● The Union is unstable because England is a political non-entity
● A new constitutional settlement that recognises England could attract the support of people across the UK
In the three posts above I have argued that the state should promote the customs of the country, that it should develop greater capability and focus on national resilience at home, and that it should adopt an assertive foreign, defence and development policy to reduce conflict abroad, especially by reducing climate change and its effects.
The arguments for nationalism – as a bond of trust that enables liberty, as a means of good government at home and of effective action abroad – are arguments for the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Each of these benefits acquire strength and scale from the historic union of people across four countries. It is indeed a union unique in history for its success.
But these are also arguments for the break-up of the Union, for they could just as well be applied to the individual countries within it. I have argued that the trends of the time are towards family, community and nation. The same spirit that took the UK out of the EU could yet take Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland out of the UK.
For all its success, the history of our 300 year-old experiment shows that the UK could never subsume its component parts, and become a single nation of its own. Each member is proudly discrete, and confers a distinct identity on its citizens. And yet it is too simple to say that everyone has a primary loyalty to their nation, and that some have a secondary loyalty to the UK – or that the Union is simply a contract between nations without direct popular allegiance of its own, such as the European Union might be described. In Northern Ireland, the Union has the direct allegiance of more than half the population. In Great Britain the nationality ‘British’ is in some parts more popular than ‘English’, ‘Welsh’ or ‘Scottish’.
Sovereignty in the UK is a tangled web. Wales was never sovereign in the sense of formal independence and self-determination over the whole territory; there was never (except perhaps for a few years in the 11th century) a Welsh state distinct from England, and the country entered the UK as a principality of the English crown. Scotland, however, did so as a kingdom of its own, by an act of its own Parliament which thereby dissolved itself into the one at Westminster. The six counties of Northern Ireland are, historically by necessity and since the Belfast Good Friday Agreement by treaty with the Irish Republic, self-determining – part of the UK by popular consent, and only so long as that consent lasts.
Since devolution in 1998, these formal facts of sovereignty sit uncomfortably within the Union – partly since England, the fourth nation, has no devolved powers. This is the great anomaly. England is one the oldest nations on earth: as Robert Tombs shows, there has been a coherent ‘England’ for 1200 years; of major nations only China and Iran, which are truly ancient, are older. Yet it lacks a government of its own. It suffers the reproach of its neighbours for its weight in the Union, yet it is in fact a political non-entity.
This is unsustainable. It is also inherently dangerous. The real possibility exists of a UK government, perhaps a kaleidoscope coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrat and the nationalist parties, taking power at Westminster without a majority of seats in England. At that point existing English Votes for English Laws arrangements (by which only English MPs vote on legislation affecting only England, such as health or justice policy) would break down. In the face of an opposition with a majority of English votes it would be impossible for the UK government to get its English business through Parliament. A de facto English government, i.e. the Conservative opposition, would control the Commons, but lack the powers of ministers to direct civil servants or introduce legislation.
The obvious answer to this constitutional conundrum is to give England a government of its own, as the other nations of the UK have, with just the major strategic functions (economic policy, foreign affairs and defence) reserved to the UK. The UK government should be just that, the government of the UK, rather than the English government with some residual power over the neighbours.
It is, of course, difficult to imagine how a federal union would work when one member of it has six times the population and nine times the GDP of the other members combined. The English government would have a far larger budget than the UK government.
How the ‘English question’ is settled, over what timeframe and in what eventual form, are the proper subjects of a wider national debate about the balance of power in the UK, and indeed our strategy and posture in the world after Brexit and after Covid-19.
The need for this conversation is the simple reason why no referendum must be held on Scottish independence in the immediate future. I am hopeful that a settlement of the English question would help make the Union more sensible and attractive to the other nations in it. It may also be that the development of a robust and ethical ‘environmental nationalism’ as a basis of British foreign policy would make the UK a more attractive alliance than the EU, with its eternal and impotent wranglings.