1st December 2020
So familiar is the three-word phrase ‘the United Kingdom’ that it can be forgotten that it does not name any particular country.
It is instead a description of dry and abstract political arrangement – the kingdoms that are (somehow) united could be anywhere on the globe.
Of course, the term is short for ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ – but the shorter form is more common.
It is worth pausing and thinking about the phrase, as it reminds us that the United Kingdom is itself a political union, as much as the European Union or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
And political unions come and go: there is no inherent reason why any political union is permanent.
This post is prompted by a tweet yesterday from the Conservative leader in Scotland.
She’s confirmed it – for Nicola Sturgeon, next year’s election is all about getting indyref2.— Douglas Ross MP (@Douglas4Moray) November 30, 2020
Even in the middle of a pandemic, the SNP’s priority is independence above everything else. pic.twitter.com/BtFXlXgIxJ
The sentiment of the second sentence of the tweet can, however, be applied to another example of ‘independence’.
The United Kingdom government, in the middle of a pandemic, prioritised independence above everything else— davidallengreen (@davidallengreen) November 30, 2020
In particular, the United Kingdom government refused any extension to the Brexit transition period https://t.co/NqDQGZx1LL
And this will be a recurring problem for British Conservative politicians in opposing Scottish independence: the arguments they deployed in respect of Brexit and against the European Union can be re-fashioned in turn by those in favour of dissolving the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
For what it is worth (and it is not worth much as someone writing from England), I happen to support both Scottish independence and an Ireland united by consent.
This is not because I am anti-English and a rootless cosmopolitan, but a recognition that, in the end, all political unions will tend to come and go.
And although I dislike all forms of nationalism (which often tend to be illiberal), self-determination is very much a liberal value.
The people of Scotland and of Northern Ireland (and of Wales) should decide on their own political arrangements.
The United Kingdom is not necessarily a permanent arrangement.
Indeed, but for events before the Norman conquest, England itself could have carried on for many centuries being a geographic expression with a collection of smaller kingships (Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria), just as Spain did until the early modern period, and Italy and Germany did until the nineteenth century.
‘Great Britain’ itself – a combination of the union of the English and Scottish crowns and then of parliaments 1603 to 1707 – has no greater claim for political permanence than, say, the combined role of the British monarch being also the Elector of Hannover (which lasted from 1714 to 1837).
(On ‘Great Britain’ being a construct, it is worth reading – or at least knowing about – Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837.)
But liberal arguments may work both ways.
The liberal principles of internationalism and self-determination can often be used both for and against any particular attempt at political union – for example, an independent Scotland (having exercised self-determination) will seek to be part of the European Union.
The European Union itself has no claim either to permanence, and it may one day join a list of historical attempts at unifying Europe.
Brexit and the recent political events in Poland and Hungary are an existentialist challenge to the European Union, which it may or may not survive.
The point is that no political structure is necessarily eternal.
Many once thought the sun would never ever set on the British Empire, before its fairly rapid dismantlement after the Second World War.
There is also a plausible argument that it was only membership of the European Union of both the United Kingdom and Ireland that enabled the peace process in Northern Ireland to work and the Good Friday Agreement to be put in place.
Take away the European Union and that handy practical solution becomes unstuck.
So one particular irony that may come from Brexit is that the so-called Conservative and Unionist Party – by its absolute insistence on forcing through departure from the European Union – may be instrumental in breaking up the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
An independence referendum in Scotland and a border poll in Norther Ireland are both now more likely than not in the next few years – and both may well go against being part of a United Kingdom.
And that would be an exercise in ‘taking back control’ – just not the ‘taking back control’ that Brexiters perhaps had in mind.
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