© Mike Turner

Break-up Britain: Andrew Marr on the imperilled state of the Union

Forget the froth. Deep tides are now pushing Scotland its own way, and washing against the very idea of the UK
February 26, 2021

The future of the United Kingdom will be Britain’s main political conversation as soon as this pandemic recedes. Two mottos help in thinking about it. The first is that nothing in politics is unthinkable. The end of the Union between Scotland and England could certainly happen. A centuries-old island experiment could vanish, and perhaps be swiftly followed by the reunification of Ireland.

But a second motto, and the necessary corrective, is that in politics, absolutely nothing is inevitable. The future of the UK, today, remains a live fight between volatile electorates and flawed political leaders, around which swirl myriad unresolved arguments. This isn’t over.

The existential argument about the UK is, however, very much under way (existential is an over-used term, but since we are talking about the existence of the UK it is accurate). It has taken London an astonishingly long time to start thinking seriously about the break-up of Britain. We have had many years of fingers in ears—eyes tight shut—a labial “la-la-la…” If Boris Johnson and his senior ministers are now urgently seized by the threat to the Union, all one can say is that they woke up late. The first responses—let’s set up a new cabinet committee, have meetings of proper UK ministers in Edinburgh and proconsular visits—surely fall short in terms of winning hearts and minds. The swift departure of two “Union unit” chiefs in just a few weeks, part of silly Tory faction-fighting, does not suggest much strategic determination in Downing Street. Westminster seems to have had a psychological block so strong that it can’t see what’s in front of its eyes.

But the country can see. A YouGov poll in late January published in the Sunday Times indicated that voters in all four UK nations—in England just as much as Scotland—now expect Scottish independence within 10 years. (At the same time, support for Irish reunification is growing.) The same polling also suggested that English voters are not hugely concerned. Forty five per cent were not upset—17 per cent positively said they would be pleased if Scotland went, while 28 per cent were “not bothered.” Not bothered may be complacent. The end of the UK could produce changes likely to shock many English voters. Look ahead, and surprises might seem to be the only thing you can bank on. But one thing is already clear: notwithstanding the extraordinary convulsions in the SNP, this next political crisis will begin in earnest with the Scottish parliamentary elections this spring. 

Grate Britain

The roots of the crisis go way back—through most of the 20th century. With the end of Empire and the fading of uniting wartime memory, Britishness has receded as something felt in the pulse, a hot, urgent value, and retreated into official abstraction. This is, clearly, hard for politicians to reverse. Pollsters confirm what everyday conversations suggest: being Scottish, Welsh, or even English is more likely to stir the blood than being British.

If the immediate problem for London is the headline drift in Scotland in favour of independence, the deeper concern is that the separatist view gets stronger, startlingly so, among the energised young, and it’s been hard to find an emotional counterargument. Among the very youngest voters, pro-independence opinion is nearly 75 per cent. Across all ages, 20 of the last 20 polls have shown convincing majorities for it. Nothing is inevitable. But folks, that’s a big wave building out there.

It has to be said that predictions of the UK’s break-up have been around for a long time. I made a BBC series two decades ago called The Day Britain Died. In an accompanying book, I observed “that indefinable, instantly recognisable, sense in Scotland that the country is drifting away from London rule.” 

And that was still in the days when Labour enjoyed total dominance there. Left unionism has been like a grand sandstone façade, standing somewhere in the East End of Glasgow, with chiselled windowsills and Doric columns but no internal structure or steel buttresses to hold it up. It eventually went down with a sudden roar and a vast puff of pink dust.But even in the late 90s, not long after Labour’s George Robertson had unwisely predicted that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead,” senior Labour figures were telling me in private that they knew the Union couldn’t last. 

I had moved to London by then. Almost all the friends I had left back home in Scotland had shifted towards the independence movement, if not the SNP itself. They rather pitied my self-exile in the diaspora. I heard them. Reflecting on the coming of devolution, I wrote in 1998: “There will be a constant grating in the new constitution which will fray and eventually splinter the Union, unless there is a strong determination on both sides to stop that happening. It is not clear that there is.”

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Scottish hopes and English fears? The most effective poster of the 2015 election put Labour’s Ed Miliband in the pocket of the SNP’s Alex Salmond © Mark Severn/Alamy

That’s not to toot my own bagpipe: clearly, given the intervening 20-plus years of the Union, it was, at the very least, premature as a prediction. The collapse of Labour’s Scottish hegemony was accompanied by the fast rise of the SNP in the new Edinburgh parliament (and later in Westminster). It provided a version of social democracy which, for many Scots, felt like the natural order of things. Everyone knew the SNP wanted independence one day, and—yes—the 2014 referendum was angry, combative and a close-run thing for the Unionists. But if you were a mildly patriotic Caledonian, pro-welfare-state voter, then the years of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon didn’t feel like a revolutionary break in Scottish life. 

Besides, there was that “once-in-a-generation” promise about the first referendum. When the SNP hegemony was cemented, in the 2015 general election, a second looked no more imminent than the secession of Cornwall or Wales. In power in Edinburgh, the SNP adroitly positioned itself as the familiar voice of Scotland, rather than an insurgency. In Scotland, beyond anywhere else I know, respectability matters.

Albion aggrieved

Meanwhile, right through this period, there has been an eerie English silence. It didn’t take long after the successful establishment of a Scottish parliament in 1999 for Scotland’s generous public spending settlement to start irritating English voters. It would flash up in unexpected times and places—in 2009, out of nowhere, the “English Democrat” Peter Davies was elected mayor of Doncaster. Looking back, the divergence of Labour’s performance in England and Scotland in 2010 was striking: Gordon Brown actually increased his party’s vote share and held all of his huge clutch of Scottish seats in his own home country, even as Labour fell back dramatically in England. And then remember the apparently successful poster used by David Cameron in the 2015 election, showing the Labour leader Ed Miliband in Salmond’s front pocket?

Lacking a movement to rival those of Scotland or Wales, English nationalism lay uneasily half-buried. The poetry of GK Chesterton, the rhetoric of Enoch Powell and, on the left, figures as various as Orwell (old maids bicycling in the mist) and Tony Benn (the Diggers, the Levellers, Speaker Lenthall), had insisted on distinctly English traditions, even as they were boxed-in by British institutions.

These instincts never quite vanished. At the peak of Britain’s imperial grandeur, and red-white-and-blue self-congratulation, in 1910, PH Ditchfield wrote a passionate book called Vanishing England. It pointedly quoted French writers on the coastal erosion of the white cliffs, one of whom likened the country to “a piece of sugar in water.” For a very long time, then, the retreat of Englishness was a cultural, almost private, grief. But Scottish and Welsh devolution, which made the subsidies transparent, dug it up again.

[su_pullquote]“Former prime minister Gordon Brown argues that the choice for Britain now is between a reformed state and a failed state”[/su_pullquote]

And recently what has changed things even more is Brexit. England voted to leave. Scotland voted to stay. England was bigger. England got its way. The Scottish government speaks for many of its voters when it calls this the “material change” that reopened the referendum business of 2014. During the summer of 2016, after the Brexit vote, when I was back in Scotland I repeatedly found myself having conversations with formerly anti-independence people who had changed their minds. Many of the first wave of converts, back in the 1990s, had been driven by left-right politics, including a detestation of Blairism. This second group were loyalists of Unionist parties driven to despair by the Brexit vote, seen as the first real success of English nationalism. 

These people wanted to be European more than they wanted to be British. They still didn’t like the SNP. They certainly flinched from belligerent English-haters who shouted on the streets with painted faces, or ranted on the internet. But they had moved—they would say they had been pushed—into the independence camp. And they are there still.

As for England and its nationalism, there was far more than that going on with the Brexit vote: Leavers’ motives were complex and various, running from constitutional arguments to xenophobia. But bruised English national feeling was part of the story. The politics of England are the under-discussed aspect of the Union’s future. Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones have been conducting a major polling-based study of Englishness, which finds Britishness is waning in England too. 

Henderson says this is “related to a sense of dislocation and alienation in England that we simply do not see in Scotland and Wales.” In England, anxiety (and jealousy) about Scottish devolution as well as hostility to the EU are linked. In short, they conclude, particularly when it comes to money, “the electorate in England tends to feel that it is unfairly treated.” 

Commission impossible? 

English dissatisfaction could play out in different ways—it might mean, for example, blaming the EU, rather than the English politicians who negotiated with it, for any disappointments over the trade deal. It also helps explain suggestions that senior ministers are now talking about a new constitutional settlement involving greater powers for the English regions and major conurbations: they want a bigger voice for everywhere in England except north London. At the top of the Labour Party, there is another conversation about a new federalism. The former prime minister Gordon Brown argues that the choice for Britain now is between a reformed state and a failed state and has called on Johnson to set up a Commission on democracy, leading to a “forum of the nations and regions.”

This, too, goes back to Edwardian times. In 1912, the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith, beset by turmoil in Ireland, proposed a new federal structure for Britain that he called “home rule all round.” He told the Commons that Britain had a congested centre: “We start from a Union… which has this peculiarity: that while for common purposes all its constituent members can deliberate and act together, none of them is at liberty to deal with those matters which are specially appropriate and necessary for itself, without the common consent of all.” For England, at least, that feels
pretty 2021.

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As recently as Italia 90, the Union Jack was the flag of choice for England fans; but in 21st-century tournaments © David Cannon/Allsport via Getty Images

Had it not been for the small matter of the First World War, who knows what might have happened. Ever since then, federalism has been a minority, almost an eccentric, political interest. Never say never. But persuading the entire machinery of Westminster to recast itself is a difficult undertaking that no government since Asquith’s has found remotely appealing. Nor is there a scrap of evidence that new devolution arrangements for England, which would after all be the main practical consequence of any new federal settlement, would dampen the enthusiasm of so many Scots for going it alone. 

It is encouraging for Unionists that for the first time, the Tories and Labour are discussing, albeit gingerly, the same kind of agenda. “Levelling up” is now a phrase in both parties. But it also seems hard to see why greater powers for the English regions, or recasting the House of Lords, would soothe demands for Scottish independence in Dundee or Paisley.

I’ll take the high road

The sentiment behind Scottish independence has always been about more than the allocation of resources. Nation states were a product of the early modern age, and Scotland (unlike Wales) had several hundred years of national development, with its own religious, legal and educational establishment, as well as parliament and monarchy. 

It was as much a nation as England. And after the 1707 union, the two countries ran broadly in parallel for a long time. Shared endeavours trumped national distinctiveness. Glasgow was an avid exploiter of Empire, and as much a hub of industrial innovation as Birmingham or Manchester. During the glory years of Britishness, from regiments to bankers, engineers to missionaries, Scotland was a full participant. 

That’s why early leaders of the SNP were, in searching for a distinction, often against the modern trends of their time. Theirs was a small-is-good ethos: against corporatism, centralisation and nationalisation. (And, lest we forget, against mass immigration and often highly suspicious of Catholicism.)

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In 21st-century tournaments, such as the 2006 World Cup, the St George’s Cross almost entirely displaced it © Neil Tingle / Alamy Stock Photo

Now, however, it seems that the Scots and the English are gently but clearly moving in different directions. England, again and again, chooses right-of-centre governments. Scotland, with a swelling sense of national identity, does not. The Brexit vote was an unmistakable indicator of these different roads: an English rejection of the social democratic European consensus with which many Scots (by no means all) felt comfortable. And, of course, Tory politicians who emphasised identity over economic self-interest in the context of leaving the EU are not well placed to lecture Scots for doing the same now.

But economic self-interest always matters. A major controversy is over the higher level of public spending in Scotland, which the pollsters tell us English voters see as an unwarranted and provocative subsidy to people who no longer like them.

All the figures are hotly contested, but the Scottish government’s own latest (pre-Covid-19 crisis) assessment is that it was running a public spending deficit of 8.6 per cent of GDP, as compared to 2.5 per cent for the UK as a whole. To put it simply, Scots pay £380 less in tax per person than the UK average, and spend £1,633 more per person than the UK average on public services. “Social democracy in one country” could be expensive for the Scots.

The future is another country

So where do all these numbers, both polling and financial, lead us when we try to imagine possible futures? Possibly, it seems to me, towards some perverse outcomes—on both sides of the border. Shrewd politicians take into account sharp reactions to their own policies. On the future of the UK, this kind of thinking is woefully lacking. 

Take a Home Counties Brexiteer, conservative by instinct, nostalgic and patriotic by temperament, who wanted a certain kind of country—strong, as it used to be, in the world; perhaps a little whiter at home; less vulnerable to outside interference. That is a caricature of only one kind of Brexit supporter, I know, but it’s not a wildly unreasonable portrait.

So, what might happen to that person’s hopes for the future? If Brexit leads to Scottish independence, it is pretty likely that Northern Ireland will eventually join the Republic—as an instant member of the EU, the economics work better for Belfast than Glasgow, and as in Scotland, younger voters are more radical on this. The remainder of Britain is then dramatically reduced, both geographically and in terms of power. 

It’s hard to see how England-plus-Wales (assuming Wales stays, yet another open question) maintains the nuclear submarines, today based at Faslane near Glasgow, and the full military swagger of being a permanent member of the Security Council. Surely such a country would be more likely to fall under the influence of foreign powers. It would be hemmed in, to the north, south, west and east, by EU countries. Further, the English economy seems to need regular infusions of overseas labour. If these migrants were no longer to come from the continent of Europe, then presumably they would come from Asia and Africa. 

Put all of that together. A less military, smaller, less assertive country, more diverse and multicultural. Is that what Vice-Admiral Sir Percy Temeraire (Rtd) of Hampshire voted for when he chose Brexit? It sounds more like Jeremy Corbyn’s ideal England to me.

[su_pullquote]“Unless there was a truly remarkable growth explosion in the Scottish economy there would be a fiscal squeeze after independence”[/su_pullquote]

That is one possible unexpected outcome of where we are. But it isn’t the only one. Consider independent Scotland. Many of its supporters look forward to a country that is both securely inside the EU, and with a strong, generous welfare state, while trading freely across an open border with England, its biggest market. This is the optimistic independence of a separate politics that’s coupled to a union of friendship, family and business. 

But it is also, according to Henderson and Wyn Jones’s polling, over-optimistic. They find that English voters would want a hard line taken with an independent Scotland on almost every issue except passport-free travel. The process of division, likely to be cantankerous, would end with borders and much mutual suspicion. Scottish food producers, already in despair about Brexit red tape, would struggle to reach markets in Yorkshire or the English Midlands. Already speaking the language, Scottish businesses would find it all too easy to relocate to Northumberland or Cumbria purely on grounds of market access—even before we get to the possibility of higher taxes. This is hardly the promised liberation.

And then there is the economics. Inside Scotland, some groups would, I suspect, do very well. Independence would be wonderful for the Glasgow and Edinburgh politicians, civil servants, lawyers, journalists and academics. It would be an exciting time to be alive. There would be fresh global interest, new embassies, stimulating international seminars and a general swelling of intellectual importance. Scotland would be trying to get back into the EU and because of the currency and fiscal deficit issues, this would not be easy. But there is great goodwill in Brussels towards Scotland, and after Brexit, many European leaders would strain themselves to help Edinburgh.

What they are less likely to do, at least on anything like the required scale, is replace the missing cross-border subsidies. As with Brexit, “project fear” should be taken with a pinch of salt: Scotland, a country rich in resources and talent, wouldn’t suddenly be an economic wasteland. There could even be certain upsides: if Scotland were back in the EU, might some businesses move HQs north from the City to Edinburgh, bringing jobs and tax revenues with them? Perhaps. But unless there was a truly remarkable and so-far-unexplained growth explosion in the Scottish economy, there would be a fiscal squeeze, and working-class Scots living off public sector jobs, benefits or pensions would find life tougher. 

Like English Brexit voters hoping for a more potent country, working-class Scottish independence voters—the two groups who have driven change so far—might find the consequences of their electoral success a shock. After independence, the SNP’s socialist republicans would soon become uneasy bedfellows with those who would prefer a cosy Edinburgh financial scene, a revered monarchy and a good supply of exclusive golf clubs. 

The SNP would be asking itself deep questions about its purpose. Right now, of course, the SNP is tearing itself apart in public. For years, the party had the great good luck to be led by two outstanding politicians—Alex Salmond, then Nicola Sturgeon. They are now at each other’s throats. This could end Sturgeon’s career, and leave a faction-ridden party that would take years to recover. Even more important could be the effect on the reputation of Edinburgh governance. Salmond alleges the corruption of the Scottish political state. He speaks of a “malicious and concerted attempt” to push him out of public life, even to imprison him. It has been caused, he says, by “the complete breakdown of the necessary barriers which should exist between government, political party and indeed the prosecution authorities in any country which abides by the rule of law.”

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Scotland’s leader is firmly in charge, but has a fraught course to chart © Jane Barlow-Pool/Getty Images

Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Tory MSP who serves on the relevant committee, writes that he is “sick of the lies, the evasion, the deceit, the obstruction, and the obfuscation. I am sick of senior civil servants, on enormous salaries and gold-plated pensions, unable to give straight answers.” That’s a political enemy’s viewpoint. The leading Scottish criminal lawyer Alistair Bonnington, however, makes a similar charge, saying of the prosecutorial Crown Office: “I look on in horror at the present degeneration of the Crown into what appears to be a lickspittle arm of the current SNP government.” The decline of national liberation movements into oppressive ruling cabals is hardly news around the world. But the mere hint that this could happen to the SNP before independence would be devastating to its moral authority.

Jubilant Unionists should, however, be careful. The reach and power of the SNP, and the settled enthusiasm for independence, particularly among younger voters, means that even this row may not be enough to shift numbers in the UK’s favour any time soon. Profound problems in the nationalist camp do not in themselves make London more loved; they don’t make Brexit more popular; they don’t make “freedom” sound duller.

The plot only thickens when you consider that many of the arguments I have made about potential difficulties after the end of the UK can be flipped. An end to those cross-border subsidies would play well with many voters in England. It isn’t hard to imagine, say, an underemployed political leader who backed Brexit casting around for a next campaign, and settling on “Independence for England.” 

As we have seen, there are already underlying currents to be exploited here. Such a leader would argue, I assume, that with the decline of North Sea oil, there were no economic arguments for England sticking with the Union; that although the loss of the nuclear fleet would seem a blow, the savings could be used for a more agile, 21st-century, form of defence. This so-far-fictional leader would celebrate a prospective border with the EU running across Northumberland and Cumbria, and would call for a great revival of northern England to replace anything lost with Scotland. The first step in this great campaign would be to call for a referendum on ending the Union not in Scotland, but in England. 

How would that idea play in Scotland? There is a big difference in the emotional feel of declaring independence from the archaic British state and the threat of being kicked out of it. Should such an English independence campaign build up steam, it would seem unlikely to make relations between London and Edinburgh any easier.

This is speculation. But the break-up of the UK would be a kind of revolutionary moment, and such periods tend to produce unexpected consequences. 

“No” answers

Let’s return to the nearer future. Let us assume, despite the extraordinary events of early spring 2021, the SNP recovers and emerges victorious at Holyrood in May on a platform demanding a second independence referendum. Why can’t Johnson simply keep saying no?

In legal terms he almost certainly can, and that makes life harder for Sturgeon or her successor than some commentators realise. She would take her case to the courts but probably lose. She would take her case to the public—even to the streets. There she could win, quite possibly, but at a cost from which she’s wily enough to flinch. She wants a legal, binding referendum—and for very good reasons. Without one, Scotland heads down the Catalonia route of civil disobedience, strikes and mutual provocations.

Sturgeon, remember, is leading a coalition of temperaments as well as attitudes. She has the impassioned souls; but she also has many douce, law-abiding, calm, bet-hedging followers, who would hate a rough fight. And the rougher the fight gets, the less sympathy there will be, too, among English voters; and the harder it would be to forge a friendly, mutually advantageous divorce settlement afterwards. She has a lot to lose. Listening carefully to her, I think she knows that.

Yet it isn’t easy for London, either. Although Johnson has the legal ability to flatly refuse a further referendum, he is on much shakier political ground. The “once-in-a-generation” thing happened before Brexit and there comes a point when voting and polling can’t be ignored. What would happen if support for independence rose to 70 per cent? To 80 per cent? 

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Certain politicians who are currently outsiders south of the border might spy an opening in the English cause © WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Downing Street could deploy various dodges, such as requiring a higher than 50 per cent bar for Yes (but in that case why was a simple majority good enough for Leave in 2016?). While London toyed with procedural fixes, interest across Europe and internationally about the end of the UK would be enormous. Sturgeon has already signed a deal with Chinese businesses. As smiling foreign leaders headed to Edinburgh for talks, perhaps offering help, Whitehall would squirm. Then, who knows, a delegation from the EU Commission arrives in town. What then? President Emmanuel Macron makes a Napoleonic speech in George Square, Glasgow, a Scottish saltire behind him. What then?

The precise impact of a perpetual, flat, expressionless “No” from London on the Scottish Tories, who have been fighting a powerful rearguard action, is hard to gauge. It wouldn’t be positive. Johnson may not feel affectionate towards Scotland, but he needs the Scottish Tories.

Both the British cabinet and the SNP leadership have, therefore, huge challenges in the year ahead, the intricacy and scale of which haven’t sunk in. A stricken and currently leaderless Scottish Labour Party will fear for its life if it can’t navigate the rocks ahead. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories demonstrated there were still more British patriots in Scotland than some had assumed, but while they haven’t gone away, she’s on the sidelines. One of the shrewdest observers in Scotland suggests that London should welcome a further referendum because it must; but then insist all the trickiest issues (the currency, the public spending, the way the border controls are handled after EU membership) be thrashed out in public before any vote is held. He argues that six months of granular discussions of the detailed practicalities will grind away support for independence. 

Perhaps. What is really lacking, though, is a strongly emotional and cogent case for the Union itself—one not just based on short-term economics. After Brexit, we know how easily vision can trump bookkeeping. The people of Scotland will, sooner or later, have a choice to make. And even if many English voters haven’t cottoned on yet, it is going to affect them just as much—indeed, everybody living in every corner of the nation state which, for the time being, we still call the United Kingdom.