Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

11 May 2008

The UK After Britain: Who Decides?

All of a sudden, the landscape seems to have shifted. Within the space of a month, two at most maybe, England appears to have come back into fashion. It now seems acceptable, in ‘progressive’ political commentary in the official press and on the blogosphere, to talk about what kind of England ‘we’ wish to create after the demise of the Union. It’s taken the realisation that the Conservatives will probably win outright at the next general election – a conclusion formed by many, including myself, after Labour’s disastrous local-election performance last week – to finally take on board the fact that the days of the Union are numbered and we’ll have to start talking and thinking about a separate England whether we like it or not. Welcome to the fold of sanity, one is tempted to say in greeting of the new converts!

Why is the break up of the Union so likely under Cameron? Well, it would only be hastening the inevitable, in any case. The reason, of course, is that if the Tories do win a comfortable parliamentary majority (albeit on a minority of the popular vote), this will be almost entirely on the basis of votes cast and seats won in England, while they have practically disappeared as an electoral force in Scotland and aren’t doing that much better in Wales. The prospect of living under a hated ‘English’ Conservative UK government, opposed to granting more powers to Holyrood, and perhaps reducing the influence, number and hence relevance of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament while forcing down the public-expenditure budget for Scotland, would almost certainly provide the final push and persuade a majority of the Scottish people to vote for independence – a referendum on which the SNP plans to hold in 2010. And if a referendum at that time were blocked by the other parties at Holyrood, then the next Scottish general election in 2011 would effectively be turned into a referendum in all but name.

In any case, it’s hard to see Scotland surviving in the Union till the end of a Cameron government unless the Tories come to their senses and realise that if they want to preserve any sort of Union, they’ll have to grant equal nation status and representation to each of the nations of the UK under a federal system, including England. As I’ve suggested before, maybe Cameron will do a deal with the SNP to hold a referendum after the 2012 Olympics – giving him two years to concoct a plan to save the Union.

However, rather than trying in vain to save the Union, would it not be far more sensible and show more foresight to start planning now for the future for all the countries of the UK after the end of the Union? The federal option is one such possible future. If, on the other hand, Scotland decides to go it alone, as now appears more likely, what then for England – and for Wales and Northern Ireland? Shouldn’t we start thinking and talking about the future for these countries (and also for Cornwall) – whether we stay together under new constitutional arrangements or whether we, too, go down the road of independence? Such ‘national conversations’ in each of our countries – mirroring the national conversation the SNP government has got going in Scotland – would provide an opportunity for ordinary citizens to have an input and try to get their voice heard, offering a chance to prevent the process being run by Westminster politicians seeking to preserve their privileges and their power.

The window of opportunity to hold these conversations is the period running up to a Scottish referendum on independence. Indeed, if we do not start working out what sort of future we want as nations after the Union, we could end up having that future dictated to us by the outcome of the Scottish vote. There’s a strong argument for saying that the people of Scotland alone do not have the right, at least morally, to determine the future of a union that involves many more people than just the Scots. (Last week, the Scottish Labour Party may already have conceded the constitutional principle that Holyrood has the ‘sovereign right’ to call such a referendum on its own initiative, as Anthony Barnett observed.) We’ve already seen the destructive effects of letting the Scots and Welsh vote on devolution without giving the people of England a say on whether they wanted the same constitutional arrangements for England; so we should not wander carelessly into a repeat of the same sort of mistake, but this time one with potentially even more drastic consequences.

In a comment on the OurKingdom blog last week, I argued that it would be illogical to extend a referendum on Scotland’s independence to all the citizens of the UK, in that only the Scottish people could be said to have a moral or constitutional right to vote on their nation’s status. The only way to give the other nations a say on the matter of independence at the same time as the Scottish vote would be ask the same question of voters in those countries; i.e. to ask the English whether they want an independent England, and the same for Wales and Northern Ireland (and possibly Cornwall).

In other words, a Scottish referendum on independence is asking voters there to answer essentially two questions rolled into one: 1) do you want the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as presently constituted to come to an end? 2) do you want this end to come in the form of independence for Scotland? If Scottish voters are entitled to determine whether the UK breaks up, then it should be self-evident that people in the other nations of the UK are entitled to the same choice. That’s the first of the two questions. In relation to the second, it’s unworkable and inequitable to ask the Scots if they want independence while asking the rest of the UK if they want something else, such as a federal UK, or a re-design of the devolution settlement creating English and Welsh parliaments, for instance. We should be asked the same question, and be given the same choice, as it relates to each nation in turn. And if the Scots voted for independence, this could simply invalidate referendums in England and Wales asking a different question, as the whole constitutional set up would have be re-evaluated and renegotiated as part of Scotland’s secession.

So if an independence referendum in Scotland now appears inevitable – whether it comes in 2010, 2011, 2012 or whenever – the people should demand equivalent referendums in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and maybe also Cornwall). It’s not just up to the Scots to strike the final nail into the Union coffin; and if they get the option of voting for independence, so should the other nations of the UK.

And in the meantime – in the two to four years running up to a likely Scottish vote – it’s time for the people of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall to take charge of their future by starting to really reflect and debate what they want that future to be: a federal UK whose constitutional framework and institutional structures could be the same whether Scotland were included or not? Independence for each country? A new state of England and Wales, with devolved parliaments for Wales and Cornwall, and Northern Ireland becoming part of a united Ireland with strong guarantees for the rights of the Protestant community? A separate England with the ‘Celtic’ nations of the British Isles joined together into a new confederation?

It’s time to get those ‘national conversations’ going in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall. The future is ours, and the people – not the politicians – should decide.

Subsequent to this post, I’ve started a new blogsite intended to kick off just such a national conversation for England.



  1. […] At the same time as this Scottish vote, the people of England (and, indeed, Wales, Northern Ireland and possibly Cornwall) should also be allowed to have referendums on whether they want England (and Wales, N. Ireland and Cornwall) to be independent from the other countries of the present United Kingdom. An argument justifying this can be found here. […]

    Pingback by Should England have a referendum on independence? « A National Conversation For England — 11 May 2008 @ 4.52 pm | Reply

  2. “We’ve already seen the destructive effects of letting the Scots and Welsh vote on devolution without giving the people of England a say on whether they wanted the same constitutional arrangements for England;”

    Prior to 1997 Wales and Scotland had a form of administrative devolution which proved unsatisfactory. A referendum was held on whether to move to elective devolution. England had no such corresponding arrangements at that time.

    Comment by GJones — 14 May 2008 @ 11.58 am | Reply

  3. Thanks, GJones. What you say points to a paradox about devolution, which I’ve commented on before, which is that, effectively, it is devolution from England, or at least from Britain as the de facto English state. Therefore, New Labour probably thought there was no need to make the same sort of arrangements for England as for Scotland and Wales because this would be like England seeking devolution from itself. This is another reason why they didn’t reckon with the objections that their plans for elected regional assemblies in England threw up: you could say that devolution for Scotland and Wales was seen as, in effect, merely a form of regional devolution (from England-Britain); so what difference was there between this and regional devolution within England proper?

    Of course, they completely underestimated the strength of English-national sentiment, and the fact that devolution would be perceived by many in England as giving Wales and Scotland democratic and financial advantages that were being (and are in fact being) denied to England. Not only that, but the limited amount of self-rule that has been accorded to Scotland and Wales has provided the occasion for a whole renaissance of national self-confidence and self-affirmation for both countries (and good luck to you, I say), which is being completely excluded for England: the government (and Gordon Brown, in particular) can’t even acknowledge that it is only a government for England in most of what it does; and the real wishes and concerns of English people are ignored by a British government that is unaccountable to it.

    Comment by David — 14 May 2008 @ 2.44 pm | Reply

  4. The Story of the Britania Family,

    Once upon a time, there were four brothers called Andrew, David, George and Patrick who all lived with their parents, Mr and Mrs Britania. The four boys all had very different personalities, Andrew was a bit chippy and always telling his parents that he was going to move out but despite this he was clearly his parents favorite and they would bestow him with gifts to try to please him. David was smaller than Andrew but would always try to emulate his bigger brother but lacked Andrews self confidence. The smallest of the four boys was Patrick. He was a haunted individual who had lost a large part of himself many years ago and now had a split personality where part of himself didn’t feel part of the Britania family, but his other half was extremely loyal to them. Unfortunately for him this loyalty was not reciprocated by his siblings or his parents. The biggest brother was George. He had devoted his life to his family to the extent that his own personality had been completely smothered and he was thought of as being synomenous with the Britania family rather than an individual in his own right. He was very quiet and didn’t really speak for himself, in stark contrast to his smaller siblings.

    One day George finally snapped. His parents constantly taking him for granted and his siblings holding him responsible for all that was wrong with the family had taken its toll and he’d had enough. He felt that there was no alternative other than killing Mr and Mrs Britania off. At first people wondered why George had done it and what it would mean for the smaller boys but George said it was a mercy killing and that now the four boys could stand on their own two feet. Eventually the other three boys and their neighbours began to understand why George had killed off Mr and Mrs Britania.

    The boys now have their own lives and a much better relationship with each other as a consequence. They still love each other and hate each other all at the same time but there is a mutual respect now which wasn’t there when they lived under each others feet with the clunking fist of their repressive parents constantly hanging over them. George is re-asserting his personality, Andrew has got the independence that he has craved for so long, David has realised that he had nothing to worry about and is now standing tall as a grown up. Patrick meanwhile has gone overseas to try and find his lost self again.

    And they all lived happily ever after………

    Comment by Little Englander — 17 May 2008 @ 9.19 am | Reply

  5. Nice little fairytale, Little Englander! If I was to take this allegory as an indication of how things will pan out, then you think it’ll be England that decides through unilateral action – even ‘revolution’ – in the end! This may in fact be the case: popular English revolt against the present British establishment, in some form or other, being perhaps the only way it’ll be made to listen and give England her democratic right to self-determination. However, I can’t help wondering whether Mr and Mrs Britannia might get wind of George’s intentions to kill them off and put George in gaol first!

    Comment by David — 18 May 2008 @ 6.04 am | Reply

  6. Yes to all that, David. I thought it would be a nice piece for my children to hand in when they get their inevitable “Britishness” homework!

    Comment by Little Englander — 18 May 2008 @ 6.46 pm | Reply

  7. Cornwall? Arf! If Cornwall get independence, then I want independence for Liverpool. You may as well give independence to Deven, Hampshire and Cumbria too. I’m not into obsesive flag waving, national pride, but has it gone so low in the UK, mainly due to being guilt tripped over things such as the empire, that we have no sense of being a nation at all now, never mind being proud about it?

    Comment by Gareth — 30 May 2008 @ 2.31 pm | Reply

  8. On the contrary, I think we can recapture our national pride only by reaffirming our English, Scottish, Welsh and (Northern) Irish nationalities. Englishness was always the core of Britishness, in any case. As for ‘Cornish nationality’, I proceed on the basis that if the majority of people living in Cornwall wanted it to be a separate or devolved ‘nation’, then they should be allowed this; on the same principle that if the majority of English people want England to have a distinct constitutional status (such as federal or independent nation), they’re entitled to that.

    Comment by David — 31 May 2008 @ 2.23 am | Reply

  9. I think our petition of 50,000 signatures certainly gives us a mandate for a public debate and referendum don’t you?

    Comment by Philip Hosking — 25 June 2008 @ 4.20 pm | Reply

  10. Philip, it certainly gives you a mandate for a debate. As for a referendum, I’m not sure what constitutes a mandate as such for a Cornish independence referendum. It’s a bit like the paradox of what happened in Scotland: first, the principle that the Scots had the ‘sovereign right’ to determine their own governance was conceded. But in the process of doing that, it was conceded in effect that Scotland was a sovereign nation in its own right; and so the whole momentum towards Scottish independence was unleashed by that initial acceptance of sovereignty. In a similar way, if it was accepted that because a majority or large minority of Cornish people wanted to vote on independence from England, then this would amount to a concession that the Cornish have a sovereign right – as a nation – to determine their future. The Westminster government is never going to give in to that!

    I’ve argued on my National Conversation For England blog that if it’s accepted that Scotland has the right for a referendum on independence, then England, Wales and N. Ireland should also have a referendum at the same time on constitutional proposals for their status as nations inside or outside the UK. The same principle ought to apply to Cornwall, if you accept that Cornwall is a nation. The trouble is, it is not generally accepted to be one, not just by the English but by the British establishment. I think, so long as the present status quo of centralised, unitary (albeit in some cases devolved) rule by the British state applies, a referendum on independence will never be accorded to Cornwall. However, a federal or independent England, with real powers to determine its make up as a nation, could well come to the view that it was up to the people of Cornwall to decide whether they wanted to be part of it or not. So I genuinely think the best prospect for Cornish regional / national autonomy or independence would be federal autonomy or independence for England.

    My own preference, if I had to lay my cards on the table, would be for a new federal state comprising England, Wales and Cornwall – Scotland having finally gone its own way. Wales and Cornwall would exercise autonomous government of their internal affairs, as would England; but matters in the mutual interest of all three nations (e.g. macro-economics, defence, international affairs) would be dealt with by a federal government and parliament, with built-in protection for the Welsh and Cornish minorities to prevent England overruling the wishes of people in those countries. Of course, if the people of Wales and Cornwall still wished to be fully independent, they should have the right to be so.

    Comment by David — 25 June 2008 @ 11.10 pm | Reply

  11. When talking about ‘Cornish independence’ we really need to be clear about what we mean. There are different strands to the Cornish question.

    1) a general and widely supported desire for the decentralisation/devolution of powers to a Cornish governmental body. Not nationalist in its own right it is certainly supported by all nationalists. Perhaps the other side of this is to have Cornwall given full EU regional status.

    2) the desire for Cornwall to be recognised as not part of England, but rather as a home nation inline withs is de jure legal status.

    3) related to 2, to have the Duchy fully revealed for what it is and then have it and its powers handed over to the Cornish public.

    4) like the English, Scottish, Irish Travellers and other groups recognised by race relations case law have the Cornish recognised legally as a distinct group (national minority perhaps?) within the UK and perhaps even Cornwall.

    A referendum tomorrow on full Cornish independence would probably be lost but address all the above give us ten years to stew and then ask the question again and perhaps.

    Comment by Philip Hosking — 26 June 2008 @ 6.44 pm | Reply

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