or the EU in Scotland’s) which will guarantee its essentially open and tolerant character. As an acquaintance of mine put it, nationalism of the sort manifested in Qu?bec or Scotland is “a game played at the end of history”: its assertiveness can be very annoying (as when shopkeepers in Alberta or Manitoba are forced to put up signs in French), but it leaves the basic institutions of modernity intact. Its main vulnerability is that once you have moved away from genuinely liberal principles of political union to principles based on ethnicity or culture, it is hard to know where to stop. The Qu?becois want autonomy for themselves, but are reluctant to grant it to indigenous peoples who have a legitimate claim to a large part of the province’s territory.
The other side of the coin concerns the nature of the larger political unit threatened with break-up; here again Nairn has a point. The British state has been far too centralised for its own good-and encrusted with “legacy” institutions which no one would choose if they could build the constitution from the ground up. It is not, of course, anything like the Austro-Hungarian empire, much less the former Soviet Union. But among modern democracies, the combination of a parliamentary system and a first-past-the-post electoral system has given Westminster a kind of dictatorial authority unchecked by any other source of power-not by a presidency, or by a supreme court, or by regional governments; least of all by local administrations. Executive power in Britain has been much stronger than in France, despite the presidentialism of the Fifth Republic and France’s history of bureaucratic centralisation.
It is a testament to British good sense that this concentrated authority has not been abused more than it has, but it does mean that changes in party rule at the top have permitted more dramatic shifts in policy than in a divided-government system like that of the US. This allowed Britain, for example, to build up a particularly rigid form of welfare corporatism under various postwar Labour governments, and then to shift sharply to the right under Margaret Thatcher. (Indeed, part of the pressure for devolution in Scotland came from the inability of the Scots to hold on to their overwhelmingly social democratic political preferences in the face of 18 years of Tory rule from London.) The British government can restrict individual liberties, limit access to official secrets, and so on, in ways which would be intolerable to most Americans. It is no surprise that the 13 colonies, having experienced British rule at first-hand, got tired of it and created a system deliberately designed to weaken the central government’s power.
With regard to legacy institutions like the House of Lords and the monarchy, it is hard for me to see how their function as bearers of tradition and continuity for the British state outweigh their negative influence as the underpinnings of what still seems, from the outside, to be an excessively stratified class system. The one bit of grudging credit Nairn gives to Margaret Thatcher concerns her efforts to undermine this system by projecting meritocracy and middle class values into the heart of the establishment. This is a social revolution that needs to be completed through changes in the institutions which give it legitimacy. Of course it is easy for an American casually to recommend discarding centuries of tradition. (Or perhaps not. There is actually a deeply-rooted middle class American Anglophilia-manifest in the high proportion of British-produced serials on American public television, and America’s Diana cult- which would be deeply distressed by abolition of the British monarchy. To the end, Americans were much more impressed by the fact that Diana was a princess than that she was the people’s princess.)
The fact that Scottish nationalism is not extreme and the British system is overcentralised does not, however, clinch the argument that the break-up of Britain is inevitable or desirable. Nairn tries to make this case on both a normative and factual basis, but neither is convincing. Scottish nationalism can be perfectly well accommodated within a more decentralised system, like many other nationalities around the world, Belgium and Switzerland being local European examples. Nairn implies that the national idea, once allowed to express itself, follows an inevitable life-course which must mature into a demand for full sovereignty. This seemed to be the case in earlier multinational empires, but the prison in which these nations were trapped were much less accommodating than contemporary Britain. Having watched the ebb and flow of Qu?bec nationalism over 30 years, it seems to me foolish to assert confidently that such “modern” nationalisms have any necessary internal logic to them whatever. While emotion is always present in such decisions, a host of pragmatic concerns, such as exchange rates, cross-subsidies, and who will speak for you, always weigh on the minds of those voting for independence.
the narrower issue created by the possible break-up of Britain concerns its impact on American interests. Here, I think, it would unequivocally be a bad thing. It is true, as Nairn and many other observers have noted, that the idea of Britishness was from the first bound up with the empire. The advantages of union to the non-English nationalities was the access it gave them to the markets and political opportunities of a realm which encompassed nearly a third of the human race-something for which many were willing to trade their right to local self-governance. With the empire finished and Britain increasingly embedded within the EU, the argument goes, the advantages of union have all but disappeared. Scotland can be just as rich as an independent member of the EU. Size used to matter in a world of competitive nation-states, but the world is more secure now, and inward-looking. Ireland and Norway are arguably better off because they’re small.
But this assumes that there are no more important political projects for Britain to undertake as a great power-and that even if there were the Scots would not want to play along. This belies recent history: even without an empire, Britain has played a role in world politics which is disproportionate to its size and weight in the global economy: during the cold war the “special relationship” between the US and Britain was instrumental in keeping Nato together following the French departure. Margaret Thatcher shored up George Bush’s resolve during the Gulf war, and Tony Blair made a valiant but ultimately vain effort to do something similar for Clinton during the Kosovo campaign last year.
Were Scotland to break away, Britain’s already reduced influence would almost certainly shrivel further. One could argue that, given Scotland’s small size (5m people compared with England’s 47m), this would not matter much; the US submarines at Holy Loch could find another berth, and Scotland has few of the listening posts which remain an important part of the infrastructure of the special relationship. I doubt that we would revert to the time of Mary Queen of Scots and see a revival of a Scottish-French alliance, but an independent Scotland would be less reliable as an American ally than Scotland as part of Britain has been. Complaints voiced in Scotland over its soldiers serving in Kosovo may be harbingers of things to come.
Moreover, a break-up of Britain might have a profound psychological effect on the English. The British do not merely see themselves as an outsize Switzerland which happens to be an island; they have always considered themselves one of the movers of world politics. The transition from Britain to England could mean a turn inward, and a concentration on problems of English identity, as occured in the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia.
Both the argument from first principles and the argument from the standpoint of American interests suggest that Americans should support what the Blair government is trying to do. Its programme of gradual devolution within the context of an intact British state is one which is morally supportable, practically attainable, and in the foreign policy interests of what has been Britain’s historically most important ally. Nairn’s view of Blair as Nero, fiddling while Rome burns, strikes me as a bit ridiculous.
What about the other qualities of Nairn’s book? After Britain’s jacket blurb explains that it is a “mordantly funny” survey of New Labour’s Britain. Nairn compares Labour’s theorists to the young couple in James Cameron’s Titanic, “standing boldly on the prow of the great ship, gazing forward to infinite horizons,” which, he points out, is pretty safe because “nothing is visible” there. He also notes how “this tri-secular inheritance from the English and Scottish Revolutions did contain a deadly weakness in its very brain-stem, which now flowered into Blairism.” After Britain is full of such turns of phrase.
I suppose this kind of cleverness will seem “mordantly funny” to Scottish ex-Marxists who don’t like Tony Blair or Britain’s centre-left government. But it very quickly becomes tiresome to just about everyone else. There is what we who live in Washington DC call an “inside the Beltway” tone in Nairn’s writing, an allusiveness which presupposes immersion in the politics of both Westminster and Holyrood. This kind of book is minimally informative to those outside this particular Beltway and, I suspect, to many of those inside it too.
An obvious question raised by Nairn’s book concerns why so many former Marxists around the world-from Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuck to Tom Nairn-have turned nationalist since the fall of the Berlin Wall. My immediate suspicion is that they are simply pursuing power over principle. Having been on the wrong side of the last great turn in world politics, they don’t want to miss out on the current one. Nairn himself argues, in effect, that Scottish nationalism simply reflects a demand for democracy, for popular representation for a nation which since 1707 was never really allowed to be itself. But there are good reasons why Marxists and nationalists have been uneasy partners and, more often than not, outright enemies. The left has traditionally been devoted to universal values and a belief in an undifferentiated human equality. Anyone believing in such universal values should think twice before denouncing political leaders who stand up for institutions founded on civic rather than cultural or ethno-linguistic principles.
The desire to preserve one’s cultural identity is perfectly understandable in a globalising McWorld where the underlying economic and technological forces tend towards homogeneity. But at the same time, the emergence of identity politics in the form of demands for recognition of cultural groups of smaller and smaller scope should trouble both Marxists and conventional liberals, because it contains the seeds of many future problems. The record of truly multicultural societies (as opposed to assimilationist ones) has been pretty spotty over the years. The US has tied itself into knots over multiculturalism in recent years, and many Americans now realise that a common political identity has great benefits (as the vote for Proposition 227 in California banning bilingual education two years ago indicates). I don’t know whether Scotland has its equivalent of the Inuits of Qu?bec, or, indeed, what other ways there may be to slice the identity pie in other parts of the British Isles. But if such groups don’t exist now, the logic of identity politics dictates that they will invent themselves at some point in the future. And at that point, people may well regret that they threw over British identity too casually.