Today
Thu 6 May 2021

Jonathan Lis explains how English exceptionalism has forced the rest of the United Kingdom to decide between its identities 

The Union is drawing to a close. A consistent majority of Scottish voters now support independence in the polls. A majority of Northern Irish voters advocate a border poll. Voters may, in the end, reject separation from the United Kingdom, but both nations are pulling further apart.

This is a question of identity, but not only that: it is a collision of identity and provocation.

The roots of Scottish independence reach far back into history and Scottish nationalism is not new either in civic or romantic form. And yet, this is not an anti-colonial struggle or an attempt to assert freedom from an oppressor.

In the 17th and early 18th Centuries, it was a Scottish family which ruled over England and a Scottish Parliament which voted itself out of existence. The British Empire was a profoundly Scottish as well as English enterprise. For most of the 20th Century, political Scottish nationalism was on the margins of national consciousness and electorally insignificant.

And then things began to change. 

The Scottish people no longer voted for the governments English people voted for. Scotland became outnumbered and differentiated. The existence of the Scottish Parliament showed how few key decisions were taken in Edinburgh, not how many. 

Perhaps most importantly, English politics also began to change. The flourishing of English nationalism drove the Brexit vote and the Government which followed it – a Government that not only didn’t take Scotland’s views and interests seriously, but actively worked against them.

Scottish voters have every right to feel aggrieved about the 2014 independence referendum. This was a vote that was going to keep them in two unions, sealed with a ‘vow’ that would give them a greater say on constitutional issues. Now, they have been dragged out of the European Union and all of its economic instruments against their consent – even though a greater proportion of Scottish voters backed staying in the EU than the UK.

Northern Irish separation is obviously a more profound iteration of identity. This is not about independence, after all, but reunifying the island of Ireland – and Northern Ireland’s political status is a genuine product of colonial history. The island was quite literally partitioned after an independence struggle, and Northern Ireland’s political landscape still depends largely on religious and national allegiance.

As in Scotland, the issues are not new, but the political circumstances are. It is not simply a question of English exceptionalism or hubris but indifference. Perhaps the most shocking element of the Brexit drama was the UK Government’s failure, not simply to protect Northern Ireland, but even to consider it.

Until 2017, Theresa May’s Government ignored Northern Ireland altogether. Damningly, Dublin and Brussels appeared to care more about its future than London. The first time May took any interest at all was after the 2017 General Election, when she needed to bribe 10 hardline Democratic Unionist MPs to keep her in power.

The Good Friday Agreement solidified a delicate balance which enabled both communities to inhabit their identities – not just emotionally or in the abstract, but practically and politically. This is about more than sensitivity; it is about security. It makes May and Boris Johnson’s approach even more reckless. Johnson didn’t care about Northern Ireland before he became Prime Minister, nor after it. His casual implementation of a border in the Irish Sea and repeated denials about it show he does not care now.

The other political provocation, of course, is the Coronavirus. In both cases, Scotland and Northern Ireland have seen the failings of the British state and have had the chance to forge a different path. Both nations have fared better than England.

And yet, this may still all come down to identity: specifically, the choice of which identity. 

It is no longer possible to exercise a Scottish, British and European identity, while in Northern Ireland, every Brexit option involves a symbolic fissure with either Britain or Ireland. The reason for both predicaments is the reality of English exceptionalism, which forced those choices on both populations.

The Union’s key problem is that, at heart, it has already ended. 

A majority of Scottish people say that, in spirit, they want to leave. If they eventually decide not to, it will be through economic fear, not emotional attachment. In Northern Ireland, too, the equilibrium has snapped: whatever now happens in the saga of the Northern Ireland Protocol, at least one side will feel aggrieved.

Something profoundly significant has taken place in the UK in just a few years. A British Government has broken the fundamental political compact with two of its populations and, with it, the bonds of trust. What has been smashed cannot be glued back together. 

The Union may, in the end, survive politically, but now only under duress. 

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