Twenty-five years ago, Tom Nairn published The Break-up of Britain. There would be no need for the question-mark that some thought only prudent, he felt sure: that historical future was already upon us. Today, in a successor volume whose title likewise steals a march on the calendar, he does not even pause to say ‘I told you so’. The process of disintegration ‘is indeed under way, and there is now almost no one who believes otherwise’. After Britain, the first of a planned two-book set on the politics of the North Atlantic ‘archipelago’, aims to show that New Labour has unwittingly pitched the old state into terminal crisis, to specify what must now be done in Scotland, and to make a first estimate of the challenge now facing the most enigmatic of Westminster’s nationalities, the English.
The break-up is in the first place that of a territorial jurisdiction, Great Britain and Northern Ireland (plus the treaty possessions in the Irish Sea and the Channel). The historical condition of the break-up is the disarticulation of a certain ‘sovereignty’, which in Nairn’s idiosyncratic usage denotes a basic constitutional formula, a master-discourse capable of stabilizing the positive and negative terms of what is politically thinkable. That formula took shape in the 1680s, when the English parliament frustrated the absolutist presumptions of the (‘British’) Stuart monarchy—not, however, to invalidate them as such, merely to realize them for itself, in the doctrine of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. The crucial territorial gain came twenty years later, with the accession of the Scottish state to the Westminster constitution. This was the apparatus that oversaw the great expansion of British wealth and power over the next two hundred years, and which, after the Second World War, managed the diminuendo of Empire. Long stiffened in reaction to the American and French Revolutions, its basic formula weathered one hundred years of suffrage reforms, in the end seeing off the entire twentieth century. ‘The purloined absolutism’ of 1688 lived on, in a ‘primitive-modern’ apparatus of governance, the ultra-centralized, secretive, arbitrary, custom-ridden institution to which, in 1997, the electorate delivered Tony Blair.
New Labour, New Britain: there has been no respite from the Blairist mission. Yet within three years, Nairn argues, Blair had demonstrated the futility of the project, bringing the old constitutional formula to the point of rupture. Two large questions of state required early attention. One concerned the damage done to the Ukanian ruling bloc during the years of Thatcher’s garagiste campaign against Tory paternalism in the party and the Whitehall apparatus—the same years that witnessed the Buñuelesque deconsecration of the House of Windsor. The other concerned a cluster of political commitments, diverse in motivation and historic standing but convergent in final implication: the introduction of devolved government for Scotland and Wales, the restoration of a strategic authority for London, and an initiative capable of exploiting the new potential for a credible peace in Northern Ireland.
Only one coherent line of advance was available, according to Nairn and his co-thinker Anthony Barnett: a ‘constitutional revolution’ refounding Ukania as a democratic multi-national state, with a recognizably ‘modern’ Basic Law and appropriately federalized representative structures. The opportunity has been squandered. The Blair government has reformed in the ‘Celtic’ peripheries, in each case according to the given circumstances, and thus incoherently. At the same time, it has sought to renew the old prerogatives of the central state, diluting the long-standing promise of a Freedom of Information Act, temporizing over central electoral reform, and imposing an anti-democratic reform of the House of Lords—an infinite succession of appointed notables and celebrities to replace the old eternity of the blood-line. New Britain must first and last be ‘Britain’. But it cannot be. The discrepant constitutional changes on the periphery have undone the coherence of Old Sovereignty. As part of the Good Friday Agreement, Britain, like the Irish Republic, has withdrawn its claim of final jurisdiction over Northern Ireland; how ‘the greater number’ there will decide at length to exercise their power of self-determination is an open question. Scotland’s Union with Anglo-Britain rests on the original decisions of two parliaments, not that in London alone, and may be terminated with due notice; devolution, which Westminster unionists are prone to mistake for a concession or placebo, will vex the relationship to snapping-point. The Welsh Assembly, a more limited body in a more deeply incorporated country, will be alert to constitutional movement elsewhere.
Yet, thus far, Blair has perpetuated the arrogance of Westminster tradition, provoking popular electoral ‘mutinies’, as Nairn calls them, in Scotland and Wales (and most recently London, a less constitutionally fateful theatre, but an important anomaly, having the largest sub-state electorate in Britain). In the emerging conditions of a later Union, that of Europe, new national and regional departures appear less hazardous that they once were—or were plausibly argued to be. The alternatives to a unitary Britain are now tangible. But here again Blair has stumbled, in the face of vocal Europhobic campaigning in the London Parliament and press. Here are the multi-national conditions and the late-British syndromes of a coming disintegration. The obvious third possibility—neither centralism nor disintegration but a federalized state—is a paper option, Nairn maintains. First, it has never had significant political support in London. Second, even a timely federalist initiative would have had to deal with the difficulty that led Scotland’s treaty negotiators to settle for an ‘incorporating’ rather than a federal Union in the first place: England’s overwhelming demographic and economic weight in the island as a whole. This is one reason why the relations of inter-national equality essential to any acceptable federation seem beyond reach. Another is that, as Nairn puts it, there is nothing for Scotland-in-Britain ‘to be equal to’. England, alone now among the countries in a state it engineered and has always dominated, is constitutionally inchoate and politically ‘voiceless’ and, by most appearances, not much concerned about the fact. The English will find their own way out of the Anglo-British imaginary only in the process of the break-up. Blair’s incoherent ‘modernizing’ has confirmed English belatedness, at the same time as setting Scotland on an open road to ‘de facto independence’ and eventual formal separation. The end of that Union is the end of ‘Britain’.