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Magic Potions and Muscular Unionism 2.0

Writing in the New Statesman Chris Deerin opines: “There are people for whom there is no step too far or too mad in their campaign to keep Scotland in the UK. A small, twitchy band of ultra-Unionists spend their time snuffling in the constitutional undergrowth for magic potions that might somehow cure the wicked urge to self-determination.”
Your timeline may be full of them, and one standout example is Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove who this week brought forward proposals that Scottish MPs will be given the right to “vote down English legislation in a major constitutional reform being considered by the government to rejuvenate the Union.”

The Times reported “Under the plans, which were put to cabinet ministers last week, the requirement that bills, amendments and clauses of legislation affecting England alone be approved by a majority of English MPs would be abolished to make parliament work “for every part of the UK and every party in the UK”.

This smacks of desperation and chaos-making but is precisely on-brand for the Johnson administration.


But Gove’s shenanigans have caused confusion and disarray amongst the Union’s finest commentariat. Deerin cites the off-message Philip Rycroft  and Ciaran Martin.
Rycroft is quoted: “Brexit stripped away the ambiguity of the devolution settlements … “The way that Brexit has happened has demonstrated just where power rests within this Union. There’s an argument that part of the reason the Union has subsisted over many centuries is because of that self-denying ordinance on the part of the English not to assert their view over other parts of the UK. Well, Brexit is an assertion of an English view. And of course that has had a huge impact on perceptions in Scotland.”
Ciaran Martin says: “England has always had the electoral majority but has never really used it. Now it is saying ‘we want to define the state – if you want to stay in it you stay in it on our terms.’ It’s a take it or leave it choice.”
Deerin know exactly what’s going on: ” …muscular unionism is the order of the day. At the weekend it emerged that British diplomats have been told to stop referring to the UK as a union of four nations and instead assert its status as one country. The British government is planning to spend large amounts in devolved areas and to stick a great big Union Jack on its infrastructure projects. The Tories’ Internal Market Bill is a deliberate attempt to roll back some of the powers passed to the devolved parliaments.”
Finally he quotes Rycroft again: “Frankly, the respect word… has been missing from the equation over the last four or five years.” You don’t deal with rising support for independence “by asserting the symbols of the state that a lot of people are finding objectionable… [and] to do it over the heads of the democratically elected devolved government in Scotland, I think it appeals to far too narrow a band of opinion in Scotland.”
But there the consensus begins to crumble. All seems crystal clear, but over at the Times Kenny Farquharson writes: “EVEL is also a necessary step to a more federal Britain. Where’s the gain in scrapping it?”
Farquharson tweets: “Specifically, I have never understood the narrative that has come to be the orthodox view (and was aired again in New Statesman last week) that Cameron’s big mistake was announcing EVEL the day after indyref1. Seemed to me a welcome step towards a better Britain.”
This is strange. EVEL as a welcome step toward a better Britain? EVEL means Britain is on a path to federalism? Really? This is the sort of fever-dream of liberal unionists like Farquharson who pepper the senior editorial posts of most of the British media. They continue to push the line of Britain as a benign and open entity even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The article which Farquharson is challenged by was by Colin Kidd, professor of history at St Andrews University. In it he reviews Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain by Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones (Oxford University Press).

Kidd writes: “Brexit apart, the decisive moment so far in the unravelling of Britain came not – as some, myself included, had feared – on 18 September 2014, when the Scottish nation voted against independence. It arrived first thing the next day at 7am when David Cameron announced that, with the Scottish referendum out of the way, it was now time to assuage the grievances of the English nation. Cameron’s trumpeting of English votes for English laws (with its unfortunate acronym, EVEL) had devastating consequences in Scotland where many anti-independence voters – the reluctant and the switherers – found themselves suddenly, ­regretfully undeceived.”

As Kidd points out, Cameron had been warned against doing this. Alistair Darling, the chair of Scotland’s Better Together campaign, had called Cameron and warned him not to make the statement knowing it would be inflamatory and destructive.

It was.

Kidd: “Cameron’s speech unintentionally subverted the Union, but it had other side ­effects too. It launched a bizarre train of events which led to the Tories’ ­serendipitous discovery of a magic election winning formula – posh boys posing as populist English nationalists; to Brexit; and to Cameron’s own unanticipated ejection from Downing Street. By continuing to court English nationalism, the Tories have created an intolerable situation in which they dominate England but guarantee a SNP government in Scotland.”

Kidd reckons that Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones, and Gavin Esler all realise that “English and Scottish nationalisms are not only antagonistic but co-dependent: the rise of the SNP has provoked an English nationalist response which in turn appals Scottish opinion, and so the spiral of instability continues.”

It’s into this context that Gove’s latest Magic Potion is dropped.

Everyone – even the dogs on the street – know that this government is not a reform government ably spilling powers north and west, it’s a recklessly power-hungry government capturing whatever powers it can as they leak out in the post-Brexit chaos. The British states innate tendency is to centralise.


But both can’t be right. Deerin, Rycroft and Martin (and every sentient adult in Scotland) witnessing muscular unionism in action – or Farquharson witnessing the unfolding of a Federal Britain.

It’s not that this Fever Dream wasn’t possible, A Federal Britain is possible but it would need such a spectacularly long list of counter-factuals to be in place. It would have needed: The Vow to be upheld; Labour to be in office;  there to be a powerful urge and movement for devolved rule for England; the British state and constitution and power bases to be open and susceptible to radical constitutional change; there to be a media and political leadership capable of holding mature debate. Each of these on their own seem fanciful in the extreme, as a collective set of conditions they seem wildly unlikely.

Now, undoing EVEL (English votes for English laws) does nothing to re-set a half-broken constitution.

It would surely enrage the perpetually aggrieved English nationalists who are hungry but dissatisfied with the pyrrhic victory of Brexit – but who else would it satisfy?

The answer is given by a Whitehall source quoted by The Times who said: “Abolishing Evel would reaffirm the fundamental constitutional principle that we are one United Kingdom, with a sovereign parliament comprising members elected on a basis of equality, representing every community in the land, able to make laws for the whole kingdom.”

There you have it. It’s very muscular unionism. It’s Westminster taking back control, it’s a step away from “allowing” a referendum it’s about asserting Westminster and undermining devolution.

It’s a flex.

It’s also a departure from all the language about ‘pooling and sharing’ the ‘Awesome Foursome’ (cringe) the ‘Family of Nations’ and all of the other empty slogans that have been applied over the years – it’s now simply ‘Britain’. This is Muscular Unionism 2.0.

It’s also chaos and Gove’s suggestions are either another media spin to divert and distract or another sign of a direction of travel for the UK government. I suspect the latter.

Colin Kidd concludes: “The Union exists, rather, as a series of grudging bilateral relationships between the three peripheral nations and an English core whose surrogates are Westminster and Whitehall. English nationalists’ pride in the prestige and idea of Great Britain is largely vacuous, ill-informed and accompanied by festering resentment of the largesse enjoyed by their fellow Britons. Worse still, English nationalists cling possessively to British institutions, regarding them as their own – as “English in all but name”. Well might ­Scottish unionists despair, when their ­English partners are no more respectful of the Union than the SNP.”

Brexit Britain and its grotesquely wealthy beneficiaries have managed to persuade voters with a sense of abandonment that an exclusivist sense of national identity is the answer to their social chaos. But as Kidd points out in his review of Englishness: “Those in England who are most explicitly nationalist about the British state are those whose identity is English, not – as we might expect – those who identify as British.” In other words English nationalism (re) produces Britishness. In these circumstances Gove’s bizarre proposal almost make sense. For a new Hyper-Unionism breaking Britain by smashing devolution is just part of Britain’s new-found Global Greatness. For those imagining a Scottish, or even an English democracy it will cause further chaos.  

Comments (34)

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    “Those in England who are most explicitly nationalist about the British state are those whose identity is English”.

    It’s the same in Scotland going by the team they support in the Euros.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    And who better to trumpet Muscular Unionism than Bodger Broon, who once again is stalking the land with Cassandra messages of 50 years of conflict between Scotland and England, and given his chumminess with Prince William and his meetings with Michael Gove, there is no doubt whose side of the argument the muscular oafish Bodger will be on.

    Oh, and he has a book to sell, about how he an save the world a second time. Even the English nationalist Guardian is sceptical about his thesis.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    What reward can smaller countries expect by hanging on to the coat-tails of England (when it feels like flexing those muscles)?

  4. Richard Benifer says:

    The Westminster Government and the Mainstream media refer to the constituent parts of the UK as nations; I think we need to be wary of adopting their language. England, Wales, and Scotland are not just nations, but are countries. A good argument could be made that Northern Ireland is also a country, as successor state to the whole of Ireland within the UK after 1921-22.

  5. Andrew Craig says:

    Reading Mike Small’s excellent piece and then Colin Kidd’s equally penetrating review of “Englishness” in the New Statesman, brought me back – as so often – to Tom Nairn’s 1977 insight on the root of the “English problem” which, if anything, has become exacerbated in recent years. He said: “The English need to rediscover who and what they are, to reinvent an identity of some sort better than the battered cliche-ridden hulk which the retreating tide of imperialism has left them,” (The Break Up of Britain: crisis and neonationalism p 248).

    An English Parliament might have helped ameliorate this problem of finding an English identify and purpose, but oddly there isn’t much (any?) clamour for that in England. Muscular Unionism 2.0 is never going to deliver what they want either. The lost empire dominating far distant peoples (and also the Irish closer to home) isn’t coming back. Neither is Federalism, not now at any rate, any answer. The centrifugal forces already at work within these islands are accelerating. The Govester’s bizarre suggestion about abolishing EVEL is as symptomatic of that as it is fanciful. I wonder if he had been on the blower to Mr Broon about it beforehand?

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      Gobo would’ve told him “you can always reinstate it after the referendum”.

  6. Mouse says:

    ‘A Federal Britain is possible’

    A Federal anywhere is not technically possible in a monarchy. Hence, it’s called the ‘United Kingdom of GB etc’. It’s not going to be the ‘Federation of GB etc’.

    ‘The vow’…. Oh, jeezo. That still seems to be hyper-inflated as something shattering. Re-print the bi-partisan vow so people can actually read it. It won’t take up much space.

    I think the article is basically about Gove’s comments on Evel. I actually support the current Evel arrangement where Scottish MPs can’t sit on committees discussing proposed legislation that is fully the responsibility of Holyrood. They still get to vote on it. That’s like the member for Plymouth West getting to vote at Holyrood on some Scottish education bill. We aren’t tolerant enough for that.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      The usual unionist mendacity, making things up. Typical of the bombastic gnomic pronouncements we heard during 2014, from The Bodger and others.

      There are existing federations which are monarchies and there have been many others in the past, with Canada and Australia being examples,

      The ‘unwritten constitution’ of the UK means in practice that things are made up depending on circumstances to suit the ruling clique.

      Systems of governance are the creation of people and can be adapted to suit. They are not like the laws of physics.

      1. Mouse says:

        Neither Canada or Australia are called Federations (they can be described as quasi-federal). Bizarrely, they both require the Queens representative to sign-off their government legislation. In the case of Australia, they even voted in favour of it.

        You are a unionist 🙂 na-na-na-nah-nah



      2. Colin Robinson says:

        ‘Systems of governance are the creation of people and can be adapted to suit. They are not like the laws of physics.’

        And that’s the advantage of having an uncodified constitution: it’s unfixed and adaptable; as a body of law, it can evolve to suit any change in circumstance.

        1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          And so can constitutions.

          The problem as I see with ‘make-it-up-as-you-go-along’ is that it is done to suit the needs of the small clique whom FPTP suits. The current UK government is the most egregious example in my lifetime.

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            Yes, the current electoral system does tend strongly to produce oligarchy rather than democracy. This is also an obstacle to our having a constitution that evolves organically in response to changing circumstances.

    2. Mouse says:

      Sorry, I was wrong – Scottish MP’s don’t get to vote on the consent for legislation that is the responsibility of Holyrood in Scotland. They only get to debate it. Fair enough, as far as I’m concerned. ‘Fair’ as in ‘fair’; I don’t take the arrangement as an expression of English / Welsh nationalistic flag-waving.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        No, it is not ‘fair’. It was an example of David Cameron making things up to suit his short term political needs.

        Westminster is supposed to be the UK parliament, but, is in practice the pre-1707 English Parliament continuing.

        The nature of devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, some powers have been devolved and some retained at Westminster. One of the most crucial relates to finance – The Treasury holds the purse strings and the spending powers of the Parliaments in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff are restricted and limited, as are their revenue raising powers.

        When MPs sitting for English constituencies deal with an ‘English’ matter, they are doing it as UK MPs and the Chancellor (currently an MP for an English constituency) has to authorise any relevant funding. So, because these are UK funds, it is legitimate for MPs from NI, Scotland and Wales to vote (although some have always operated self-denying principles), because this has an impact on the budget of the entire UK. The ‘Barnett Formula” is an invented mechanism to try to deal with this.

        The NI, Scottish and Welsh Parliaments make spending decisions based on the funding allocated to them under the devolution settlements and so, there is no locus for MPs for English constituencies in these decisions.

        However, because Westminster retains overall authority under the ‘make-it-up-as-you-go-along’ constitution, MPs for English constituencies could move to block or change decisions by Belfast, Edinburgh of Cardiff. They can do this simply because there are more MPs for England than the other four countries together. So, people in NI, Scotland and Wales can have things which they wish denied and things which they do not wish imposed.


        1. Colin Robinson says:

          The situation is exactly the same with reference to the relation between the Scottish government and more local authorities. In fact, in relation to Holyrood, Dumfries and Galloway Council has less power than Holyrood does in relation to Westminster; so the situation within Scotland is actually worse.

          What’s the prospect of an ‘independent’ Scotland being constituted as a federation of smaller autonomous republics rather than as a UK-style unitary state? That’s not the future that the Scottish government is currently building.

    3. Colin Robinson says:

      I don’t see why a federation of states with a single monarch as overall head of the federation is technically impossible.

    4. Colin Robinson says:

      “‘The vow’…. Oh, jeezo. That still seems to be hyper-inflated as something shattering. Re-print the bi-partisan vow so people can actually read it. It won’t take up much space.”

      Not much space indeed! It reads:

      “Extensive new powers for the [Scottish] parliament will be delivered by the process and to the timetable agreed and announced by our three parties [ – the Conservatives, Labour, and the Lib-Dems].”

      The problem was that ‘our three parties’ didn’t agree on what those ‘extensive new powers’ should be. Hence the Smith Commission, which was charged with bringing ‘our three parties’ together with the Scottish Nationalists and the Scottish Greens to thrash out an agreed constitutional settlement. The work of the Commission issued in the 2016 Scotland Act.

      So, with the Scotland Act, ‘our three parties’ can be said to have fulfilled their ‘vow’.

      (BTW: in my submission to the Smith Commission, I argued for the further devolution of power to more local authorities rather than the devolution of further powers to the Scottish government. I don’t think my proposal was ever seriously considered by the parties involved.)

  7. scrandoonyeah says:

    Maybe write an article about ‘Magic potions and skeletal Nationalism……..a Sturgeons brew’

  8. Topher Dawson says:

    “Under the plans, which were put to cabinet ministers last week, the requirement that bills, amendments and clauses of legislation affecting England alone be approved by a majority of English MPs would be abolished to make parliament work “for every part of the UK and every party in the UK”.

    Is this intended to make it easier for English MP’s to take part in a power grab from the Scottish Government?

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Well, the Tories are certainly going to use their majority to pass an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland, but, while some of the ‘loyalist’ Tories will be supporting their DUP brethern, Labour and other parties, will ensure it passes.

      However, because of its history, Northern Ireland cannot be directly compared with Scotland and Wales, where both Parliaments have worked pretty well and have governed sensibly and in the interests of the residents of their countries. However the interests of the residents of Scotland and Wales are not things which the Tories want to encourage and so, you are right to see the changes to the EVEL convention in the wider context that you do.

    2. Colin Robinson says:

      The proposal is just a tokenistic expression of unionism. I don’t think EVEL made much practical difference to government in any case. It was actually suspended in April 2020 to streamline UK parliamentary procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic, and no one seems to have noticed. The whole English power-grab thing is just another manufactured grievance in our grudge-and-grievance politics.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        You are right about the ‘practical difference’ EVEL made, but it was one factor in the growing English nationalism which led to Brexit. The Government is using it cynically to indicate that it is ‘sacrificing’ a ‘special power for England’, in the interests of the governance of the UK as a whole.

        So Topher Dawson’s point is valid.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          “The Government is using it cynically to indicate that it is ‘sacrificing’ a ‘special power for England’, in the interests of the governance of the UK as a whole.”

          I agree; it’s abandoning what England got instead of devolution. But this wasn’t the point Topher was making.

          1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            Sadly, many people in England have still not grasped that the UK Government is not the government of England and that with regard to governance, England has been denied the kind of governance which Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have. The powers that we and the Irish and Welsh have are constrained, not least with regard to finance, but, at least we have some control over the direction of our countries. It is this latter that the Tories wish to withdraw.

            There seems to be some nebulous awareness developing in parts of England, especially in the north west, that London does not give the interests of Manchester, Liverpool, Preston, etc much attention.

            The issue of independence might well depend on how things develop in Ireland and in parts of England. Johnson et al might actually have to deliver on some of the promises they have made to the so-called ‘red wall’ constituencies. And, perhaps, following the Amersham and Chesham result, they might have to pay some more attention to the ‘shires’, where the one-nation Tory theme had some resonance. Johnson’s purged Tory party could not give a monkey’s about anything other than their own narrow self-interests as we have seen with the cronyism in the allocation of contracts.

          2. Colin Robinson says:

            Yes, England does seem to lack a national institution around which a specifically English civic identity could coalesce within the UK. This is maybe the key thing that the Union lacks in its current form.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Colin Robinson, except for, oh, the Anglican Church. Even has an Anglo-centric name. Anglicanism. Wasn’t that the big idea? English Empire, Henry VIII totalitarianism, spread English values of humbug, hypocrisy, cant. Kissing the hem of royalty. Institutional child sexual abuse. Or maybe they’ve finally caved in to peace, love and internationalism, now:

          4. Colin Robinson says:

            How does the Anglican Church supply the national institution around which a specifically English *civic* identity could coalesce within the UK? Indeed, how could any church possibly perform this function?

          5. SleepingDog says:

            @Colin Robinson, Jings, I’m no expert; let me see, something along the lines suggested by this effort perhaps?
            I didn’t say it would work. But presumably it was a tool for the job in the past, although an established Church is not an arms-length organization, it has spawned a movement that at least pretends to civic traditions and criticism of secular authorities. The rate that some people seem to want England to move backwards in time, perhaps they hope to ‘coalesce’ around it in increasing numbers.

          6. Colin Robinson says:

            But in his speech, the Archbishop isn’t proposing the Anglican Church as a national institution around which a specifically English civic identity could coalesce within the UK. He’s only vacuously proposing some common moral narrative of kindness and inclusiveness; ‘vacuously because he makes no suggestion as to the institutional forms in which that narrative might be realised, the structural changes from which that moral change might follow.

          7. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            The Anglican Church has been described as ‘The Conservative Party at prayer”. It is an ‘established church, which has the monarch as its head and its bishops are appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Government. Its bishops sit in the House of Lords and so are part of the law making body.

            While, undoubtedly, there have been ‘troublesome priests’ over the centuries, the CofE is a conservative and Conservative body, to a fair extent and, if it strays too far from what the establishment wants, it is likely to meet a similar fate to that of Thomas a’Beckett. So, I think this existential threat limits the extent to which it can define a humane Englishness, disentangled from Britishness. That assumes that its officials comprehend that England and Britain are not the same entity.

          8. SleepingDog says:

            @Alasdair Macdonald, well, yes, my comments were in the context of a potential for disestablishmentarianism, but I muddied the waters by introducing a regressive antidisestablishmentarianism:

          9. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            SleepingDog, perhaps you should stop taking the prolixity pills!

            I had been hoping to use the same terms myself, but you beat me to it ….. so I have replied pure bealinly.

          10. Colin Robinson says:

            Spot on, Alasdair! The Anglican Church can’t supply a specifically English civic identity within the UK. This is maybe the key thing that the Union lacks in its current form; namely, a devolved assembly or parliament for England.

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