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The Challenges of a Dis-United Kingdom

About the author
Dr Andrew Mycock is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Huddersfield. He is co-founder of the Academy for the Study of Britishness based in Huddersfield and a member of the Ministry of Justice Youth Citizenship Commission

For most public, high-profile relationships, when rumours of a rocky patch surface there is plenty of 'advice' around. So it is with that most celebrated political marriage: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Intense debate has raged about its imminent break-up or whether Britishness can be 're-forged'. The recent publication of the Calman Report has energised such debates in Scotland though with significantly less impact in England which would appear to be more concerned about on-going quandary of whether Andy Murray is British or Scottish. Those who suggest that the UK is in its death throes often draw attention to the decline of ascription to British identity and the institutions by which it is defined. They point to the concurrent growth in identification with the historical nations of the UK or other ethno-religious identities. Musician Billy Bragg recently suggested that England needs to be ‘freed from this unhappy Union’, thus appearing to agree with Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, that Scottish and English independence is the only way to solve the inequalities of the current devolution settlement.

Gordon Brown is seen by those who seek such a divorce as the ‘Bard’ of a Britishness that is a politically-motivated act of ‘terminal Britishry’. However, Brown has avoided reference to the ‘common ground of Britishness’ recently. Plans for future constitutional reform outlined in June focused on re-asserting the propriety of Westminster in the wake of the expenses scandals, this linked to further devolution of power, reform of the House of Lords, and encouraging youth participation in politics ‘to lift our politics to a higher standard’. This signalled a marked difference to previous constitutional statements which allied such reforms to developing ‘a stronger sense of shared national purpose’.

Brown has not been quiet on the issue though, and recently penned the introduction to the edited volume Being British. There are a number of critical voices within the volume, which highlights the refreshingly open ‘hands off’ approach to the project adopted by Brown. Contributions from the editor Mathhew D’Ancona and a host of others from the left and right treat Brown’s version of ‘Britishness-plus’ with justified scepticism and suspicion. He is rightly accused of drawing on a simplistic, uncritical Anglo-British historical narrative in defining a ‘golden thread’ of British values, such as liberty and tolerance, which overlooks many negative aspects of the imperial past. Such values remain abstract and ill-defined for most Britons, and are actually universal to most modern nation-states.

Dr Andrew Mycock is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Huddersfield. He is co-founder of the Academy for the Study of Britishness based in Huddersfield and a member of the Ministry of Justice Youth Citizenship Commission which reported last week

This noted, the quality of the contributions is variable, many lacking depth of insight or argument. The volume is a lost opportunity to bring new perspectives to the fore and extend the remit of debates about identity, culture and citizenship in the UK in any significant sense. The most disappointing feature though is that most contributors are either English born or based, thus highlighting that Brown’s Anglicsed Britishness also shapes this volume. Moreover, most authors replicate Brown’s erroneous conflation of Britishness and a homogenous British national identity with UK citizenship. Important questions regarding the constitutional and symbolic role of the Monarchy, the enduring legacy of the British Empire, and the role of the European Union which stretch sovereignty and citizenship within transnational frameworks are unfortunately overlooked in preference for a loose collection of uneven deliberations about Britishness and Englishness.

Furthermore, discussion of the impact of devolution on understanding Britishness is largely absent from the volume. Paul Bew provides one of the few original and thought-provoking contributions, raising important questions about how sentimental and uncritical attitudes towards devolution have led the further weakening of the Union. As a moderate Unionist, Bew’s concerns for the future stability of the post-devolutionary UK state strangely chime with many the contributions to Mark Perryman’s latest edited volume, Breaking Up Britain: Four Nations after a Union (the subject of a recent OurKingdom collection of essays). Separatist nationalist authors from across the UK promote a range of political, cultural and economic arguments to suggest that devolution is an irreversible process which highlights ‘a Union that has run out of time’. The introduction claims the volume ‘seeks to be universal’ in establishing a contemporary dialogue which reflects post-devolution and pre-independence politics in the UK. Chapters from such a diverse range of writers provide some engaging and thought-provoking discussion of how devolution has re-shaped our understanding of identity politics in the UK. Many of the criticisms raised in the volume concerning Labour’s partial programme of constitutional reform are valid; it would appear that Blair and Brown had scant understanding of any intended outcomes other than to kill separatist nationalism, particularly in Scotland and Wales, ‘stone dead’.

If Perryman really sought to develop ‘a conversation between individuals, parties and social movements who rarely talk to each other’, there are some glaring omissions. Unionist voices from across the UK could have highlighted the rich and complex nature of such debates but are conspicuous by their absence - though Mike Kenny and Guy Lodge provide a persuasive critique of those who follow Nairn’s doom-laden analysis of the future of the UK, suggesting greater acknowledgement of the cultural and political needs of England within the Union by those hastily promoting its demise. Perryman in particular appears to be blinded by post-devolutionary nationalist politics in Wales and Scotland, suggesting they inculcated new inclusive forms of civic nationalism which override historical and contemporary political and social divisions. Such analysis is, at best, short-sighted and overlooks a number of key issues.

For example, Alex Salmond has suggested that, whilst ‘Britishness is narrow, bland and boring’, post-colonial Scottish nationalism is wholly civic, being ‘inclusive, diverse and even exciting’, noting that Scots Asians are more likely to describe themselves as Scottish than British. Research data suggests, however, that many Scots display similar patterns of xenophobia and racism as their counterparts in England or elsewhere. Though the leadership of the SNP has moved from ethnicised view of Scottish identity to one founded on more inclusive dynamics, it is not at all clear whether all Scots have followed this shift. The lack of comparative success of far-right parties such as the BNP in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is seen by separatist nationalists as further evidence of a progressive shift in politics outside of the England. This is questionable. The BNP’s support grew in Wales and Scotland in the recent European elections, with UKIP also taking 13% and 5% respectively. There is an appetite for exclusory nationalism which also reflects divisions within Plaid Cymru and the SNP over the issue of national sovereignty and European Union membership.

However, many of those supporting independence would have difficulty in supporting a ‘British’ or ‘UK’ party. But psephologists such as John Curtice have suggested that nationalism was the key driving force behind the success of the SNP in the 2007 Scottish elections. It is unclear though how many who voted for the Party remain wedded to an ethnicised view of Scottishness. Moreover, if devolution has led to a progressive politics outside England, why has the gap between rhetoric on civic inclusivity and the political representation of minorities within their legislatures increased? There is only one ethnic minority representative in the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies and none in the Scottish Parliament. If the English are finally sent packing, there is the potential for far-right Scottish or Welsh ethnic nationalist parties like the BNP to gain popularity, as in small states lauded by Scots nationalists as successful democracies such as Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark.

Those seeking to promote independence display behaviour that typifies reductive nationalism, often insular and selfishly focused on this key aim without considering the impact that this might have for others across the UK. Winning ‘wars of independence’ would appear more important than planning for the aftermath. However, post-British tensions across the UK would not easily be contained within revised borders. Northern Ireland continues to prove an ‘invisible issue’ for most separatist nationalists. Though the Scottish government has expended considerable energy in addressing sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants, it continues to sharply divide communities in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Though ascription to a shared Ulster Scots Britishness in Scotland and Northern Ireland has grown, Unionists continue to be considered misguided Britons who will see the error of their ways in a United Ireland or independent Scotland. Orange identity remains a strong cultural, religious, and patriotic facet of Scottish society. The potential implications of independence on a peace process whose fragility was brutally highlighted by recent murders are often overlooked, as is the potential for the ‘West Belfast Question’ merging with the ‘West Lanarkshire Question’.

The break-up of the UK also raises important questions regarding nationality, as legal status defining membership of a state, and citizenship, which follows on from nationality but encompasses conditional rights and obligations. It is possible for two differing but overlapping forms of identity to emerge within a single state, one based on civic constructions founded on a common citizenship and another founded on national ethnic community. Separatist nationalists consistently project their independent nation-states along lines of contiguous territorial and state boundaries encompassing the Scottish, Welsh etc people. This raises some interesting question as how post-independence citizenship will be articulated. Though Salmond has identified a ‘powerful and influential’ Scottish diaspora of 40 million, it is unclear as to how citizenship will be defined and what potential strains it could place on the Scottish state if large numbers ‘come home’. Moreover, does the Scottish diaspora include those newer Scots who have relatives across the Commonwealth and elsewhere or is Scots blood the defining factor for the eligibility of citizenship outside of the Scottish state? The borders of civic nationalism begin to look a little frayed.

Separatist nationalists overlook such complications, particularly what will happen to the large numbers of internal migrants across the UK such as the 1 million Scots self-identifiers in England or the sizeable English population in Wales. The SNP has suggested that continued ‘social, cultural and historical ties with England’ will endure, though there is considerable ambiguity as to what this actually means. The recent Home Office publication, Path to Citizenship, provides some interesting insight in potential complications, with conditionality tied to economic potential increasingly undermining reciprocal frameworks of citizenship between the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth. If such approaches were adopted within the former UK, there is potential for some to be given a ‘forced choice’ on citizenship and residence. This could have serious implications for Ulster Unionists if the bilateral dynamics of the Good Friday Agreement are reductively reframed to curb social, political and economic rights. If, on the other hand, open citizenship agreements are maintained, there is scope for tactical citizenship as dissonance increases between the independent states. This could allow people to move from state to state as when and their social and economic circumstances change or they wish to gain access to particular services not available elsewhere. This could have significant implications for access to education, healthcare and other key social services and could lead to curbing of such rights.

Furthermore, whilst we have seen a marked growth in ascription to English national identity in recent years, evidence suggests many minority groups in England identify themselves as primarily British. Recent research by colleagues at Huddersfield University found young Asians and white youths sharply divided on issues of identity. Many young Asians see Englishness as exclusory, ethnicised and linked with cultural practice such as binge-drinking and sexual promiscuity. Conversely, young white youths see Britishness ‘tainted’ by multilculturalism, meaning Englishness is a more instinctive identity. For some, British identity is a looser, more flexible identity that can mean anything or even nothing. The push for independence at a time of such significant societal transition and community tensions in England could have significant implications, particularly for young Asians who may feel isolated and excluded.

Difficult constitutional questions also persist such as the future of the Monarchy. Those seeking independence adopt a contradictory stance, tactically maintaining short-term support for the Monarchy in the period after independence whilst refuting post-Union associated responsibilities concerning the remnants of empire. What of the Monarch in the new post-Union Britain? The Queen remains Head of State of 15 other countries and retains sovereignty over 14 British Overseas Territories (BOTs), highlighting that the imperial past invades the present, complicating issues of post-Union citizenship and identity. Though some states, such as Australia, may well choose a republican future, some will certainly continue to maintain what they see as a stable political system. Many people outside the UK still identify as being British, passionately so in Gibraltar and the Falklands. If separatist nationalists seek to consistently adhere to the principle of self-determination then surely those BOTs who wish to remain part of the UK have an input in debates about its future? The conspicuous absence of policies on such issues would suggest that separatist nationalists assume that England would undertake all post-imperial responsibilities and their associated costs, though Perryman and other English progressive nationalists fail to acknowledge such complications.

Neil Sedaka was right when he suggested ‘breaking up is hard to do’. Those who seek a non-British future must provide answers to a number of complex questions if they are to validate their claims for independence. There is little evidence that separatist civic nationalism has mercurial properties when compared to a necessarily ill-defined and somewhat more accommodating Britishness. Indeed separatist nationalists across the UK draw on many of the same themes and narratives as Brown, highlighting political institutions, values and culture, which inform a distinct civic Scottish, Irish, Welsh or English national identity. The congruence of nation and state, and nationality and citizenship, is as unclear with the borders of post-independence nation-states as ill-defined as those of the UK state. Moreover, independence is unlikely to prove a panacea for many social, economic and political divisions that have deeper roots. Current government approaches in reforming the UK state are piecemeal and often ill-defined, thus stimulating more uncertainty. But those who seek its hasty demise must provide a more coherent and comprehensive view of the post-Union settlement, or they might simply replicate or even intensify divisions within British society.


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