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Johnson has done more damage to the UK than 30 years of IRA bombings, says the journalist

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The writer and veteran journalist believes that the time has come to formalize the UK’s “secret federal model” if the country’s union is to be saved

The writer Gavin Esler (Glasgow, 1953) considers that the United Kingdom has lived for years with a “secret” federal model, a quasi-zombie, but the time has come to formalize the situation if the country’s union is to be saved. 

The journalist, who for more than a decade was one of the most well-known faces of the BBC and who now works as rector of the University of Kent, publishes ‘How Britain Ends’. It is in a privileged position to analyze the constitutional crisis. He grew up in Scotland, has family in Northern Ireland, in-laws in the Republic of Ireland, and has spent most of his working life (when he has not been a foreign correspondent) between England and Wales. Scottish, when talking about football or ‘rugby’; British, when the Olympics are seen; and European to the point of running as a candidate for the pro-EU Change UK party for the last European elections that the United Kingdom held in 2019 as a member of the bloc.

QUESTION: Brexit has left the province of Northern Ireland more aligned than ever with the Republic of Ireland, and therefore more separated than ever from the rest of the UK. Scottish pro-independence leaders lead all polls ahead of the Edinburgh Parliament elections in May with the promise of a new secession referendum. And in Wales support for independence is already over 33%. However, you consider that what is really putting the union of the United Kingdom at risk is English nationalism.

ANSWER: The UK has survived in one form or another since 1603, reinventing itself every century or so. It has survived Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism. But English nationalism may not survive if things don’t change now. I think it is a different nationalism. English nationalism has always been British. British Emperor Cecil Rhodes said: “Ask any man what nationality he would prefer to have and they will answer that they want to be English.” He was a British emperor, but the term he used was “English”. The way nationalism expresses itself in England is different. Without going any further, a journalist, a well-known guy who I am not going to say who he is, has changed the title of my book up to three times. “When England ends [instead of Britain].” Three times he has called it that. (laughs) And I told him: “this is precisely why I wrote the book.”

Q. How is English nationalism different from Welsh, Scottish or Irish?

A. The problem is that the English tend to think that nationalism is a kind of affliction that other people suffer, but not them. Even George Orwell, in his famous essay on nationalism in the 1940s, suggests that the Irish have nationalists and the Scots have nationalists, but the implication is that the English did not, they just evolved. And that’s the word that Brexit negotiator David Frost actually used in a speech about leaving the EU. He said that English institutions have just “evolved.” English nationalism does not recognize that it is nationalist. While in Scotland you have, for example, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), in England you have a formation whose full name is the Conservative and Unionist Party, but it does not seem that now it is precisely defending the union.

Q. Do you think that the Conservative Party, particularly under Boris Johnson, is putting the unity of the United Kingdom at risk?

A. Absolutely. They have prioritized Brexit to the union of the country. You just have to see what happened to Northern Ireland. Under Thatcher, Northern Ireland was said to be as British as Finchley (the North London constituency of the Iron Lady). But the Unionists of Northern Ireland now feel completely betrayed and abandoned by Boris Johnson. For them, the situation in which the British province has been with Brexit is not only a cause for concern, but also for sadness. In this sense, I think Johnson has done more damage to the UK union than the IRA by killing people for over 30 years. That’s what people tell you when you’re around. As it has been, there are many who wonder what the point of remaining part of the United Kingdom when in reality they are more aligned than ever with the Republic of Ireland, a country where per capita income is already richer than its own England. Things are changing in Northern Ireland.

***

Clarification: the Irish border divides the north and south of the island. To the north is the British province of Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and to the south the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. It is the only land, along with Gibraltar, now between the UK and the bloc. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended a bloody conflict between Republican Catholics seeking union with Ireland and Protestants seeking to remain in the UK. It was ruled that between the north and south of the island there could never be a hard border. I mean, no controls, no gates, no cameras. While the UK was a member of the EU, everything was simple, with the freedom of movement of people and goods. But how was all this fixed now with Brexit? Finally, Boris Johnson agreed with Brussels to leave the British province with a different status than the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is part of the Community Customs Union and is aligned with the Single Market. The border was therefore “moved” to the Irish Sea, which separates Northern Ireland from Great Britain [England, Scotland and Wales]. Checks must therefore now be carried out at Northern Irish ports, which is causing bureaucratic problems and political tensions.

Q. What seems imminent are the changes in Scotland. Elections to the Parliament of Edinburgh are held in May. Polls for the first time show continued support for secession. Scottish Chief Minister Nicola Sturgeon assures that if she wins the elections (as everything indicates), she will have the mandate to hold a new independence referendum. But, for his part, Boris Johnson says that he has the mandate to deny it because that is what the manifesto with which he won the 2019 general elections specified it. Who is going to stop that train crash?

A. Scotland is now in a very different scenario than in 2014 (when a referendum was held by consensus with the central government, where the “No” to independence was imposed with 55.3% of the votes). The Scots were then told that if they left the UK they would leave the EU and it would be difficult for them to re-enter the bloc. But with Brexit now it is just the opposite. Scotland is now outside the EU, when in the 2016 consultation the vast majority of Scots advocated staying on the block. If the SNP wins the May elections and Johnson continues to refuse to allow a referendum, there will be problems. The prime minister can refuse to have a legally binding plebiscite. But let’s not forget how the Brexit referendum was initially framed. It was purely advisory. The Westminster parties decided ‘a posteriori’ that the result was binding, even though no one knew exactly what Brexit was going to consist of. Scottish nationalists, on the other hand, have defined what an independent Scotland would be like. They have been talking about it for decades and more specifically in recent years.

Q. Do you think that it would be appropriate for the SNP to hold a referendum even without the consent of the central government, thus following the example of the independent Catalans?

A. It could happen, but I think it is unlikely. The Catalan example has not worked well. I suspect that if the Scots are denied a referendum, the SNP may simply use that as a genuine complaint to generate more support for when a referendum is possible and eventually even inevitable. If Johnson continues to refuse, he has only two options: find someone who builds trust and can defend the union, someone who can do what Ruth Davidson (the popular leader of the Scottish Conservatives who resigned due to disagreements with the prime minister on Brexit) or give Scotland more powers so that it can, for example, collect taxes. But what seems more likely is that the SNP will win elections and say that Johnson does not have the mandate to remove them from the EU against their will. Things are going to get interesting. I don’t see anything inevitable, but today I also do not see who stops the Scottish independence. Perhaps it could be Labor, although in Scotland it is said that there are more pandas in Edinburgh Zoo than Labor represented Scotland in Westminster.

Q. In the midst of all this crisis is when you propose a federal model as a solution. In short, unleash the union in order to save it.

A. The big question is if anyone wants to reinvent the UK for the next 100 years because what we have now is like a bad marriage. Neither party wants to go through the pain of the breakup. But neither party is happy being together. The question is to what extent that not wanting to feel pain is going to be enough to keep us together. And that is what is already changing in people. In this sense, I believe that the federal model can be seen as a strength that allows institutions to react at the local level. The question for the future is whether that push for devolution can be made more coherent by maintaining the idea of ​​a UK, with clear written rules.

Q. When you say clear rules in writing you mean a written Constitution? The UK does not have it as such now and has always argued that this gives it more flexibility.

A. There is nothing perfect. But I think that, if one is committed to a federal model, it would be advisable to have a structure in writing, clarify who is responsible for what. In the United Kingdom in times of crisis, the ‘ Good chaps’ are always appealed to, guys like ministers or officials who will end up finding a solution. When Boris Johnson was hospitalized in intensive care for covid, nobody knew exactly what could happen, who was in charge of the country. Written constitutions are not a panacea, but having a written structure builds trust.

Q. Let’s go back to the federal model. In a way, it already exists in the UK. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments. There is no state religion. Scotland has its own and even a completely different legal system. And the powers of education or health have already been derived. With the pandemic, it has been perfectly seen how each of the nations has managed the crisis in a way by imposing its own restrictions.

A. What we have now is a secret federal model, a zombie federalism. But nobody talks about it, nobody wants to face the debate of who is really responsible for doing this or that. And ultimately it all depends on Westminster. Now we do things following traditions and that’s fine when things work out, but it’s not the case. That is why I believe that what needs to be done is to formalize the situation. And that does not just mean giving more powers to Scotland or Wales, I am also referring to the local councils of England, where now with the pandemic, for example, it has been seen that many mayors, especially in the north, wanted to do things differently from what Johnson said. Federalism would address the sense of democratic deficit felt in all regions of the UK, it could be the ‘autonomy for all’ model advocated by Joseph Chamberlain in the late 19th century. To revitalize this idea, in addition to returning more powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the relationship between the regions of England and Westminster would have to be analyzed.

Q. Who is willing to face the debate? What is the climate in Westminster?

A. The leader of the Labor opposition, Keir Starmer, has suggested creating a constitutional commission to decide the future of the country. But the Scots are not quite trusting because the commission created after the independence referendum of 2014 was practically useless. On the other hand, there are conservatives like George Osborne(the former Treasury Minister with David Cameron) who say that something must definitely be done. I believe that, if genuine revitalization is not achieved, then the separation of England from Scotland, and possibly from Northern Ireland, would lead to a full-blown political crisis. The end of the United Kingdom would be much more complicated, costly and even bitter than Brexit. Imagine creating an EU-England customs border somewhere between Carlisle and Dumfries or forcing the Trident submarine fleet to find a new home away from their current naval base in Faslane, Scotland. Wales could stay united with England, but Wales is not itself a kingdom, so the name United Kingdom would not make much sense either. More importantly, there is no reason why England or England and Wales should automatically retain permanent member status on the United Nations Security Council. Nothing can be taken for granted. The people of these islands have to decide whether what we call the United Kingdom is worth saving by giving a former political settlement a second, third or even fourth chance. If so, we have to ask ourselves if it can be remodeled in the 21st century, as it has been reforming every 100 years since its inception. Autonomy for all nations will not be easy. But this is probably the last chance to save the union.

© Gavin Esler, 2021

Extracted from How Britain Ends – English Nationalism And The Rebirth Of Four Nations, by Gavin Esler, published by Apollo on February 4

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