It’s twenty-one years since the original, failed referendum on devolution to Scotland and Wales in 1979, and so perhaps an appropriate moment to look back over this history.footnote1 Changes in the structure of the United Kingdom that were only prospected a generation ago are now fully under way. The uncertain eddies of the 1970s have turned into the rapids of 2000. A book was published earlier this year with the title The Day Britain Died. In 1979 such a title would have proclaimed the author, Andrew Marr, as an emissary out of dreamland. But in 2000 the lunatic turns out to be the new Chief Political Correspondent of the BBC—successor to the ultra-balanced Robin Oakley and (before that) the ultra-noncommittal John Cole.

Thus has History moved on. Where is it bearing us? As we accelerate into these rapids, there are some who hear the roar of a great waterfall ahead. Taking a larger view, we all know very well that since the 1980s, other rapids of disintegration have brought about general ruin and unresolved conflicts, in Indonesia, Eastern Europe, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. So why not here? The most generally debated scenario along these disastrist lines goes something like this. The United Kingdom has begun to ‘break up’ in the sense of falling apart into contending nationalist camps. Part of that dissolution goes back to the 1920s—Southern Ireland—and the rest is now upon us. A holding operation may have been undertaken in Northern Ireland; but although this is working for the moment, it is unlikely to last. In the main or ‘British’ island, devolution of power to Scotland and Wales seems likely to fuel rather than to appease the rise of nationality-politics. Mild-mannered as the new Parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff may seem, they are bound to fall out with the UK state sooner or later, and so provoke reassertive or compensatory national animosity in England.

On the analogy of Serbia or Russia, a resentful and demoted (or even humiliated) elite will then try to preserve its privileged role and, if unsuccessful, obtain revenge by other means. Populist ‘What about us!’ sentiment will be worked up in the notorious British tabloid manner, and is likely to be politically appropriated by otherwise bankrupt or down-at-heel parties and leaders. It’s not clear who is cut out to be Belarus, Bosnia or Chechnya in this perspective. But what is pretty clear is that anybody easily identifiable as an internal enemy or fifth column would have a hard time of it. The big immigrant minorities of England would occupy the most exposed positions here. There could be a malignant growth of what Darcus Howe in The White Tribe called ‘the Dover mentality’ (‘the mark of the beast’); I’ll return to the question of that growth, and what might foster (or arrest) it.

Sometimes this is called the ‘four-nations’ formula, with reference to the supposed four main ethnic countries of the archipelago.footnote2 To sum up: the four-nations formula can be seen as suggesting that, perhaps before too long—while thousands cram into Heathrow on their way home to Jamaica or Pakistan—Jean-Marie Le Pen will be on his way over to address the House of Commons. His chosen theme is ‘Duc Guillaume jusqu’à Guillaume Hague: racines d’une vraie alliance européenne’. Later in the same day Mr. Le Pen is expected to don ermine and join Vladimir Putin as an Honorary Lord of the restructured Second Chamber.

Too easy to mock, I know, when real fears are involved, reinforced by hooligans with knives, by firebombs and institutional discrimination. So what is the alternative? What optional scenarios might more usefully be occupying our minds for ‘after Britain’, or ‘beyond The White Tribe’? More particularly—what most people want to know—are any of these more hopeful and more probable?

Here we encounter a strange problem. Not only is there such an alternative, there are so many of the damned things that you already need a dictionary of futurology to help out. Those dazzling blueprints invariably portray a tidied-up archipelago and globe from which the ogre of nationalism has been exorcized. In more recent examples the World Trade Organization is exorcized as well, and history as we know it has indeed ended. Unfortunately at the same time—and rather worryingly—what Ted Hughes called ‘the salt taste of reality’ has somehow ended as well. All round Regionalism; Subsidiarity (in the liturgy of the European Union); Federalism and its fifty-seven subspecies (asymmetric, hierarchical, confederal, consociational, and so forth). However wildly different on paper, all such plans are deemed better than the dreary, out-of-date nation-state. All are guaranteed to satisfy and so eliminate the supposed atavistic impulses of unrestrained ethnic human nature: racialism, communalism, nationalism and their insupportable political consequences. Yet all have also somehow left behind the constantly disconcerting universe we actually inhabit—the world of uneven development, of the unforeseen collapses and epiphanies which actual sea changes have cast up on the beach where we live.

I’ve made no secret of a personal preference towards a restructured archipelago (and Europe) of smaller-scale republics, but no purpose would be served by merely adding one more such scheme to the cache of utopianism. Instead, I think it would be more rewarding to look at one or two things which have actually happened. At plans that have left the drawing-board and become reality, and some other things which weren’t planned at all, but are happening, and may be even more important. May it not be that these more effectively indicate some different way or ways ahead? That is, ways towards an alternative ‘Britain’ which—I do think we can be reasonably sure of this—will be neither the ancient, unitary state-regime that still persists through Blairism, nor its simple fragmentation into separate ethno-states?