State of the Union

The Breaking of the Unions

By Miles Meagre



Last century a friend assisted on production of a graphic novel and I was able to see proofs. Martha Washington, drawn by the distinguished English comic artist, Dave Gibbons, told the story of a future North America reduced to breakaway factions that had previously made up the United States; Canada was Canada I think. Historically, I believe Martha Washington was George’s wife, but in this iteration the character was more like Lara Croft – a warrior queen. I’m not a fan of such fictions or films based upon them, but this one intrigued me as far as the map that went with it. ‘America’ chopped up; east coast, west coast and (from memory) a slab in the centre and couple of bits in the south. It seemed appropriately dysfunctional and fantastic thirty odd years ago in the wake of Bladerunner and other science fiction projections of post apocalypse collapse.

Even two or three years ago I would have thought such a scenario far fetched. Now it doesn’t. Neither does the idea that the United Kingdom could break up seem impossible. Here are two countries, the U.K. and the U.S., that might be peculiarly vulnerable to vivisection.

In the last decade of the 20th century, the always fractured Balkans broke apart. Yugoslavia, a string of distinct peoples, languages, cultures and religions, significant once only as stepping stones to Turks eyeing ‘Europe’, or buffer zones for Christians, was lumped together by the western powers following World War One. We can regard this as Europe’s first experiment in ‘multiculturalism’. It failed in under a century.

Is the notion of ‘American’ or ‘British’ open to the same forces that peeled apart the identity of ‘Yugoslavian’? I am beginning to believe they might be. Internal forces are becoming ever more stressing for the notion of a common nationality in both.

This feeling strengthened by the Labour Party’s recently launched plan to recast the entire U.K. by creating devolved English regions. This policy is the brain child of Gordon Brown, Labour’s last Prime Minister. At face value this might seem a good thing; local people making more decisions locally. However, nothing is simple about Labour’s ‘New Britain’ Constitution, which has been described by a critic as –

‘ … the subordination of Parliament to the judiciary; universal English devolution; the reorganisation of Britain as a multi-national state; and the enshrining of the current social order as a constitution.’

Currently the outline of our unwritten constitution is understood as Parliamentary sovereignty:

‘There has never been any limit to what an elected Parliament and a royal signature can do. The obstructions to an elected majority only exist by the sufferance of this power, and could be abolished at will. The ‘Rule of Law’, whatever that means, does not rule in Britain – Parliament does. Glance at the alternatives, at provincial Hawaiian judges vetoing federal border policies as a matter of course. Not so in Britain. Tomorrow, Parliamentary sovereignty could abolish the Supreme Court. It could abolish the BBC, or the Human Rights Act, or Whitehall itself.’

The New Britain Constitution is a step towards diminishing that link between the electorate and the state. What authority makes or repeals the laws of the country? The people, Parliament or the judges? Dilution means effective impotence to reform the country’s governance without the consent of the judges whose hands would be tied in a way not seen in a millennia. This push towards an insoluble written Constitution was, of course, galvanised by Brexit.

It is by now a truism that the Brexit referendum of 2016 brought constitutional issues to the fore of UK politics. In the turmoil that followed the public vote to leave the European Union, relations between government, Parliament, electorate, and judiciary came under substantial pressure. Such pressure generated ad hoc constitutional innovations, as well as increased calls for more thoroughgoing reform of the UK’s political system.¹

Brexit was an epic crisis for the Establishment however one regards the result. The solution is, seemingly, firstly, to give the English regions (undefined) more say in policies that apply to them; secondly, never let them near real reforming power ever again by entrenching a written Constitution that cannot be revised; first carrot, then stick. This measure would, when passed, break the centuries old understanding that a Parliament cannot bind the hands of its successors. But then, what would this National Parliament be for and, importantly, for whom?

The problem thrown up by the foolhardy decision to allow two of the constituent nations, Scotland and Wales to have devolved national Parliaments – under the deluded assumption these would perpetually be both radical yet subservient to New Labour in the Westminster Parliament – is to be redoubled, embracing a flawed concept that believes no bad idea is so bad that more of the same won’t work. Anybody who has paid attention to politics in the United Kingdom since Devolution should fear this development like no other. Wokery has seized both the Welsh and Scottish governments partly inspired by the belief that this will surely outrage the English who pay the bills for this farce. Carl Benjamin (The Podcast of the Lotus Easters) thinks otherwise. He sees opportunities for ‘the right’ (i.e. non woke) to beat back the woke rainbow waves like a Canute. My thought is ‘Why take the risk?’. Trusting to luck, I hope nothing like this will happen, but I have to have confidence in the useless Conservatives giving it every chance. On recent form they even might take this initiative on board. However, I sense some devious motive lies behind this. The politico-media-arts Establishment, or, accurately, the London Bubble, will never be troubled by the Provincials having any meaningful say in our national conversation ever again. Everything significant will be decided by the lawyers interpreting a New British Constitution – speaking of which, we turn to America.

In the case of the U.S.A. the grounds for, and outcome of, the War Between the States 1861-65, are looming large once more as the issues of foundational significance are breaking waves on rocks of defiance and dissent. The constitutional arguments that drew the southern states into a war against the north were not entirely about ending slavery and emancipation. Deep down there remain divisions central to state’s rights drawn up in a text, an opportunity for disputation based on the interpretation of the meaning of words that can never be final, disputes that the once unifying institutions of high office or patriotism kept in check. The Presidency of Donald Trump to me was a symptom, not a cause of contentious disputes over how principles as old as the Republic impact on real lives. Citizens who once lent their assent freely are at odds with the nature of judgements handed down by judges they did not elect and cannot remove. When all the fundamental questions are settled ‘above your head’ what is left to discuss? Gender? Race? The battleground may be bizarre but that disguises the true nature of the struggle we are watching. When so much is denied, anything can be a true cause.

To an outsider the melee sweeping America in recent years fought out 24/7 on media, was difficult to align with a long held expectation in the good sense of ‘go to work America’. Today that seems like a false memory. I believe it wrong, moreover absurd, to pass an opinion on these events as a disinterested outsider. What would that be worth? But having observed America since the days of Truman and Ike, I wonder at this current ‘UnAmerican’ transformation of the political landscape, I am troubled as I never was before.

Apparently, the elites’ cure is to control the masses by binding them in ways that echo hyper fiction. A freedom closely defined in laws that cannot be overturned. All essential wants will be catered for, except your thoughts on life’s big subjects. What does it matter what individuals think? What is the point of truth when your lives are taken care of by apps and world bodies you did not elect and cannot remove?

One by one the lights of liberal democracy are being turned off.² Today in the west life seems like a screenplay for a film or the plot of a graphic novel where the government is remote and the people abandoned.



1. More Bonaparte than Bagehot: a review of Richard Johnson and Yuan Yi Zhu, Sceptical Perspectives on the Changing Constitution of the United Kingdom (Bloomsbury, 2023). A discussion of the consequences of the Brexit vote on Parliament and the judiciary. Dense but worthwhile

2. ‘A friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week — he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below on which we were looking. My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”’