Britain on the map is an untidily shaped little island that broke off Europe and clings to the eastern shore of the Atlantic. Political reality is more complicated. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as my country is properly called, consists of a cluster of nations and bits of nations that have never lived entirely comfortably together, and are now dangerously close to an existential crisis.
A new book by a respected former BBC correspondent, Gavin Esler, asserts that “Britishness is dead.” In “How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations,” Esler, a Scot, writes: “Brexit is both a symptom and also now a cause of the widening cracks in the union.”
Elections in Scotland, due in May, are likely to deliver a landslide for the Scottish Nationalist Party. This, in turn, will set off intensive lobbying for a new referendum on independence. Meanwhile, many of the people of Northern Ireland find life lonely and frustrating, trapped in a forest of red tape between an Irish Republic that still belongs to the European Union and a U.K. that has left it. Some of the Welsh also surf the wave of Celtic disgruntlement that is lapping the fringes of Queen Elizabeth II’s realm.
There is a real prospect that within a decade or two, the country that Shakespeare never thought of calling anything save England could become England once again. Almost 40% of the U.K. land area would thus be gone. To our foes and political rivals, this is no bad news. A mere English government, they believe, would wield less clout than does a British one, even though England contains 84% of the U.K.’s 68 million people.
A break-up of the Union could trigger demands for England to forfeit its United Nations Security Council seat, in recognition of its changed condition. It would presumably retain the nuclear weapons that constitute its residual claim on a place at the top table. But if the issue were put to a vote of the General Assembly, Brazil, India, Nigeria and other contenders would certainly pitch their own claims against those of a shrunken England.
Some English people like me have mixed feelings about the rightful fates of the several loose parts of the U.K. We must discuss them separately, because each is a different case.
First, Northern Ireland, or the Six Counties of Ulster. Most British people care not a fig for what in 1904 the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw teasingly called “John Bull’s Other Island.” The witty and wise English writer Sydney Smith did not much exaggerate when he wrote two centuries ago: “The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence and common sense.”
Ever since, the Northern Ireland fragment has been governed by a so-called Unionist Protestant majority, whose sole rationale is the negative one of staying out of the Irish Republic by remaining attached to Britain. The province’s current population is 1.89 million, alongside five million people in the neighboring state.
Until very recently, when made to stop by London, Ulster’s Protestant rulers governed their own 42% Catholic minority almost as harshly as U.S. white segregationists in the old South treated African Americans. Lord Brookeborough, a Protestant grandee who served as Ulster prime minister between 1943 and 1963, said without embarrassment that, while he knew fellow landowners who employed Catholics on their estates, he would never do so himself.
In such attitudes and behavior lay the root of the Troubles, which erupted in the North in 1969, starting with protests against anti-Catholic discrimination, suppressed with Unionist force. Thereafter the Irish Republican Army was reborn, as a Catholic terrorist or freedom-fighters’ movement, according to your point of view. Three decades of violence cost more 3,500 lives — 32% were members of British security forces, 16% terrorists and paramilitaries, 52% civilians caught in the crossfire.
Most of us English spectators of the Troubles deplored the IRA’s atrocities as much as we recoiled from institutionalized Protestant injustice. In August 1969, I witnessed Protestant police hosing down a Catholic block of flats in Belfast with a heavy machine-gun, killing a nine year-old boy. The next day, I heard Unionist ministers justifying police actions by pleading that they faced a Catholic uprising. The IRA later murdered hundreds of innocent people with bomb and bullet. Both sides had much to be ashamed of, before an uneasy truce was achieved by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Back in the 1960s, the South, as the Irish Republic was always known to Ulstermen, was poor and the North relatively rich. Thus, even many Northern Catholics saw little economic advantage in embracing Dublin. Today, that has changed remarkably. With the collapse of old Northern industries, especially shipbuilding and textiles, the economy is kept alive only by massive subsidy from Britain — 24 billion pounds in public spending, against 14 billion pounds collected in taxes. The South, meanwhile, has become a prosperous, confident society, and an enthusiastic member of the EU.
Two minorities still see virtue in keeping Ireland partitioned. The first is composed of a diminishing number of stubborn Protestant Unionists, who dominate their own community, but would become marginalized in a united Ireland. Meanwhile, some Southern politicians are privately fearful of the perils of absorbing several hundred thousand embittered “Proddies.” Violence, so long an Irish tradition, remains very close beneath the country’s skin, and every Irish politician knows it well.
Polls show a slim majority in Northern Ireland for a referendum on Irish unity. If this comes, and should a majority choose to join the South, few English people will care. If Irish reunification takes place within a generation, as I believe that it will, a historic injustice will be righted. Such an outcome would serve the best interests of Irish people, save a rump of alienated Protestants, historically out of their time.
Scotland is a different case. Though its population is only 5.5 million, its 31,000 square miles make up almost one-third of the land area of the U.K. It is a nation with a proud history and culture which gave its own king to England in 1603 — James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots, known as James I to the English — and had its own parliament until 1707. The Scots prospered mightily alongside England in the 19th century, providing a large share of the men — they were all men then — who ran the Empire, and exploiting rich coal mines, shipyards, steel mills and even marmalade manufacturers. Old Scotland and Pennsylvania had a lot in common.
But the collapse of old industries hit hard the land of haggis and bagpipes. Its disappointed people have found ever more to dislike about the English, and especially English Conservatives, foremost among them Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
They resent the English landowners who, since the days of Queen Victoria, have come to holiday in the wildernesses of the Highlands, shoot grouse and deer, fish for salmon and trout, and patronize the natives as tartan peasants.
I have loved Scotland all my life, and still spend several weeks a year in its glorious wildernesses. I understand why the Scots feel sore toward us. The English cannot stop themselves from condescending to their northern neighbors: When Johnson paid an uninvited visit last month, he dismissed talk of an independence referendum as “completely irrelevant to the concerns of most people,” who are rather preoccupied with Covid-19. The fact that Johnson may have been right made it no less foolish for himself, a caricature Englishman, to trample on Scots’ sensitivities.
It is unlikely Scotland would find independence as rewarding as nationalists hope. It is a little country, isolated at the extremity of a land mass. The great Scottish novelist Walter Scott wrote two centuries ago, “London licks the butter off our bread, by opening a better market for ambition.” That is no less true now than then.
But a mood is running, across great swaths of the world, for minorities to assert their identities, to claim perceived rights. Unless the English can find ways to regain Scottish affections, or at least trust, the northern independence movement will be hard to stop.
Many Scots feel quite as hostile to London’s rule as did English Brexiteers to authoritarianism from EU headquarters in Brussels.
Johnson’s current policy, so far as anyone can identify it, seems to be to tough it out, defying votes and opinion polls that favor independence. He is receiving some assistance from the current disarray of nationalist politicians in Edinburgh. But the underlying trend is for the Scots to dislike and resent their Southern neighbors.
If the principle of Scottish independence ever becomes agreed, the worst price all the British will pay is that normal politics will be paralyzed for years, as Edinburgh and London wrangle about the financial terms of their divorce.
Should the Scots and Northern Irish go, given that the English have most of the people and the wealth, there is no logical reason why a future England should cut any slighter a figure on the world stage than does Britain today. Yet I believe that we should nonetheless be diminished; that what is left would seem, to other nations and governments, less significant.
If Scotland breaks away, it will be largely a consequence of English arrogance and folly. But for those of us Southerners who love the kilted Celts almost as dearly as we cherish our own people and land, such a parting will be bitterly painful.
Max Hastings is a Bloomberg opinion columnist.