The UK is collapsing as a coherent democratic entityby Katy Hayward / June 15, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…