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July 20, 2019726Views

Devolution and Nationalism in the UK

Jonathan Headington explores the history of devolution in the UK and its relationship to nationalism in England, Scotland and Wales

Last week on July 9th, the House of Commons took an extraordinary vote to impose the homosexual marriage and abortion laws as they currently stand in the rest of the United Kingdom on Northern Ireland. It wasn't even close either, with 383 votes to 73 for gay marriage and 332 to 99 for abortion (the noes for gay marriage coming from the Democratic Unionist Party and Conservatives who rebelliously seek to live up to their party's name, with just a smattering of MPs from other parties joining the opposition to abortion).

It's not a straightforward situation; it can be rejected if Stormont forms a government which opts to do so by mid-October. As inconclusive ongoing negotiations in Northern Ireland have left it without a functioning executive since 2017, the threat of such a sweeping change being imposed from Westminster may focus minds to see that that happens, but with the DUP opposed to same sex marriage and Sinn Fein being for it, it's all the more reason for Sinn Fein to filibuster until the deadline passes. And so it is that we would have the absurdity of the anti-Unionist Sinn Fein achieving what it wants by imposition of Westminster over and against the wishes of the Unionist DUP.

The imposition of these laws were not part of the original Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, but were amendments tacked on by left wing Labour MPs seeing a chance to finally export the social revolution to the recalcitrant province which had obstinately managed to cling on to Christian cultural norms long after they were abandoned not only in Great Britain, but also now in the neighbouring Irish Republic. Of course, the same MPs who voted for this monstrous routing of Northern Ireland's legislative independence will have all been the same ones keen to disparage Brexit's potential impact on the island of Ireland as vandalism of the 1998 Belfast Agreement that could cause worrying damage to the fragile peace there. It would be gleefully gulping down a camel and straining at a gnat if they actually maintained any pretence of consistency, but when it comes to the bastardisation of marriage and disposability of unborn life, all other concerns are moot.

This new desire to wrest back devolution from Northern Ireland is in contrast to the rest of the UK. Agitation for devolved assemblies in both Scotland and Wales had bubbled for years, peaking and troughing as their respective nationalist parties (the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru) would occasionally gain support. It was under New Labour that devolution would come to both constituent countries, ostensibly aimed at quelling the nationalist impulse but instead exacerbating it. The growth of the SNP would escalate until it would enter government in Scotland in 2007 and then be elected with an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, even under an electoral system meant to avoid outright majorities. In Wales Labour have mostly dominated the Welsh Assembly since its inception, though Plaid Cymru have been a consistent presence (albeit nowhere near proportional to the amount we have to keep hearing from them on the BBC).

So far as Northern Ireland goes, its constitutional status is the product of unique circumstances. Despite frequent debate on Home Rule, Ireland in the United Kingdom was always governed from Westminster, and only after partition was a parliament established in Northern Ireland. This institution was dominated throughout by unionists, who were accused of gerrymandering in their electoral reforms, while Irish nationalists would often abstain. The Parliament of Northern Ireland had control over most areas of policy and Northern Ireland had its own Prime Minister (always a member of the Ulster Unionist Party) until 1972, when in aftermath of Bloody Sunday the entire devolved government was abolished – just as the Troubles took hold – and direct rule was established. Attempts at agreements to re-establish a devolved government would take until 1998 to come to fruition, and during this time laws for Northern Ireland were made via Orders in Council. Contrary to what many of today's MPs would seem happy to do, laws made for England and Wales weren't just clumsily foisted on Northern Ireland, and so to this day abortion is prohibited with exceptions for the life and health of the mother – and they've also retained the grammar school system!

Conspicuously absent when it comes to devolution is, of course, England. The most major party to have advocated an English Parliament has been UKIP, and then at a point when they were firmly in decline. That there were times when MPs from other constituent countries could vote on legislation affecting only England has been remedied in recent years by amended procedure in the House of Commons (English votes for English laws), but that doesn't go anywhere near what a national Parliament's function would be; just ask a Scot whether they'd shut down Holyrood in exchange for Westminster Scottish MPs voting on matters that only affect Scotland.

The future of devolution came to a head during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. As a few polls looked close, politicians started promising more devolved powers in their obsequious pleading for Scotland to stay, which was fulfilled in the 2016 Scotland Act. The day after the referendum, David Cameron promised to deliver that answer to the West Lothian Question, but actual English devolution remained merely a topic of media discussion – and then largely advocating a regional basis, which I absolutely oppose. The logic, of course, is that England is so much bigger than Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and so rough equality of the regions would necessitate breaking England up, but this could only serve to actively balkanise the English nation (though if the proposal was a split into Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, I could perhaps be tempted).

The idea of a federal United Kingdom comes up occasionally, but the subject has seemingly been on hold thanks to Brexit, at least where further regional assemblies are concerned. Another constitutional oddity, elected mayoralties, have been spreading in recent years following the ever-increasing prominence of the office of the Mayor of London. I'm not that keen on this either; different parts of the country being governed in increasingly different ways will only divide us further, though on the upside, being Mayor of Greater Manchester has kept Andy Burnham off the national stage.

As it stands, the unequal devolution is a constitutional repugnance, and to England's cost – and let's not forget that to this day the Barnett Formula allocates more spending per head to the other constituent countries, even as England contributes proportionately more in taxation. My first choice would be for a complete rollback of devolution for Wales and Scotland, with some unique provision for Northern Ireland (though of course my ideal country would be one which the DUP likely wouldn't mind being a fully integrated part of anyway). Bearing in mind though that there's next to no likelihood of the devolution toothpaste getting back in the tube, my second choice would be for English independence. I love the Union Flag as much as anyone, but I must admit to a frisson of excitement in 2014 when polling briefly showed a real chance of Scotland voting for its own independence.

We do in fact know that, as the devolution revolution was taking off, the consequences and possible bolstering of English nationalism was of great concern to major politicians. Thanks to BBC Radio 4 producing a programme titled Brits in January 2000, mere months after the first opening of the Scottish Parliament, BBC articles from the time record concerned statements from then Home Secretary Jack Straw and Leader of the Opposition William Hague (the programme itself I haven't been able to find). Straw said the English are 'potentially very aggressive, very violent,' having used that 'propensity to violence to subjugate Ireland, Wales and Scotland' and will 'increasingly articulate their Englishness following devolution.'1

Michael Howard would criticise Straw strongly for these comments, saying they revealed 'the anti-English bias' at the heart of the government and that 'The English are being discriminated against as a result of the way that devolution was implemented,'2 though his criticisms only went as far as the unfairness presented by the West Lothian Question and not the inequality of devolution among the nations. As Conservative leader, Howard's manifesto pledged English Votes for English Laws, but as we've seen it took another decade for his successor David Cameron to enact it.

William Hague was a little less contemptuous of English identity than Straw, but pragmatically regarded English nationalism as a danger, saying: 'English nationalism is the most dangerous of all forms of nationalism that can arise within the United Kingdom, because England is five-sixths of the population of the UK.'1 This ties in with the implicit recognition that England could never be allowed devolution in the manner that Scotland has, because that body would dominate politics in the UK.

It's not just the mere fact of population that makes English nationalism unpalatable to the political class though, but the fact that it is inherently right wing. Nationalism and independence movements are left wing for some and right wing for others, depending on the nation expressing it and who they're expressing it in relation to. As such the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru can be nationalist parties yet left wing, but the concept of an English nationalist party can't be anything other than right wing. At the same time, parts of England that are less well off or have inhabitants regarding themselves as separate (such as the Yorkshire Party or the movement for Cornish independence) are broadly regarded as left wing.

This is because, from the left wing Marxism-derived perspective, an oppressor/oppressed relationship exists wherever two groups who have been influenced by each other have differing outcomes. From the right wing reality-based view, differing outcomes can be based on successful behaviours and aren't just the product of raw exploitation, as though one group's relative lack of success is down to their own guileless virtue in the face of the ruthless and cunning. For our purposes, nationalisms map onto the oppressor/oppressed and more successful/less successful categories, and which side of the fence one ends up on determines whether the commentariat will regard it as progressive or fascistic. As such, Scottish and Welsh nationalism are free to bloom and English nationalism is a threat to be put down. This is also why the nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales can proclaim progressive dogma without contradiction. What's more, when it comes to immigration they get to espouse the most left wing views from the safety of their virtual ethnostates while largely untouched by its most deleterious effects, while England takes the brunt of it.

Northern Ireland's place in this framework is a funny one, as the province is split between Protestant Unionists (righties) and Catholic-when-it-suits Republicans (lefties). As the DUP though is the dominant party and particularly as they are socially and morally conservative to an extent unknown for decades in mainstream politics in the rest of the UK, this is the overriding reason MPs last week were quite happy to railroad over devolutionary concerns. You can bet that if devolved Scotland wasn't allowing gay marriage and abortion, Westminster politicians wouldn't have been falling over themselves to pledge them more powers.

Perhaps the ultimate independence movement in recent years is Brexit, and just see how the left feel about that. And yet, when the European Union was exerting its will on Greece, you could scarcely find anyone who'd take the EU's side; indeed, as it was due to Greece's overspending and debt and led to the rise of the radical left Syriza party, leftist commentators invariably sided with the Greeks. The movements for net contributors to leave the EU are invariably right wing as they are the reassertion of successful countries against the revolutionary utopian project. The SNP and Plaid Cymru meanwhile are strongly pro-EU, likely seeing that they'll be able to claim a form of independence while also living in the safety of being a net beneficiary of the EU's redistributive largesse.

Devolution has and will continue to rot the Union. Beyond a Rangers old firm pub it will become rarer and rarer to find a Scottish or Welsh person who holds their British identity anywhere near to that of their constituent country. Constitutional issues continue to be on hold as Brexit drags on into its third year, so it's not yet time to be quoting Kipling about the Saxon beginning to hate – but politicians ought to reflect on G. K. Chesterton: 'Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget; for we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.'

 


1 BBC News: English nationalism 'threat to UK', 9 January, 2000
2 BBC News: English 'victims of discrimination', 10 January, 2000

Jonathan Headington

Co-founder and Editor of Excvbitor

 

Twitter: @IonathanRex

 

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