Whither the Union?

Flags of the Union – Source: Britannia

It is time to accept that the United Kingdom is no longer united in any meaningful sense. This is a factual statement, not a gloat. What purpose does the Union serve, and what is the advantage of being part of a Union? Also is it really a ‘union’ if its constituent parts are hopelessly unequal in terms of power and influence?  

History lesson

Wales was conquered by the English in 1283. Scottish and Irish parliamentarians were bribed heavily to vote for union in 1707 and 1800 respectively. But, like the House of Lords today, they represented no-one. Now wind the clock forward to the twentieth century.  

The ‘Fourteen Points’ was a statement of principles to be used for peace negotiations to end World War I. The principles were outlined in a speech to Congress on 8 January by President Woodrow who followed up on 11 February 1918 when he stated

“National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.”

However, it was not a principle that was followed up consistently. One of the German objections to the Treaty of Versailles was that although the majority of people in Austria and in Sudetenland wanted to join Germany they were not permitted to do so.

Self-determination

Now roll forward a quarter of a century. Ratification of the United Nations Charter in 1945 at the end of World War II placed the right of self-determination in the framework of international law and diplomacy. Chapter 1, Article 1, part 2 states that the purpose of the UN Charter is:

To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.”

Although there is no fully accepted definition of ‘peoples’, the UN defines it to mean:

“A group of persons with a common historical tradition, racial or ethnic identity, cultural homogeneity, linguistic unity, religious or ideological affinity, territorial connection, or common economic life. To this should be added a subjective element: the will to be identified as a people and the consciousness of being a people.”

The Scots and the Welsh are therefore ‘peoples’ within the UN definition and therefore entitled to self-determination.

Scottish independence?

Recent opinion polls in Scotland show a consistent plurality (not necessarily a majority) of voters in favour of independence. The polls also show majority support for the SNP in the forthcoming Holyrood election. The picture is different in Wales although the latest poll shows a staggering 39% in favour of independence (the figure normally hovers around 10%). In Wales, it should be noted, support for independence is not confined to Plaid Cymru, but shared by the Greens and many Labour voters.

If, as is expected, the SNP wins an absolute majority in Holyrood and decides to press for another independence referendum (which they might or might not win), several scenarios are possible: Johnson could refuse to allow it to go ahead; the SNP could take the Westminster government to court to force their case and Johnson might lose, and the referendum then goes ahead. Will the UK government then insist on certain safeguards, such as a minimum percentage of the electorate, not of those actually voting, actually voting in favour (no such safeguards were built into the EU referendum which nota bene was advisory only; rubbish advice can always be rejected)? If the SNP presses ahead with a referendum despite being refused permission by London, how will that play in international fora such as the European Court of Human Rights?

The Sturgeon v. Salmond spat, which sounds like a fisheries dispute, is of course irrelevant to the independence argument.

Would Scotland – if it became independent – be allowed to join the EU? Applicant countries have to satisfy the so-called Copenhagen Criteria: a candidate country must have achieved

“Stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. Membership presupposes the candidate’s ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

No problem, as far as I can see. By contrast, when – not if – the UK as a whole applies to re-join the EU the criterion of “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy” could be tricky. (Think of the House of Lords; think of our absurd electoral system).

Would the other Member States allow Scotland to join? This is slightly trickier, as any Member State can veto an application. The Spanish (and French) with their mediaeval attitude towards ‘separatists’ might prove a stumbling block. But this is hypothetical.

In Johnson’s interests?

On the subject of our electoral system, it might just occur to the Conservatives – probably not to Johnson but the brainier ones (no, not Williamson, Truss or Grayling) – that for as long as First Past The Post (FPTP) remains in force the departure of Scotland would more or less guarantee Conservative rule for ever at Westminster without those awkward SNP types. In fact, why not hold the door open as they all troop off? The Conservative party exists to keep the Conservative party in power, so this is an entirely plausible scenario. Those Tories who have an irrational emotional attachment to ‘the Union’ would soon fall in line.

Alternative scenarios

What alternatives are there to independence for Scotland and Wales? Setting aside the idea of ‘devo-max’ (which would only work if it genuinely meant maximum devolution, i.e. no interference from Westminster whatsoever and hence de facto independence), some form of federation is conceivable. But it would need to be a genuine federation in which no member of the federation could impose its will on any other member. The federation could consist of Scotland, Wales, London, the Home Counties, East Anglia, Lancashire, Yorkshire etc.

But why would a centralising Johnsonian government accept this? Everything points in the opposite direction. According to a report by the Scottish Government – After Brexit: The UK Internal Market Act & Devolution – the UK Government is planning the “slow demise of devolution in the hope that no-one will notice”.  The report says that the UK Government and Parliament now regularly legislate in devolved policy areas. If, then, the government are trying to undermine devolution, independence is the obvious choice for the Scots (and later the Welsh).

Johnson to learn Welsh?

Emeritus Professor Peter Trudgill, the socio-linguist familiar to readers of The New European, has made the perfectly rational suggestion that if Johnson wants to preserve the Union, he should learn Welsh. Trudgill draws a parallel with Switzerland where although almost two-thirds of the population are German speakers, the confederal government’s objective has been for everyone to learn at least one of the other official languages. The Swiss Statistics Office recently published figures showing that 84% of Swiss people believe that learning the other national languages is a very important factor in maintaining the cohesion of the Swiss nation.

Dad’s Army and other nonsense

What exactly are the things about the Union that people think worth preserving? Setting aside the Betjeman-esque nonsense of “spinsters knocking back a beer on their way to a cricket match” (the precise quote eludes me; apologies), the monarchy (but the Scots and Welsh would be free to retain the monarch’s services) and chauvinistic films on the TV at Christmas, what is there? The so-called Metropolitan elite have almost nothing in common with an unemployed single mum in Midlands. And for linguistic reasons a conversation between a Geordie and someone from Mummerset would be fraught with difficulties.

Let me put my cards on the table (they’re all aces, by the way). I am half-English, half-Welsh but feel under no obligation to pretend that either nation is the be-all and end-all. My aim is certainly not to deride patriotism (if there’s cause for pride, why not be proud?), but having spent most of my working life with the European Parliament I regard myself as a European; not a ‘citizen of nowhere’ as the absurd Mrs May used to say, but a ‘citizen of so many places that I have lost count’. And I am currently living in Luxembourg, the smallest-but-one EU Member State, with a proud tradition of multilingualism and whose existence no-one questions.

Countering the arguments

If a unionist says “unity is strength”, the obvious riposte is “so you agree that leaving the European Union is a bad idea”.  If the unionist falls back on his no. 2 argument and says “There is no sound economic argument in favour of independence”, the reply is again “what about Brexit?” Argument no. 3 – “Scotland/Wales/wherever would not survive on its own” is rebutted by the fact that we live in a globalised economy and no country apart from North Korea is ever fully “on its own”.

It is inconsistent to argue that while the UK is entitled to leave the EU, Scotland and Wales are not entitled to leave the British Union.


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