What holds the Kingdom United?

The UK is collapsing as a coherent democratic entity

June 15, 2020
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For a country embarking on a bold venture of sovereignty, the timing could not be worse. The union of the United Kingdom is under strain as never before. There are plentiful examples of centrifugal forces at work within, and extending beyond the insouciance of England, the growing impatience of Scotland or the persistent unease in Northern Ireland. But, until recently, these pressures tended to be seen as superficial niggles rather than as symptoms of a serious malaise.

But now the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the reality of internal differences in a way not seen before. The four parts of the UK are following four separate “roadmaps” out of lockdown, with their different rules for everything from schooling to shopping. For a place so comfortable in thinking of itself as “an island nation,” England’s land borders have become sites of slightly bemused muddle. And the British broadcast media has at last had to acknowledge that what goes for England cannot automatically be assumed to apply UK-wide.

The imaginary (in the sociological sense: the values, laws, institutions and symbols common to British society) of the singular nation state is both banal and contested in the UK. Indeed, the contrast between this quaintly simple notion and the technocratic unwieldiness of the European Union of 28 formed an attractive part of Brexitian logic. It is ironic, then, that the process of withdrawing from the EU has revealed to the UK the limitations of its own internal union.

Even more interesting than this: Brexit has shown quite how similar the UK union is to that of the EU in two fundamental ways. First, that it is rules-based. Second, that it is held together by consensus. The (to some frustratingly) slow, cautious action of the EU is both a consequence of and a response to these conditions. The UK is well aware that its requests for flexibility from the EU are being made of an organisation that is held together by law and by compromise, not by political calculation or strategy.

The erosion of consensus

But the UK needs to act with care because its own capacity to withstand the consequences of Brexit is only as strong as the rules and consensus that underpin the union. The exit from the EU has already broken the links which bound the UK internal market together. Following the rules of the EU’s single market provided the baseline for 160 areas of legislation for which the devolved regions and nations were responsible. Now Westminster has to find common frameworks to replace these in order to avoid new barriers to trade within its internal market. Many of these common frameworks are to come into force by statutory instrument or memorandums of understanding, which means that the rules which will hold together the UK economy will arise without the scrutiny of the UK parliament, let alone that of the devolved legislatures concerned.

In the meantime, the UK government has unilaterally repatriated these areas of competence back to itself. This action is not merely a sign of pragmatism; it reveals a lack of trust between the UK government and the governments/executives of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. To persist on this path—regardless of the size of your government’s majority—seems somewhat reckless for a union that would so readily pride itself on its democratic credentials compared to that of, say, the EU.

What is more, it is the type of action that might be expected of a state that is impervious to the wishes and will of those most affected. But, although the UK was certainly not born out of consent, its continuation depends on consensus-building. We are two referendums away from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland becoming an Anglo-Welsh pairing. In January 2020, the Scottish parliament passed a motion introduced by its government to endorse a new referendum on independence. And Northern Ireland’s place in the union is, according to the 1998 Northern Ireland Act which put the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement into UK law, explicitly predicated on the consent of a majority of people there wishing to remain in the UK. The Good Friday Agreement created the conditions which took the momentum away from Irish nationalism and its quest for Irish unification. Until Brexit.

What will win a referendum on the union?

What holds the union together? The secret lies neither in the strength of unionist sentiment nor the limits of non-British nationalism. When faced with a referendum on Scottish independence or Irish unification, those already identifying as nationalist or as unionist are unlikely to have their minds changed; it is the ones in between who will determine the outcome (at least, those who will be motivated to vote). And what will persuade them one way or another? It is worth remembering that when faced with a choice, human instinct is primarily to act to protect what we have and value, rather than to stretch to gain what we have been promised. We might take a lesson here from the Brexit referendum.

The UK’s conception of EU membership was long-tinged with a sense of loss—a loss of sovereignty, independence and money. The vote to Leave was not an expression of confidence in the new gains to be seized by “Global Britain”; it was about “taking back” what seemed to have been lost as a result of EU membership. It was, for many, an act to retrieve what had been taken and to prevent further attrition.

Referendums in Scotland and Northern Ireland on continued membership of the UK will be similar. Those in the middle, who are neither strongly unionist nor nationalist and who may or may not consider themselves to be “British,” are assumed at the moment to offer their silent consent to the union. But such consent is conditional. The key question they would ask as they enter the polling station would not be “what will be gained” by an independent Scotland or a united Ireland, but rather: what might be lost by separation from the UK?

This is where the true risk for the union lies. For much of what people may fear losing by separation from the UK is actually being eroded before our eyes. All cultural artefacts and ideology aside, membership of the UK means certain things, and these things are under assault from within. We might conceive of this as illness in the body politic of the UK.

The ailments of the UK body politic

First, the UK parliament constitutes the skeleton of the UK both in terms of law and democratic process. But the capacity of parliament has been significantly curtailed, as shown in the example of the construction of the common UK-wide frameworks without proper parliamentary consideration. Moreover, the fact that the future UK-EU deal will not even have to be laid before parliament is a sign in and of itself that accountability is coming to be seen as an inconvenience rather than a steadfast necessity. There is osteoporosis in the UK’s democratic system: its political institutions are becoming weaker and its politicians more brittle.

Secondly, the civil service, as the operational centre of the UK, is the brain of this body. The health of the whole UK depends on the independence of the civil service and a rationale to what civil servants are asked and expected to do. Thousands upon thousands of civil servants have been asked to prepare for and perform work that not only directly contradicts logic and defies evidence, but which will cause known harm. This has been attested to by many senior civil servants and diplomats who were in the position of being able to resign on principle; they tell of decisions that contradict the very grounds on which the civil service is meant to act and of a culture of intense stress. There have been scandals in the past arising from corruption or incompetence. This malaise is different. Having to act in a way that makes no sense—and being afraid to say so—in effect “scars” the UK’s brain. The centre of balance is gone.

Third, the British media has become profoundly corrupted as the fourth estate. The politics of impunity which has characterised the UK in the 21st century has been too-often enabled by the media, rather than exposed by it. This goes beyond the BBC’s struggle to realise “balance” in terms more nuanced than offering equal airtime minutes to opposing views, regardless of whether or not those views are based on fact. That both policy-making and lie-telling seem to be so consequence-free is in part a sign of the weakened state of the independent press. Replacing expertise with commentators selected for their provocation value, the UK body is being starved of the oxygen of truth.

Finally, the NHS is the beating heart of the UK. This is in terms of its service which protects and heals its citizens; but it is also so in terms of being a common source of emotional attachment. Both these qualities have been demonstrated in extraordinary ways through the current crisis. But the NHS is going to come under increasing and extreme strain. Some of this is unavoidable, for example as a result of the backlog of screenings and treatments caused by the pandemic. But much of it is a consequence of political decision: the restrictions on migrant labour will be felt sharply in the health sector, the privatisation of parts of the service may expand, and its budget will struggle to cover the increasing costs of medicines and medical supplies, as is likely to occur through disruption to UK-EU supply chains and the terms of a future UK-US free trade agreement.

The conditions of democracy—for that is what these are—are in an increasingly perilous state. The skeleton of democratic law-making, the cerebellum for balance, the air of truth, and the heart of service are valued by people across the UK. They exist not as a result of national will or character, but as a result of generations of learning and scrupulous care. But we have not held them dear enough to nurture or protect them. The United Kingdom is in ill-health and peripheral pain is a symptom, not a cause. The bonds which hold the union together are atrophying through self-neglect.

  Katy Hayward works on social divisions and conflict at Queen's University Belfast. She is a senior fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe