The break-up delusion: why the United Kingdom has life in it yet

Your recent essay by James Hawes was constitutionally and politically illiterate

August 18, 2021
Andrew Linscott / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo
Andrew Linscott / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo

The England delusion” by James Hawes doesn’t prove its thesis. Its sweeping statements (“the UK took a bullet in the head… when Boris Johnson romped home”; our politics has been “blast-frozen” but “come the thaw, [the Union] falls”) are unprovable and increasingly unlikely. The “Future of the Union” is not a break-up determined by inexorable laws of post-colonial Britain. A nation is, as Ernest Renan observed in 1882, a “daily plebiscite”: a series of calculations as to how far it answers different needs—economic, social, political and, crucially, emotional.  

Hawes’s claim that “soon the English will be alone again at last” runs against Scottish polls, as well as Irish. We have seen the sinking of support for Scottish independence since the May election returned the SNP government to power. The most recent figures show that support for independence, briefly in the upper 50s last year, is now in the mid-40s. A poll in the Daily Telegraph in early August showed 39 per cent of the sample saying they would not support independence if it meant losing the pound sterling. In Northern Ireland, a Belfast Telegraph poll in May showed 44 per cent in the province against unification, 35 per cent for—with 21 per cent unsure. In the Republic, 67 per cent favoured unification—but only if it was entirely costless, which it wouldn’t be—and the decision is anyway for the Northern Irish to make.

Large problems there are. Negotiations on a new Northern Irish protocol now seem necessary: the EU would take some persuading, but should come round. Even if the SNP’s reason for existence—independence, certainly not the good governance of Scotland—is fading, its hyperactivity in stirring up anti-English resentment will leave a large constituency of nationalists for years ahead. Yet polls show the percentage of English wishing the Scots to leave the UK in the teens, against around half wishing it to stay—with 30-40 per cent having no opinion, believing for the most part it’s up to the Scots. (Actually, the dismemberment of a united state should call for everyone to be involved—as Canadians now would be, should Quebec, or any other Canadian state, seek to secede.) 

Hawes insists that the UK is uniquely fissiparous among nations. Yet Italy’s Veneto and Alto Adige have strong independence or secessionist movements; Belgium’s Flanders and Wallonia are held together with the thinnest of constitutional threads; France’s Corsica is ruled by secessionist/autonomist parties which, this summer, increased their majority; and even with the recent release from prison of the leaders of Catalan independence movements, the secessionists strengthened their position in the Barcelona parliament. None of these are likely to be successful, and some don’t want to be: the SNP says it does, but its woeful governance record now becomes increasingly evident.

The “isn’t break-up obvious?” tone of Hawes’s piece misses every kind of point.