Which poses the greatest danger to the UK, Scottish or English nationalism?
On the face of it, the answer to this question would appear to be Scottish nationalism. The reason for this would appear to be obvious and self explanatory. Based upon past history it is the SNP that has, since its inception in 1934, constantly tried to orchestrate the separation of Scotland from the rest of the UK. Since the introduction of legislative devolution by the Blair Labour government in the late 90’s the nationalists have severely ramped up their efforts to sever Scotland from the UK by a sustained programme of ignoring their devolved remit and interfering in reserved matters, most importantly the constitution. By doing this they have managed to engineer a referendum on independence, held in September 2014. They lost, but this defeat didn’t discourage them and they continue to use any excuse to manufacture a synthetic context to hold another referendum. It’s perfectly clear that the SNP won’t accept the manifestly obvious fact that the Scottish public has rumbled that independence is not in Scotland's best interests, and will just keep pushing for referendum after referendum until they get the result they want. This tendency by the nationalists to ignore inconvenient truths would appear, at least on the surface, to point to the SNP being the bigger threat to the UK’s integrity.
However, a deeper look into the constitutional question evolves a different, far more worrying, source of peril. One of the most successful tactics employed by the SNP to further their campaign to end the UK has been to sponsor antagonism between Scotland and England at every given opportunity. They’ve played upon English resentment over things like the Barnett formula whereby taxpayers from England, and the rest of the UK, subsidize Scots to the tune of up to £1400 per person more than their fellow UK citizens. What’s more, the SNP executive has used this extra funding to subsidize many free services, like tuition fees and prescriptions, which are not available in the rest of the UK. The democratic deficit caused by legislative devolution has also been utilized by the SNP to help their cause.
One of the largest flaws in the whole concept of legislative devolution is its inherent unfairness to England. Tam Dalyell (who recently passed away) pointed out in debates held in the House of Commons during the Callaghan government of the mid-late 70’s that the biggest drawback to having a Scottish executive is that it is intrinsically flawed, because it enables the extremely unfair situation to emerge whereby Scots MP’s can still vote on, and thus control, many English matters, but English MP’s are barred from Scottish matters. He called it the West Lothian question, after the constituency he represented at the time. This greatly increases the English sense that they are being treated unfairly and helps the SNP as it intensifies English antagonism towards Scotland. The cry goes up for an English parliament to deal with matters that only affect England to cure this unfairness and the SNP’s cause is advanced further.
Much like its Scottish cousin, English nationalism has traditionally been little more than a political irrelevance pursued by a tiny minority of, frankly, eccentrics: the far right and a few eccentric grannies. It had absolutely no electoral support to speak of, and was perceived by the vast majority of UK citizens as on a par with the Monster Raving Loony Party. Nobody took them remotely seriously, largely as they offered the electorate nothing of real value, except a hatred of the other parts of the UK. Consequently, these nationalists posed zero (real) threat to the integrity of the UK. This situation persisted until the advent of New Labour in the late 1990’s.
Blair and New Labour came to power under the severely ill-conceived illusion that the British constitution was broken and needed to be fixed. To the vast majority of people in the UK, Britain, or more precisely her constitution, was working just fine (with one or two caveats perhaps) but Blair and co. believed that they knew better. They embarked upon a stunningly ill-conceived, rather naïve, plan of legislative devolution, giving assemblies or a parliament to three parts of the UK: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All these assemblies/parliaments were ‘national’ bodies that could pass primary legislation. Perhaps the Labour Party genuinely believed that legislative devolution would save the Union: one Labour politician even declared that it would ‘destroy nationalism forever’ (bet he feels foolish now). Or they could just have been misguided; it’s impossible to tell what they were really thinking.
Whatever their plan was, it went badly wrong. Labour lost control of the Scottish parliament in the 2007 Holyrood elections to the SNP. Then it all kicked off. First under Alex Salmond, then Nicola Sturgeon the SNP embarked upon a thoroughgoing programme of ignoring their devolved remit and interfering in reserved matters, most importantly the constitution. The SNP employed various tactics to achieve their goal of breaking up the UK by any means necessary, some obvious, some covert in nature. They pushed for, and got, a referendum for independence which they lost in 2014. This was one of the standard tactics they employed. Less obvious though was the way they slowly, but steadily, accreted more and more powers to Holyrood from the House of Commons so that there is a very real possibility that they could establish de-facto independence at some point in the future.
All these SNP maneuverings have had a substantial impact on England. Their effect has been to antagonize the English and energize English nationalism.The last twenty or so years has seen the creation of several political parties and campaigns dedicated to English nationalism and to the establishment of a separate English parliament to handle purely English matters. Whilst it is true that such movements don’t enjoy mass support, and, indeed, the vast majority of polls still show that a significant majority of UK citizens still support the Union, it has become increasingly clear that English nationalism is something that can no longer just be ignored.
'My enemy's enemy is my friend’: so runs the famous dictum and it is very apt for the current relationship between English and Scottish nationalism. It has become increasingly clear that both types of nationalists are, effectively, working together to achieve their common goal of destroying the Union. English nationalism collaborates with its Scottish equivalent to sponsor antagonism between the two parts of the UK.
Just as there is no real opposition to the deleterious effects of legislative devolution on the integrity of the UK from the so-called 'mainstream' parties in either the House of Commons or Holyrood, there is, currently, no effective force to counter the danger emanating from this anti-UK nationalist alliance. If anybody in the mainstream establishment is aware of this phenomenon they appear to be either ignoring it, presumably because they actually want the UK to break up, or just don't care either way. This complacency is extremely worrying and needs to be strongly challenged by all Unionists.
One important reason behind the decline of Unionism, even in strongholds like Northern Ireland, has been complacency which has been manipulated by opportunistic nationalists to advance their agenda.
Up until the 1990's, the concept of the UK as being a stable unitary state was more or less universally accepted by politicians and the people of the UK. Nationalists were a very tiny, largely despised group of extremists. In the Province of Ulster, the IRA employed terrorism and, through their political front, Sinn Fein, only enjoyed limited electoral support. The major nationalist party, the SDLP, with a few exceptions, largely acquiesced in being part of the UK out of practical reasons (whilst obviously hating this arrangement). In Wales Plaid Cymru tended to see their goal of separation from England as a long term objective and instead promoted cultural nationalism, such as spreading the Welsh language and re-instating the Eisteddfod. They were largely populated and supported by eccentrics and had little electoral support.
This situation led to a rather pronounced sense of complacency being bred amongst the Unionist majority. It appeared that the Union was in no appreciable danger of collapse and as a result they laid back and closed their eyes to any possible nationalist danger.
This was the cue for certain extremist nationalists to take advantage of the situation. In Ulster the IRA began their sham campaign to persuade people that they had given up violence, so they could push for a new Stormont, with them ensconced in positions of power and influence. This happened in the late 90's. In Scotland, nationalists began agitating aggressively for devolution, the first step in their plan to achieve independence. That step (devolution, the precursor to full independence) was also reached in the late 90's. Encouraged by devolution, the SNP began to push their agenda in the newly created Scottish parliament. That campaign progressed swiftly. They replaced Labour as the main political power at Holyrood in 2007 and continued on to wipe them out at the House of Commons with their landslide election win in 2015. They continue to push for independence. In Wales it is a similar picture with a new assembly leading eventually to an executive that was heavily influenced, if not actually run, by Plaid Cymru. All over the UK nationalism was on the march.
This phenomenon continues to threaten the existence of the UK. It's time to end this complacency and check the nationalists, or the end result is too bleak to even contemplate. It's now perfectly clear that just sitting back and doing nothing is a very foolish response to the new tactics employed by the current strain of nationalism in the UK. Unionism must be united, strong, clear, very positive, and attract as many people as it can to its flag from all backgrounds. But it also needs to stop ignoring the growing danger from a previously overlooked source: a resurgent English nationalism.
© 2017 Stephen Bailey