What is the state of the Union?

Papering over the cracks in a disunited kingdom

Papering over the cracks in a disunited kingdom

Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown is not alone among high-profile politicians and civil servants to warn that the 300-year-old union of the United Kingdom is in peril and faces collapse. Brown argues against Scottish independence and wants Scotland given greater powers within the UK.

He has urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to consider reforms like replacing the House of Lords with a Forum of the Nations and Regions that would give the constituent parts of the union a stronger voice at Westminster. Writing recently in the Daily Telegraph, Brown said the choice now was between “a reformed state and a failed state” and urged Johnson to launch a “democracy commission” as previous efforts to bring Westminster and other nations together had been forgotten.

Brown’s words followed earlier comments from former senior civil servant Philip Rycroft who claimed in a report that the Prime Minister “speaks for England alone”, and that his “muscular brand of unionism” had deepened divisions between England and the rest. Rycroft was the permanent secretary to the Brexit department until 2019 and his report, following a study by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, concluded that the union is in deep peril and that even major political upsets like the close-run 2014 Scottish referendum and the following year’s SNP landslide prompted little soul-searching at Westminster. He added that the pandemic had deepened the crisis for the union, as there has been a breakdown of communications with central government.

“Britain” – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – is a global rarity in being not a single country but a collection of nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and the country, or province/territory/region of Northern Ireland. No one has made a final decision on that one. Confused? You might be, because at the same time the UK is a legitimate, sovereign, and unitary nation state.

And while some outside “Britain” might struggle with just that concept, many of us have a problem with regarding ourselves as “British”. It might well say British Citizen on the passport, but while some will happily admit to being British, others will consider themselves not British at all, but English or Scottish or Welsh.

In Northern Ireland the picture is further complicated, as while some say they are most certainly British others say they are just as certainly Irish – dropping the Northern modifier completely. Brexit has undoubtedly added further confusion to the state of the Union. Although the UK’s exit from the EU was carried by a majority of the UK as a whole, it was opposed in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The English vote won the day and made the difference. Unsurprisingly this continues to rankle in Scotland, where demands for a second referendum on Scottish independence increase, and in Northern Ireland, where post-Brexit cross-border, trading chaos continues. None of this suggests an even vaguely united kingdom, so the question remains, without urgent remedial action, how long can it possibly last? 

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