The problem for Theresa May’s constant commands and pleas for ‘Unity” and togetherness is that we live in a state of radical incoherence with multiple splits and division. Britain doesn’t really exist in any meaningful sense beyond the increasingly strained cultural voices repeating it till they’re hoarse.
Colin Kidd and Malcolm Petrie explore these themes in a brilliant essay in the London Review of Books:
“Despite Theresa May’s calls during the election campaign for national unity, Britons don’t really live in a nation-state but in a multinational composite state, whose lineaments were set in the period between the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which established the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, and the Hanoverian accession in 1714. With the defeat of Catholic supporters of the deposed James II in Ireland – then a subordinate kingdom belonging to England – in 1690, sectarian divisions, which foreshadow the differences between today’s Ulster unionists and Irish nationalists, became more deeply entrenched. Gibraltar was acquired in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, with British possession confirmed in the Peace of Utrecht (1713). In the interim, the Treaty of Union (1707) brought together under a single crown-in-parliament the separate kingdoms of England and Scotland. For 250 years the shared enterprises of empire and warfare tended to obfuscate the fictive character of British ‘nationhood’, though not of course to Irish Catholics. But Brexit has opened up major fissures between the Westminster state and the component parts of this Greater England. Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted decisively against Brexit, and it still seems likely to prove controversial in both territories, despite the Tory revival in Scotland and the success of the anti-EU Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. In Gibraltar – the only British Overseas Territory in the EU – a near unanimous 95.9 per cent of the population supported Remain. Can Gibraltarians – any more than the Scots or Northern Irish – have confidence that an anglocentric, tabloid-tethered UK government will negotiate on behalf of their real interests?”
They go on to explore the tensions of Brexit meeting Devolution head-on:
“Twenty years ago New Labour thought devolution would reinvigorate Britishness. As George Robertson, one of Blair’s Scottish lieutenants, put it, devolution was meant to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. It didn’t quite work out like that in Scotland, and south of the border voters proved uninterested in the regional assemblies floated as the English component of this agenda.”
“Now Brexit threatens to shed a similarly unwelcome daylight on other anomalous features of the multinational state.
Here English and Scottish nationalists part company. While Scottish nationalists hope – quite properly – to repatriate Brussels-based powers in devolved matters such as agriculture to Edinburgh, May’s government has – whether out of ignorance or Middle English nationalism or both – signalled an intention to roll back devolution. The 1998 Scotland Act is explicit that all matters – unless expressly reserved to Westminster – belong to the remit of what is, significantly, a Scottish Parliament, not a mere assembly. May, however, has appeared intent on creating a very centralised post-Brexit UK single market, with London replacing Brussels as the regulatory enforcer of common standards.
In her speech to the Scottish Conservative conference in March, May issued what sounded to some Scots like a threat: ‘We must take this opportunity to bring our United Kingdom closer together.’ She stressed the need for measures that would maintain ‘the coherence and integrity’ of the UK. New Labour’s ‘devolution settlements’, she warned, ‘were designed in 1998 without any thought of a potential Brexit’.”
This is a very real threat and it’s one which the independence movement needs to understand.
Beyond the constitutional flux and incoherence, movements and parties are divided within themselves.
Nations and parties within nations are divided and confused.
The Conservatives are divided between ‘libertarians’ and old-school ‘values’, between Ruth Davidson and Anne Marie Morris. The uneasy peace between the Europhiles and Sceptics is creaking as the “will of the people” mantra fades and the actual existing reality of Brexit becomes clear. Labour was divided (but is now united) behind the parlous idea of a Corbyn victory, either that’s one we pretend has just happened or one we hope for in an imagined future. In Scotland it remains stalled and still-divided between Labour voters who can accommodate and associate constitutional change with social justice and those who see the real enemy as the SNP and the wider independence movement. The independence movement itself is divided by those who see the movement as driven by social justice and the need to transform Scotland, and those who are allergic to social change and proclaim the movement to be ‘beyond ideology’, preferring for such issues to be resolved at some point after. Such people are unconscious of their own position on the left-right spectrum and demand / require only that others do so.
Brexit has thrown these divisions into sharp-relief, exposing fault lines and national questions that are unresolvable by pleading for a false national unity and papering over the cracks of difference and the demand for change.
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