The british political class had to confront three disruptive upsurges in the 2010s: the Scottish independence movement, the campaign for Brexit and the mobilization behind Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party. However much they differed in social composition and political inflexion, these revolts were all reactions against long-term dysfunctions of the British state and its parties of government, intensified by the crash of 2008 and the decade of austerity that followed it.footnote1 The 2019 general election eliminated one challenge, restoring control of the Labour machine to the party’s old guard, and enabled Boris Johnson to resolve another problem on his desired terms, taking Britain out of the eu Single Market and Customs Union and leaving Northern Ireland to plough its own furrow, much to the fury of his erstwhile Unionist allies. After a period in which the Brexit crisis had effectively paralyzed the normal functioning of Westminster, not even a global pandemic could disturb the euphoria of those tasked with conducting or reporting on parliamentary business.
However, the temporary restoration of stability at the centre came at the price of greater disruption on the uk’s periphery. Johnson’s electoral triumph and the hard Brexit deal gave a new lease of life to the cause of Scottish independence. Brexit also created a fresh dilemma for the governing of Northern Ireland, where the 2016 eu Referendum had already reopened questions seemingly put to bed by the peace settlement of 1998. In May 2022 Sinn Féin, the main Irish-nationalist party, leapfrogged the dup, its chief Unionist rival, for the first time in the century since Ireland’s Partition. This came twelve months after the 2021 Scottish Parliament election delivered a third consecutive majority for pro-independence parties, the Scottish Nationalists and the Greens. In both regions, the call for a break with London now elicits wide popular support. The task of seizing these opportunities to advance the deconstruction of the United Kingdom will fall primarily to Sinn Féin and the snp, the dominant expressions of nationalist opinion on either side of the North Channel. What type of threat do they represent to the continuation of the uk national state in its current form? Might the long-heralded break-up of Britain be on the horizon? We can get a better sense of their prospects for success by looking at these parties and the wider traditions on which they draw in a long-term and comparative perspective.
In 1968, Tom Nairn extended a cautious welcome to the belated arrival of Scottish nationalism as a political force. But he warned against any self-aggrandizing attempts to borrow the trappings of anti-colonial revolution:
Scotland is not a colony, a semi-colony, a pseudo-colony, a near-colony, a neo-colony, or any kind of colony of the English. She is a junior but (as these things go) highly successful partner in the general business enterprise of Anglo-Scots Imperialism. Now that this business is evidently on its last legs, it may be quite reasonable for the Scots to want out. But there is really no point in disguising this desire with heroic ikonry. After all, when the going was good for Imperialism, the world heard very little indeed for the Scots’ longing for independence.footnote2
Nairn also referred acidly to ‘the ludicrous phoniness of that comparison of themselves with the Irish the Scots are fond of in this context’:
The Irish rose up and wrenched their independence from Imperialism when the latter was at the apex of its power. With sleekit Presbyterian moderation the Scots have restrained themselves until it is abundantly plain that the English would be incapable of stopping an insurrection on the Isle of Wight.footnote3
Needless to say, this divergence between Scottish and Irish nationalism was a matter of social context rather than moral character, and has deep historical roots. Scotland may have entered the early-modern period as a poor land on the fringes of Christendom, but it had a monarch recognized as such by more powerful sovereigns, and an alliance with France to offset English preponderance. Ireland, on the other hand, was deeply fragmented, not only between pint-sized kingdoms whose territory could sometimes be surveyed from the top of a nearby hill, but also between Gaelic society and the Anglo-Norman bridgehead established on the east coast by a twelfth-century invasion force.