Thursday, January 26, 2012

How the UK became an anachronism

The UK (or to give it its full title, "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland") is in trouble.

As I recently wrote, and as it's often in the news, Scotland is planning to decide on its constitutional marriage arrangements with its southern neighbour. Either divorce (independence) a marriage of convenience (devo-max), or to retain the current awkward arrangements.

If Scotland did choose independence, the "UK" by definition, would no longer exist - because there would no longer be a "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland"; just a Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It's Scotland that gives Britain the name "Great".
It seems extraordinary (ignorant as well as arrogant) that Westminster politicians have not realised what "The UK" is: a legal union of two states, England (with Wales and Northern Ireland), and Scotland. Westminster seems to think that it carry on as before if Scotland leaves the union, with Scotland as a "successor state", as the EU also appears to believe. But by that logic, there would be two successor states; England and Scotland, not Scotland and the "RUK". Westminster's logic of a legally-superior "RUK" is a fantasy land where Westminster can have its cake and eat it.
Westminster and the EU's logic is based on a false understanding of the special form of historic union between England and Scotland. Scotland would not be a "successor" state. England does not "own" Scotland, in the way that other states have "broken away" from their larger, former overlords. The example of South Sudan breaking away from Sudan is not appropriate; the nearest contemporary comparison would be the "Velvet divorce" of Czechoslovakia, but even that is not totally accurate, as their state was an artificial creation after the First World War, it was not a legal union of two states. This is what Westminster fails to remember, and the EU for that matter, too.

Since "The UK" joined the EU, surely all legal documents have applied equally to Scotland as well as England, as in any political union. But equally, Scotland leaving the union should not be the same as Scotland leaving the EU: as Scotland joined the EU in the same treaty as England, but in its own legal right as one half of "The UK". Everyone outside of Scotland seems for have forgotten that Scotland has a separate legal system. When Scotland joined with England in 1707 it deferred its parliament to Westminster, but retained independent legal apparatus. This is why I agree with Alex Salmond's explanation why Scotland should not have to "re-join" the EU as a "successor state". Either both Scotland and England are "successor states" to a defunct "UK", or neither. There could be no such thing as a "RUK" in legal terms, as there are only two legal "parts" to the union - England and Scotland. If one pulls out, it's all over: you have two brand new entities. The nearest legal comparison to such a situation would be the break-up of the Soviet Union, or the that of the former Yugoslavia. But the EU didn't have to deal with any of those countries being already member-states. And even those were unions of several or more states, not just two, like the UK. The ignorance of EU politicians on the unique legal nature of "the UK" is as surprising as it is insulting.
Catalonia's independence movement bears many similarities to Scotland's, and in more ways than one. For Spain itself is a "legal union", at least historically. For Spain before Franco was a Kingdom of two crowns: Castille (centred on Madrid) and Aragon (cented on Barcelona). So Catalans' interest in Scottish independence is also based on the historic similarities in the relationship between the union of England and Scotland, and the union of Castille and Aragon (now called Catalonia). The fear of Catalans copying the Scots is the reason why Madrid is so hostile towards Scottish independence, and why they are trying to make things awkward for Scotland's relationship with the EU.

That all said, the most likely outcome for Scotland is "devo-max", also called Home Rule, where Scotland remains part of the UK for appearance's sake, but only foreign policy and military arrangements come from London.

But even that option is worth talking about, and people would be wrong to downplay its significance. Because Home Rule for Scotland, which is almost certain to be the most likely outcome in 2014, means the end of the UK as we know it.

And what is this "UK" anyway? According to polls, more English people favour Scottish independence than the Scots themselves; it seems the British public as a whole are in favour of financial independence for its constituent parts (i.e. they raise their own taxes, rather than a lump sum decided in London). Even some Tory MPs favour this idea, as they see the financial sense of financial devolution.

By that definition, the "UK" as a concept no longer has the support of the majority of British people. The UK could soon turn into a big house party where all the guests agree to bring their own drinks. Forget the idea of "collective responsibility".

With the UK's status quo as good as dead by the end of 2014, the most likely arrangement would be some form of quasi-federal status of the different parts of the UK; after Scotland votes for Home Rule, no doubt the voices from Wales will become louder. Infact, the Welsh have already made noises on that issue, so expect Cardiff take start causing trouble in tandem with Edinburgh. At the current rate of frantic political debate, the Welsh assembly may well ask for a referendum on "devo-max" itself before very long.

And then there's England itself, by far the largest part of the UK. One reason the Welsh are not happy about Scottish independence is that it would make England seem even more dominant politically; the Welsh don't want to be left alone with the insufferable English and an intractable Ulster problem.
England itself has regional issues; cost of living disparities that cause much Northern resentment at a distant-seeming, aloof London elite, are just one example. So even the cry for regional devolution with England may well become impossible to ignore within a few years.

So, where does that leave "the UK"?
By 2015, as things stand, David Cameron in all likelyhood will be Prime Minister of an international power with much reduced central authority. His constitutional power north of the border, with a Home Rule Scotland, would be negligible. If Wales soon demands Home Rule within the UK, then the same would be said of Wales. Northern Ireland's parliament may well also ask for similar powers, leaving Cameron "Prime Minister of the UK", but in practice, effectively just Prime Minister of England, but responsible for the defence and foreign policy of all parts of this so-called "UK".
This will make Cameron, and future UK Prime Ministers, more like an "official" head of government, if not in reality on the ground. The UK will effectively be more federalised, and less centrally-powerful in some ways, than the EU is now.
There's a beautiful irony to that fate for "Euro-cynic" Cameron.

So within four years, the UK will, barring a miracle, become another type of unique constititional entity in the world. Already the UK was renowned in the world as being the only joint monarchy of two consensual states (and confusing foreigners endlessly about what "Great Britain" and "The UK" was, and why the country has four different national sporting teams).
And we'll make it even more confusing after 2014, whereby "The UK" will have a national government that doesn't even properly rule within its own borders, making "The UK" as a nation-state less powerful than the smaller nation-states within it.

There is a wonderful irony here. That the UK, that most conservative of countries, that cherished its establishment and its institutions only fifteen years ago, has been so transformed in itself that the country's own people seem to be indifferent to the country's constitutional existence.
What happened to the "British"? The Scots, Welsh and English have rediscovered their sense of national identity, in spite of the common cultural ties. The other irony here is that there are probably more people from ethnic minorities who would call themselves "British" (albeit with a hyphen) than the "natives".

In this way, it adds to my idea that Britain as a socio-cultural concept is as distinct from Europe as is Scandinavia; everyone knows what "Scandinavians" are, their culture and peculiarities, even though, as a whole, they are several different nations. The UK exists as a default option for those people of the British Isles who don't feel quite up to the idea of going our own ways.

As Alex Salmond said, if Scotland went it alone, England would lose a surly lodger and gain a good neighbour. That's also what the Scandinavians did a hundred years ago; in spite of the friendly jokes that Scandinavians have between themselves (their version of the "Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman" jokes), they get on well as seperate nations.

In that sense, borders hardly matter at all if the cultural ties are still strong, as they are between the UK and Ireland. It looks like the UK will live on for a while yet, but any new British "marriage of convenience" will be no more than that: a pact between financially independent nations to pretend, for the sake of convenience, to be a single country, with a symbolic head of state, and a symbolic head of government.

And that seems a very "British" way of dealing with something. Funny.

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