UK Politics

Balkanised Britain?

I’m amazed how lightly this issue is being taken because the fact is that if Scotland does vote in an SNP government next year then it may well be the begining of the end of the United Kingdom.

That sounds rather melodramatic doesn’t it? But think about it, if the SNP is elected they will hold a referendum on independence. Whatever the precise wording of that referendum, the consitutional question will be whether the Act of Union should be repealed. If the answer is a Yes then the United Kingdom will no longer exist.

Has anyone among the great and good of the British establishment or among our fine constitutionalists in academia given any thought to exactly what will replace the United Kingdom? It seems a pretty big deal to me, you know, what kind of state the rest of us will be living in once the Republic of Scotland has been created?

Has anyone in political parties opposed to a breakaway Scottish Republic given any thought to presenting an alternative to the choice between independence and the status quo? Like David Aaronovitch, I am sceptical of the recent poll that showed more English than Scots are in favour of independence for Scotland although it does recall the attitude of most Czechs when the Slovaks went for divorce – “You want independence? See you later then”.

Certainly I would bet most middle-class southern English people will indeed take such a Bohemian attitude to the end of the Union – I’ve no stats to back this up but I’m fairly confident that you’d find most of them have spent more time spent in France than Scotland during their lives. I have the feeling they are more familiar with American culture and politics than that North of the border and of course the residents of the revealingly entitled ‘Home Counties’ will already be dreaming of reduced taxes and lifelong Tory governments.

The reaction in the North of England may be different. Certainly back in the 1980’s when the Scottish Constitutional Convention began to gather up some steam there were no shortage of people on the Northern left who joked that we would go with Scotland if they got independence. We joked of course. Just as I am sure Jim Sillars did when, according to tales I was told at the time, he was asked at a meeting in Newcastle where he thought the border of a Scottish Socialist Republic would be and replied “Does the river Trent sound ok to you?”.

All good harmless fun – but after a decade of a social-democratic Scotland to the North and a Tory government ruling over us and cutting our public services from London, are you sure that the Northern left wouldn’t start thinking about some alternative to direct rule from Westminster?

Wales? If precedence is anything to go by – Welsh nationalists will respond with an attempt to replicate the Scots – and will fail as usual. There are interesting questions raised for Northern Ireland but I doubt many of us -mainland and none – will want to raise them just yet.

But legally, constitutionally, we will finally have to deal with the English Question and that could be the most painful process of all in the Balkanisation of Britain.

Simon Jenkins’ piece in the Guardian today is entitled – If Scotland wants partition, the British cannot deny it. The British? If Scotland is no longer British then what exactly is British? Doesn’t Jenkins really mean the English? Such confusion is going to be rife if these issues become real problems.

I don’t actually like the phrase ‘Balkanisation’ for a number of reasons, just one of which is that I am sure the break up of the UK will be peaceful, at least on the mainland. But the phrase does prompt the thought of who plays what Yugoslav role in such disintegration?

I’d go with this line-up: Scotland is Croatia (without the good football), Wales is sleepy Slovenia while Northern Ireland is Bosnia – hopefully with the violence already out of the way. And England? Well Serbia obviously.

The serious point is the real danger in breaking up the UK without any consitutional plan in place would leave England as the bitter rump – having lost the last remaining parts of their Empire, the English would suddenly have to deal with the question – who are we? The answer may not be very pleasant.

I would hope that finally, the people of the North of England would wake up and realise that our failure to develop our own movement for devolution risks leaving us the last outpost of London rule. Without the restriction of having a multinational Kingdom to manage, the danger is that the selfishness of the south-east would be unleashed once again. It was, after all, the official ideology of southern selfishness, Thatcherism, which began this whole process of disintegration. Except this time, Northerners won’t have their Scottish brothers and sisters alongside us in our battles.

Which is why it is in the direct interests of all Northerners and progressive southerners to begin thinking of an alternative to unmanaged disintegration. For once, it won’t be enough for the British to just muddle through in constitutional terms. Faced with break-up there has to be a new structure offered as an alternative.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on alternative structures to the United Kingdom but my view is that the best solution would be a Federal Republic of Britain.

It would be a voluntary union made up of the states of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Northern England and Southern England. A Council of the Isles, based in the Midlands, could handle all matters, such as defence, which need to have Islands-wide control.

That’s my suggestion anyway – what’s your’s?