The First British Empire

As Scottish Labour form a disorderly circular firing squad and 2014 No Voters watch nervously as a No Deal scenario snaps into sharp focus, we are witnessing (finally) the end days of Britain. It’s unraveling in unseemly chaos.

Even Simon Jenkins writing with dripping condescension in the Guardian observed: “Johnson is in a long line of Westminster leaders determined to infuriate the Scots — as a century ago they once infuriated the Irish. With the exception of Tony Blair’s partial devolution, London has simply ignored the progressive disintegration of the “first British empire”, the one that has embraced the British Isles since the Norman conquest and was cohered as a supposed United Kingdom in 1801.”

This “first British Empire” line is unusual for an English writer, but it stands out as a coming-to-terms of the reality of things. Brexit has cleared the air. If Scotland was at various times complicit in imperial conquests, Jenkins framing is telling and his whole article is a significant moment.

Jenkins reflects on the current shambles with a bit or history: “While France, Germany and Italy (if not Spain) have steadily assimilated their disparate provinces over time, the United Kingdom has done the opposite. Through persistent, bumbling misrule it has alienated the so-called Celtic fringe, and fuelled the fires of separatism.”

It’s true these provinces are disparate and un-assimilated but Jenkins remedy for this tragic state are quite something. He writes:

“Sooner or later, London will be forced to grow up and recognise that it has sacrificed the right to rule the British Isles. Ireland has gone and Scotland will clearly go one day. Whitehall should take the initiative and prepare a fiscal and legislative independence package; one that withdraws Scots MPs from Westminster and sees Scotland rejoin the EU, but keeps travel, currency and citizenship ties in place.”

Glancing across the Cabinet room — and across the battered political landscape — you know that is a scenario that is not going to happen.

But if the London commentariat are coming to terms with what’s underway, so too are the political parties as we sprint towards Halloween.

Scottish Labour are now in open civil war, whilst the Scottish Tories divisions and splits are a more private affair. Both suffer from an extreme form of cognitive dissonance. They demand and expect self-determination from their centralised party structures, whilst resting their entire political outlook on denying the same to the Scottish people.

Scottish Labour’s split on a left-right axis by MSPs who have never accepted Richard Leonard (or Jeremy Corbyn). They may have been motivated by ideological differences and then had these beliefs boosted by the incompetence of their leaders north and south of the border. But they have nothing to offer in their place. They have neither charismatic competence nor a political programme to challenge. Jackie Baillie would offer jobs at Faslane, and the Pittakionophobic Ian Murray clings to the idea of the Union like a man adrift far from land clinging to the wreckage. Theirs is a Red White and Blue Labour, but as they cleave to the Mothership of Britannia, London has rejected them like a changeling child. The irony must hurt.

FROM NO TO NO DEAL

The people who voted No in 2014 and are getting No Deal in 2019 are confused and angry. They are either doubling-down in rage and confusion or quietly shifting to the exit route.

In one sense the idea of shrugging off Project Fear will be recognisable to pro-independence voters. In another sense being blase about the economic chaos of Brexit being imposed after you were promised economic and political security must be devastating. And shrugging off the very real problems of impact to food supply and medicines with a sort of stoic British stiff upper lip and a resort to the language of wartime is a new scale of embarrassment.
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Tensions between these three response options (embrace it and act as if you are in the Blitz; fantasy Federalism; face reality) become more strained as No Deal nears.
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Option 1 — embrace it and act as if you are in the Blitz is fun as a game but loses its appeal as supermarket shelves thin-out. The “British people” weaned on X-Box and Deliveroo don’t have as much resilience as they think they do. Whilst the extremists will blame all on the Europeans intransigence, no-one will really believe that (including crucially themselves).

Option 2 — engage in fantasy about Federalism and constitutional reform. The timeline for this is sharp and the agencies that might create a movement around this are absent. Despite all of the talk of “taking back control” the insurgent English nationalist movement has no desire to do this at all. It has, as John McDonnell said this week already have an “English parliament”. What’s to campaign for?

Enthusiastic commentators, and ex-politicians still indulge this parlour game but it doesn’t have a future without a political vehicle, and whilst billionaires can bankroll astro-turf parties at the click of a finger, actual political movements can’t be summonsed so easily.

Option 3 — facing the reality of change, real, deep change is difficult, but there are some ready to do that. Not just the pro-Brexit people in England who would happily jettison the Union to fulfill Brexit, but some on the Labour left who envisage a partnership of equals and a future of four republics interacting as allies.

A lot of talk about how “Scotland changed forever” followed the 2014 vote, and its true that some of the deeply-ingrained deference was cast aside, a generation politicised and the terms of political debate fundamentally changed. But it’s worth realising how much England, Wales and Ireland have changed as well.

Originally published at https://bellacaledonia.org.uk on August 11, 2019.

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