Aye or nae, Scotland’s debate over its future is laying bare the fundamental structure of the UK in ways that no academic study could have begun to contemplate. There’s nothing like demanding answers to questions that were always thought too fanciful to ask but have suddenly become part of an urgent reality.
We know what the SNP’s vision is for Scotland. The rest of the UK is left looking rather smug in that there is no widely shared vision for how it might be changed for the better. Is it really that perfect? Shouldn’t the UK minus Scotland be thinking harder about its future? And what if the ‘No’ camp wins? There is noconsensus over what that means, just a vague expectation of some sort of devo-max to calm everyone down again. Or maybe not. Certainly the vacuum is one that benefits the separatist cause, highlighting it as dynamic and aligned with the next chapter of history.
Advocates of small-State nationalism in Europe have come up with a variety of ways to describe their goal, such as ‘internal enlargement’ of the EU. At a seminar held this week at the European Parliament, Dr Alan Sandry of Swansea University came up with another:
“We will see what will happen in the next ten years, it’s as if a new Berlin wall is coming down. New states are emerging and Europe should prepare for that reality. In the UK federalism is gradually being discussed as a topic, but that topic is over, it’s 15 years too late.”
Indeed. Did the opportunity for a federal Britain come and go without us even noticing? Probably not, since there was always going to be a contradiction between federalism – everyone moving forward at the same speed – and the reality of a multi-speed Britain. Anyone with a sense of history should have spotted that even at the beginning of the current process we were well beyond the beginning, since most of Ireland left decades ago, an event long obliterated from political and media memory. Equally the end – an independent England with the last of its empire cast off – is not the end either, since it raises the question of what kind of England that can be. Centralist – more of the same – or regionalist – radically empowering communities throughout the land? A federal Britain is dead: long live a federal England?
It’s not just the timing that was wrong. The English question is routinely under-estimated because it lurks far below the surface. No-one much cares politically for England, as England, if it can dominate the whole UK, but start to challenge the assumptions of the union and England suddenly matters again. England is then revealed as the spanner in the works that makes a federal Britain impossible to sustain. Re-imagine the UK as a federation of four or five nations and England’s vastly greater size dooms the project to fail. Attempt to equalise the constituent parts by replacing England with regions and the ship of state will sink somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis.
On the one side there is the national problem: that denying England any expression of national identity but cherishing those of the other home nations is simply unfair. Why should England disappear for Britain’s sake? On the other side there is the regional problem: that regions can be built up, slowly but surely, from their historic roots, but identities cannot be ordered into existence from Whitehall to match the timetable for Celtic devolution. Imposed boundaries, for impractical areas, with empty names, will alienate even the staunchest supporters of a decentralised England.
There’s a saying about the fall of Communism in eastern Europe. In Poland it took 10 years, in Hungary it took 10 months, in East Germany it took 10 weeks, in Czechoslovakia it took 10 days. We should expect Berlin Wall II to follow the same pattern, with the more confident small nations leading the way for others whose identities have been more drastically eroded. But the Europe of a Hundred Flags is composed as much of historic regions as of small nations and we should expect them to follow too in due course. Not into formal independence, but into a degree of self-government that allows them to interact with their small-nation neighbours on terms of practical equality that do not require every question of importance to be referred to London, Paris or Madrid. Some regions will lead the way; others will follow once they see the benefits. Wessex has every reason to aspire to be near the front.