Pace the great Austrian statesman Metternich who used a similar phrase in his famous put-down of Italy’s ambitions to become a united state, it seems long past time to broaden the discussion that so far has fixated on Scottish independence and ask the broader question: what is Britain for? Retired colonels staring out over their acre of Tunbridge Wells now grip their pink gins tighter and start composing a letter to the Times to defend all that is holy about this sceptred isle, this plot, this realm, this…England.
Ay, there’s the rub. Scratch a unionist argument for Britain and you soon find the talk turn to England. Indeed, ’twas ever thus—but the reason nobody bothered is that most people benefited from the global con trick that was the British Empire and so forged a career with little real thought to the culture from which it benefited, Currently the UK consists of three real countries, a sham country and some islands. We’ll leave those islands out this for now and presume Scotland chooses independence. How will what remains proceed?
Any future for the term rUK meaning ‘rest of the UK’ must to be ditched at the start. The ‘United’ part derives from the 1707 Treaty. With Scotland gone, any union is—de facto as well as de jure—null and void, so there will be nothing to be the ‘rest’ of. Which brings us to the sham country. Northern Ireland is a product of English political necessity, born out of trying to rescue pride from the centuries-long car crash that was England’s first colony.
That the bulk of the Irish (including many in Ulster) felt seriously gypped in 1922 when the mighty Raj flinched at total humiliation and used extremist Protestant ‘loyalists’ as an cover for an international frontier where none existed before to make Northern Ireland a ‘country’. The ‘unionist’ part of the Tory party’s real name (Conservative and Unionist Party) actually refers to Ireland and not Scotland. S0 we’re not going to get much logic or sense out of them while they’re in power—nor have we for 90 years. But does it matter?
Time was Ulster always returned a dozen Ulster Unionists to Westminster and common causes wedded them to the Tories. But nature has a way of dealing with political Luddites; it is estimated that, after the next general election, Catholics will form the majority in Ulster. So, with the growing ferrets-in-a-sack postures adopted by Protestant politicos, the prospect of a majority Ulster vote to finally rejoin Ireland (and the real world) can only be a decade away. If ‘United Kingdom’ has not been decently buried before, that will surely do it and plant a Cenotaph to the 3,600 who died while the country was artificially split.
Which brings us to Welsh Wales. Conquered so early, it can hardly be considered a colony. It has been treated as an integral part of England so long the astonishment is it didn’t disappear into English culture as totally as Mercia or Wessex. But not only did the Welsh keep their language but their creativity with it, especially in song. After a hesitant start with their Assembly, their tail is now up, seeking Parliamentary powers and status for it and the parallel decline here of unionist parties as in Scotland points the way, albeit more slowly, towards independence.
Though they will have another 20-30 years to adjust to it during the above, it is likely that England will still not have grown up and stopped hiding behind the delusion of a political entity (let alone a robust political entity) called ‘Britain’. But, as they are not stupid, confronted with fact, they will adapt and adjust, finding it surprising when they present themselves as a medium-scale affluent and influential Western country of 53m people which everyone else has regarded them as since WW2.
Freed of having to constantly combat Anglo-centric entrenched London bias, Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff will form a more equitable (and profitable) civic union, if England’s smart (which I believe) and joins,. A bloc of such common causes—much like Scandinavia—will advance an enlightened business-oriented global outlook, backed by 68m people with global reach. Freed of their periphery, the English can go back to what they’re good at: disarming charm with the financial morals of a barracuda. The other three countries can get on with being the different places they always were, but adding colour from the superficial (blarney/music/kilts) to the substantial (energy/tourism/research).
Each would engage with the world/EU/each other as much/little as they wanted but if the experience elsewhere is anything to go by, pragmatic arrangements among the four would soon appear—and even new bonds with, say, Scandinavians or Low Countries that have much in common in terms of fishing or environment or social policy.
And, instead of 90 MEPs (78 for UK; 12 for Eire) we could do better, deploying at least 15 for Ireland, similar for Scotland, perhaps 10 for Wales and still send 69 from England alone. That gives us ‘clout’ of 19 more MEPs. Not only would this put UKIP’s gas at the peep but by doing that, we’d gather more EU friends and get more done there on behalf of all the people of Britain. Separately, all four of us would actually stand taller.
Which would slip its backward-looking, xenophobic overtones of ‘Great’ and morph into a harmless geographic collective term for the power-artist formerly known as Britain.