March 15, 2000
The union of the four nations of Britain – England, Scotland, (Northern) Ireland and Wales – is dead. Officially it is still the United Kingdom and various brands of Unionism are still the dominant rhetoric of the three main political parties, but the union is dead. The fact is that Scotland and Wales now govern themselves, and Northern Ireland does too – if sporadically. The missing x in the equation is England with no way to protect herself from having her MPs being outvoted by non-English MPs on matters that only affect her. An example of this is the denial of the right to jury trials, which is being gleefully promoted by Welsh and Scottish politicians, even though it is a non-issue in these two countries.
The short-term significance of this situation is slight. The Labour Party has a majority of English MPs, and so there is no short-term difference with the Scottish MPs. The present constitutional demands are not so much for an English Parliament, or a way to quarantine non-English MPs from purely English business, but for regional assemblies – at best talking shops at worst another layer of bureaucracy. But this is unlikely to last. Labour only wins a majority in England when it gets a landslide everywhere else, this has only been managed three times in their existence. The chances are very high that at the next election the English will elect a Conservative majority (or at least a Conservative plurality) which the Scottish and Welsh together manage to convert into a Labour majority in Britain, in fact most Labour governments have come about in similar circumstances.
The English will not only be faced with a government that they did not elect (as Scotland admittedly had under Conservative rule for 18 years). The English will also have to face the fact that their MPs no longer have the power to decide Scottish (and to a lesser extent Welsh) internal business while Celtic MPs will have the right to govern them. The Scottish and Welsh MPs are also grossly over-represented, while it takes 100 000 electors to vote for an MP in the outer London suburbs, about 30 000 do the same in Scotland. Scotland also has a disproportionate amount of Government spending through the iniquitous "Barnett formula" that dictates that one seventh of spending must be devoted to the less than one tenth of the population that is Scots. This state of affairs is manifestly unfair to the English and although it is tolerated now, it may not be tomorrow.
The natural home of English dissatisfaction, the Conservative Party, is historically burdened. Just as the Conservative Party was historically the party of Europe, and so found many of its most eloquent and senior figures were less interested in national independence than in being in the "heart of Europe." This problem is more acute in the case of the union for the simple reason that the pro-European nature of the Conservative Party was as a result of the comparatively liberal economic environment of continental Europe in the 1960s and the perceived need to unite against the Soviet menace. Europe was for most conservatives a means to an end. The union is an end in itself to far more Tories. So while the party has made considerable progress on the issue of Europe, it has barely started looking at the issue of the Union.
The Scottish do not like the English to say that England could do just as well on her own as she could with Scotland, but the truth is that she could. England has 85% of the British population, and a larger proportion of her GNP. The fact is that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all subsidised, meaning that only England is left to do the subsidising. England’s tax bill will be drastically reduced by the very act of leaving the United Kingdom (and would fall by a similar amount if she left the EU). The rightward shift in the political spectrum, with the Labour Party needing to either go further to the right or to merge with the non-socialist Liberal Democrats, would also encourage a large degree of investment as the continuation of a liberal economic climate would be near enough guaranteed.
The problem for an independent English nation is not so much economic viability as the sudden addition of new neighbours. The reason for the often forcible growth of the British Union was the strategic imperative of not being surrounded by the proxies of hostile powers. You just need to look at a map to see why the English worried. Wales shares a large land border with England, and so naturally was the first country to be subsumed by the Anglo-Norman kings. Ireland being just over the sea and also for all of it’s pre-British history being a chaotic patchwork of tribal kingdoms was a large strategic risk. Ireland required an English presence at the least (the Pale of Settlement in the East of Ireland, later the presence was maintained in Northern Ireland). Scotland with a weak but still united monarchy and its smaller land border merely needed English influence rather than control until the rivalry between England and Scotland’s ally France turned from that of royal families to that of nations. It was then that the Scots were first bought into the Reformation (with the help off Scottish Lairds greedy for monastery land) and later that bribed with the English throne. To understand the dynamics of the growth of English power should also help explain the one large disadvantage of disunion for the British, a new and unwelcome threat.
Already many Scots are looking for "independence" for Scotland in a renewed client relationship with France, the slogan being the contradictory "Independence in Europe." This is worrying to many English who while being friendly with the French know that this will not last forever. The last thing that the English need is a French or European base to their north. The other problem for the English is that control of the Northern sea-lanes that will also pass to Scotland and therefore to whoever is Scotland’s ally. The idea that the European Union is purely benign has been belied by the behaviour of the European Union in the ex-Yugoslavia – even if the Europeans have so far had to rely on the military muscle of America through the aegis of NATO.
The sad fact of the coming disunion of Britain is the aggressive role that England will have to take up. The Scots complained (with reason) about the use of their country as a testing ground for much Conservative policy. The aggressive use of English power will be far more pronounced when England does not have the restraint of a Scottish voice in Parliament or the Cabinet. England can reasonably require her neighbours to at least maintain neutrality and to have no claim on her territory (especially in the oil rich North Sea, where the Scottish National Party already claims most of the oil reserves that would fall to England under maritime law). It must be remembered that the English are wealthier and more populous than their neighbour, as well as possessing nuclear weapons. The English will have the means and motive to demonstrate their relative strength; the question is whether any of their Celtic neighbours allow them the opportunity.
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