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Not on your life

About the author
Tom Nairn is an expert on nationalism, British institutions and Scotland. He is Research Professor in the Politics Department of Durham University and was a Professor of Nationalism and Social Diversity at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, from 2002 until January 2010.

It looks very much as if a new character will, in only a few weeks, be stage-centre in the United Kingdom: "New Britain". As chancellor Gordon Brown prepares to move next door into the prime minister's house (it's called "flitting" in Scotland), a hurricane warning seems in order. All our nations should expect a storm of calls for renewal and appropriate constitutional change. Presaged by hints from Brown's cabinet colleague and campaign manager Jack Straw, as well as assorted rumblings from Brown himself, the objective of such appeals is becoming reasonably clear.

The United Kingdom must be saved. This both is and isn't the debauched lout featured in Tony Blair's farewell address at Sedgefield: "The British are special. The world knows it. In our hearts we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth." Our reformed character will remain the latter, naturally; yet in their hearts almost everyone now knows he needs substantial changes to keep going at all. Whatever the retreating premier was invoking, he could not help evoking the verminous rogue of buy-and-sell peerages, Iraqi destruction, side-winding Third Ways, mounting inequality and Washington grovelling. A reformed image is desperately needed by Blair's pre-anointed successor. Is this not why constitutional change has suddenly reappeared on the Westminster agenda? An elected House of Lordship, tantalising talk of written constitutions and even of proportional representation - murmurs from Jack Straw added to Brown's own New-Brit rumblings?

openDemocracy's new blog "Our Kingdom" has contributions from Pat Kane (Scotland), John Osmond (Wales), Robin Wilson (Northern Ireland), and Matthew d'Ancona and David Marquand (England), as well as its architect Anthony Barnett

Also in openDemocracy's new "Our Kingdom" debate:

Roger Scruton, "England: an identity in question"
(1 May 2007)

Anthony Barnett, "What will Gordon Brown do now? "
(11 May 2007)

Neal Ascherson, "Scotland's democratic shame"
(9 May 2007)

A holy family

Modernising constitutional reform has long been a democratic demand. As we cross the present watershed it is, at least partially, being turned into a conservative one: Austria-Hungary must be preserved at all costs. And one objective conceals another. For ideally, the affordable costs should not include devolution to England. Britishness could conceivably survive even much fuller Scottish and Welsh self-government; but what's left of it would evaporate in a flash with an English parliament or assembly.

However, one way to hold back the latter might be via constitutional conventions and Fabian Society pamphlets. The pseudo-federal fog machine is already resuming full production, to be given weekly outlets at all-round, all-party confabulations. Here the Liberal Democratic Party could play a key part. Unable to win power, the latter would confirm spiritual state office by propping up civic British nationalism - at the same time helping to counter accusations of a government fix. We have already seen the machinery at work since the Scottish National Party's victory in the Scottish election: Lib-Dem refusal of "all cooperation" with nationalists means putting them beyond the pale - the Holy Family "union" within which alone reasonable deals can be made. More concretely, this means preservation of Great Britain's Security Council seat, and self-proclaimed world role - but a repolished halo and wardrobe for the old scoundrel are part of the act.

After Iraq such relegitimation will be even more necessary. And Brown's aim is a reconstitution of the "sacred" in this vital sense. Kirk, party and British nationhood could then come together in emotional rejection of the new "profane" - separatists bent on exit from the reconsecrated imagined community. This reimposition will also benefit from persistent confusion about "federation".

Federalism in modern history has not been an alternative to central state authority, but one way of enforcing it, and rendering it more tolerable. In the Soviet imperium, as in the post-civil war United States, it served great-power purposes by harnessing ethnic and regional diversities to a geopolitical strategy. Britain now possesses but a shadow of the latter; yet for that very reason, the political élite sees clinging to it as vital. For the true contrary of the central isn't the federal but the confederal: an arrangement where sovereignty resides in the contributing parties, rather than the centre they support. As Allan Massie puts it:

"A confederation... is a different matter, an agreement made between equals. It offers the Gaullist Europe des États, joined together to achieve common purposes but retaining the right to maintain differences from their partners, retaining the right to opt out of policies of which they do not approve... It alone offers the balance between the whole and its parts" (Scotsman, 10 May 2007).

He is arguing mainly about European Union, and pointing out that confederation alone offers any hope of a workable constitution. But in the British-Irish archipelago this is surely no less true. Formally equal and independent partners alone could join together in any new way, retaining rights of opt-out and disagreement. Federation, by contrast, entails permanent cession of such rights, saccharined with magnanimous concession of cultural entitlements and secondary powers.

Devolution was an informal slide in the same direction, meant to exorcise nationalism in Wales and Scotland without too much fuss. There is still a huge gap between the nationalist advances of 3 May 2007 and anything like confederation: but no longer as huge as the grandeur-entranced élite would like. Devolution having failed to "kill nationalism stone dead" (as Scottish Labourites once loved to put it), isn't it reasonable to consider some more formal barrier to irresponsibility - even of a written-constitutional kind? Devolved government was something given; the recent advances of Plaid Cymru and the SNP represent something taken, programmes likely to breed growing self-confidence as they unfold. Sovereignties threatening the special nature of earth's greatest nation are at the end of such roads, best closed off. Being capable of constitutional thought, and hoping for enthronement as apostle of the greater nature, Brown may try to redefine it more formally and irresistibly - even if it means the nuisance of an elected second chamber.

Tom Nairn is professor of globalisation at the Globalism Research Centre, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia

Tom Nairn is writing here aboutThe Queen, a feature film directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Morgan, with Helen Mirren in the title role of the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II

Among Tom Nairn's articles on openDemocracy:

"Pariah Kingdom"
(May 2001)

"The party is over"
(May 2002)

"America vs Globalisation "
(a five-part essay, January-February 2003)

"Britain's tipping-point election" (June 2005)

"After the G8 and 7/7: an age of 'democratic warming'" (July 2005)

"On the beach: a bonfire of monarchies in Melbourne"
(November 2005)

"Ending the big 'ism" (January 2006)

"The Queen: an elegiac prophecy"
(27 September 2006)

An unholy betrayal

As Guy Rundle has written of the Sedgefield chosen-nation climax, in a scathing critique from Melbourne:

"What a thing for a social democrat to say. What a thing. Not an expression of left patriotism, of love of country and community, of a hope that its virtues had been strengthened, that it had contributed to the greater human good. Instead, a braying chauvinistic triumphalism, a mixture of Kipling and cod-Americanism" (see, 15 May 2007).

But Americanism and pseudo-federalism also mean that a democratic dimension will be part of any new deal. It simply has to be: as Jackie Ashley pointed out in a comment on the House of Lords debate, it would be impossible today to set up a new elected chamber using first-past-the-post - and unthinkable after that not to find a fairer electoral system for the House of Commons (see "Cash for honours is the fuse for a constitutional explosion", Guardian, 12 March 2007). Does this mean democrats will have to support such changes, in spite of their overall reactionary direction?

It goes without saying that a more democratic United Kingdom should be welcomed, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as England. However, constitutional reform should be distinguished much more emphatically from that direction. These stratagems are forced by the times upon a crumbling polity. New Britain must resort to them in order to prop up the old: the succession of Charles and Camilla, the two-party order at Westminster, and the dwindling zombiedom of Great-Britishness. No wonder returns from the grave feature so prominently in British cinematic culture: Brits don't just watch the House of Hammer, they live in it. In the arguments on and around 3 May, SNP and Plaid Cymru advances, it was always a curiously unqualified "union" that had to be saved. It felt like a form of religious faith, bordering on fundamentalism and unrelated to the Windsors, grotesquely disproportional representation, Baghdad, Trident and most popular experience.

Brown was once a begetter of devolution. That failed to sustain Brit-House; so he thinks a new and more ambitious fix is required. Yet devolution can't be undone - not even in Northern Ireland. And a dose of democracy has to be part of the prescription. All the more reason, surely, for tying additional changes down in less easily alterable ways. Which is likely to mean, in written, holy-script format. Then farther insubordination could be pre-empted more respectably.

Unholy betrayal is already in the air; all the more need for it to be fought via some constitutional, royally-blessed document. Though not of course centuries-old, a measure of fake immemoriality would be bestowed by claiming it as simply an evolution from 1688-89 (etc.) Measures once regarded as mob-rule would overnight become special-British wisdom of the ages. That's how Bardic nationalism functions, and should complete the Brown flitting. The 2008 applause from Washington can already be heard - whether Republican or Democrat.

The fact is that any such development will carry the same contradiction within it as devolution. Democracy is inherently stronger than those who would misuse it. And in this case, English democratic wishes would benefit most plainly from a shift towards renewed constitutionalism. The process would quickly acquire its own momentum, at variance with the motives of New Labour redemptionism. And naturally, it would also be a suggestive gift to David Cameron's novel form of English conservatism, already widely perceived as a veiled Anglo-nationalism. That's why I think it's possible for citizens to discriminate among the features of any "Austro-Hungarian" package. Some bits of it could be greeted with relief, in Scotland and Wales too. Yet for much of the rest, it will really be important that Brown and Menzies Campbell hear the message: "Not on your life!"


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