The Prospect editorial—when borders matter

A nation primed to unravel
March 4, 2021

If you tried to explain to a Martian why countries matter, you might struggle. Arbitrarily made and unmade by historical accidents, these lumps of land on our maps often encompass people and places that should have little in common. Ultra-rational beings would no more identify with them than with administrative local authority boundaries—but we are not ultra-rational beings. 

For better and more often for worse, nations have for centuries been the most reliable way of rallying people, trumping religion, class and everything else. They demarcate how we trade, who we fight, who we obey and—too often—the limits of our generosity. Over time, they engender a shared identity, fellow feeling and common enemies. In short, they affect just about everything, in politics and far beyond. So it is as well to pay attention to the very real possibility that our own nation state, which not so long ago seemed as entrenched as any in the world, could soon come to an end.

In turning his mind to whether our kingdom will stay united, Andrew Marr casts his eyes up from all the latest Westminster frenzy, and provides a strategic long view. He guides us away from the distractions of Alex Salmond’s conspiracy accusations against Nicola Sturgeon, and towards the deeper tides that are eroding the very idea of Britain: the fading of wartime memories and imperial grandeur; the slow “grating” effect of a lopsided devolution settlement; and the disinterring of a distinctively English nationalism, only ever half-buried, and now newly fortified with a distinctly English sense of grievance. 

Nothing is certain, Marr writes, but the swelling mood for separation among Scotland’s young, especially, is beginning to look hard to stop, particularly when combined with London’s lack of imagination. The irony is that so many of those who have contributed to this drift of events, from the proverbial Home Counties colonel who voted for Brexit out of nostalgia for Britain’s “lost greatness” to the Scottish socialist who imagines independence will facilitate generous state spending, could end up with the opposite of what they want.

For Scotland’s pro-European majority, a parting of ways with Little England is inevitably tempting as the realities of Brexit take hold. As Jill Rutter writes, the “sovereignty-first” separation that Boris Johnson plumped for is, in effect, a deliberate decision to put new barriers between Britain and the continent, affecting finance, travel, trade and more. It’s too early to gauge the scale of the effect in the statistics: many crunch problems have been postponed, others may be modulated by interminable negotiations, and others again will soothe once everyone learns their way round the new system. But Lisa O’Carroll’s case studies illustrate how myriad aspects of life, from buying bed linen online to exporting pharmaceuticals, have just got more complicated. 

“After 300 years a border at Hadrian’s Wall may be more disruptive than Brexit”

For all the real failings of the European Union, a subject Prospect will return to, it’s easy to sympathise with the Scots who want to avoid being saddled with these sorts of problems. The twist, however, is that they can’t do so without creating more of them: reimposing a border across Hadrian’s wall after three centuries could well be more disruptive than unravelling a mere half-century of continental entanglement. 

The paradox of the bind such Scots are in—doomed to be party to an unwanted British separatism, or else to create a new separatism again—is enough to make you sympathise with Maya Goodfellow, who makes a heartfelt plea for a utopian ideal: a world without borders. But politics is not heading that way. Besides, while borders always divide and discriminate, for as long as brute power is given to dominate and exploit, they can sometimes also protect. When they are treated with the disdain that Israel is showing in the West Bank, as meticulously documented by Donald Macintyre, the consequences are dire.

The potential for violence could become a live issue much closer to home in connection with the Northern Irish aspect of the Union, something else that is newly in play. We might wish that countries and the borders that define them didn’t matter, but the reality is that they do. When those of your country are in contention, it is worth paying it some heed.