Irish Unification and Scottish Independence
It’s with great sadness to read that Keir Starmer has ditched Gordon Brown’s proposed constitutional reforms, though of course we did report this in November of last year (‘Excitable Scribes‘). The Observer reported “NEW: Keir Starmer has ditched his promise to abolish the House of Lords in a first term as he seeks to make the Labour manifesto “bombproof” of Tory attacks.”
Toby Helm and Michael Savage report that: “Labour’s cautious approach – which is frustrating some MPs and party members – is partly the result of uncertainty about the economic situation it will inherit and what can be afforded.” Though there is no explanation how long-promised constitutional reforms would be affected by the ‘economic situation’.`
The announcement must be a disappointment to Scottish Labour’s cheerleaders in the commentariat who have long lauded Gordon Brown’s endless ‘blueprints’ as some secret miracle in the making, proof of Real Labour, the Union and the The Future, all about to be rolled out in a fanfare. They were just sure it would.
Instead, we are facing the reality of Brexit, Panorama reveals that we are now the poorest country in Northern Europe and that the average British person is 60% poorer than the average American. Britain is broken and the incoming Labour government is promising, literally, to do nothing. But it’s not true that Britain is just in stasis. Beneath the impression of being stuck and moribund there are signs of deeper change beneath the surface.
Yesterday Northern Ireland’s devolved government was reconvened and appointed Michelle O’Neill as First Minister in a historic moment for Sinn Féin and Irish nationalism. The County Tyrone republican is the region’s first nationalist first minister – and the first non-unionist executive leader since the partition of Ireland in 1921. She struck a tone that was remarkable in its confidence and equanimity with little mention or reference to constitutional change, which was left to her counterpart Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, who said Irish unity was now within “touching distance”.
Of course this isn’t immanent, and there are huge hurdles to it happening, but it is possible in a way that it never has been in your lifetime. Just as Labour promises ‘no change’ change is taking place regardless. Poignantly as Gordon Brown’s proposals are quietly abandoned, some commentators realise this. Panicking in the Guardian Simon Jenkins writes (‘Northern Ireland will leave the union, and Scotland could too. True devolution is the only way to save it‘): “The UK is the only western European state whose unity is unstable, except for possibly Spain. Almost half of Northern Irish voters expect to rejoin the rest of Ireland within 20 years, and nearly 60% of Scots want some form of independence. Even in Wales, independence is favoured by almost a third. In all these cases, younger voters are the most eager for a breakup of the UK. This is hardly a trivial matter.”
In a typically confused ramble Jenkins writes: “In England, devolution is clearly popular among those to whom it applies …People of all ages, but especially the young, crave its enhanced local identity. But the UK’s separate “nations” are a constitutional mess and need reform.”
Note the inverted commas.
He finished: “In Northern Ireland, the only long-term future must lie in reunion with the Republic, eased by a Britain that rejoins the European single market …
“Scotland is a different matter. As the UK in 2016 slid so casually out of the EU, so could Scotland slide out of the UK. It should, by size and economic potential, be as rich and independent as Ireland or Denmark. Ireland shook off its reliance on the UK and became a Celtic Tiger. While it might be a pity – and a sad comment on England – Scotland could do the same. The next British government should start by tearing up the Barnett formula and devolving real power – fiscal power – in Scotland. Otherwise we should welcome the future Denmark of the British Isles.”
It’s a touching confidence from the writer, which few of his colleagues would openly share. His Scottish counterparts are full of despair and self-loathing about their countries future. But there is a chasm between his analysis – that deep constitutional change is required to save the Union – and the reality being spelt out by Keir Starmer.
Now we see the State of the Union report, from the ‘centre-right think-tank Onward. You can read it here. The report charts the rise in support for Scottish independence, in what is ‘likely to be the most comprehensive survey of public attitudes since the 2-14 referendum’. It concludes that:
“Scottish identity is increasingly becoming oppositional to British identity, driving a wedge through the Union in Scotland. This is not the case in other parts of the United Kingdom, where British and national identities co-exist without contest, although Welsh opinion appears to be shifting in the same direction…”
“This appears related to a steep divergence between the liberal values and welcoming political culture that Scots want their nation to embody, and those that they see as intrinsic to the UK, which they see as essentially conservative, values which are not seen as an anathema in other devolved nations.”
“The question for policymakers in the coming years will be how to reconcile these two opposing conceptions, so that citizens of devolved nations see their values as aligned to those of the wider United Kingdom. Given the importance of national identity to voter intention, it is the most important question Unionists have to answer.”
What Onward tells us, and we can see across polling, is that support for self-determination lives on despite the SNP policy failures, relentless attacks on devolution, Labour’s assumed ascendancy, the media Ducking Stool of Sturgeon and the press consensus about the state of Scotland (awful).
The wider picture is that resistance to change, denial of difference, suppression of devolution has not and will not strengthen the Union. As we wrote here (‘Peace Babies, Generation Yes and the End of Britain‘) the demographic shifts we can see across the Irish Sea are mirrored in Scotland and Wales. The reality for those celebrating the demise of the SNP and Labour’s triumph as if it is the sign of a ‘return to default’ Britain should remember that more than two-thirds of under-25s, all of whom were too young to vote in 2014, support independence today.
None of this going away and the likelihood next of Mary Lou McDonald becoming Taoiseach is high. Irish unification will push the disintegration of the United Kingdom and wider Celtic self-determination will be propelled by British intransigence and the complacency of Starmer’s manifesto of nothingness.