It’s Time to Break Up Britain

Yves here. As much as the UK Government looks determined to drive into the nation into a ditch rather than climb down from its negotiation overreach, and the Tories’ pro-finance, austerity policies have hurt Scotland, Wales, and the hollowed out North, it sadly doesn’t necessarily follow that breaking up Britain would make things better in less than a generation.

As Chris Grey has stressed, one of the problems with Brexit is the UK is too small to go it alone in a world of regional trade blocks, particularly since it depends on a lot of imported goods. This problem goes double for an independent Scotland, which would also have to set up all of the elements of a true national government that it currently lacks (start with trade negotiators!). How about health service? Scotland’s NHS contracts for medicines through the UK. How long would it take to get those sorted? And what happens to people who need insulin in the meantime?

And what pray tell would it do for a currency? It’s stuck with the pound, since it would be a multi-year project from an IT perspective for banks to code for a new currency (be it a Scottish currency or euros), not just Scottish institutions but also international payment processors.

Yes, the EU would no doubt do what it could to expedite entry were Scotland to seek to join, but even a fast track would take years, effectively putting breakaway Scots through two traumatic transitions.

In other words, I’d take a piece like this more seriously if it demonstrated a clue about what it would take for seceding parts of the UK to go it alone, as opposed to focusing on grievances. Even though they are entirely warranted, it’s irresponsible to contemplate such a massive undertaking without understanding what it entails. This article comes of as a better intentioned “Take back our sovereignity”. And look how well that’s working out for the UK.

Perhaps the huge backups at ports, fish rotting because they can’t be sold into Europe fast enough to be fresh with the new customs/tariff regime, and business overwhelmed by new documentation and VAT requirements will lead the Scots to focus on the operational requirements, that on top of the trade mess that the Government has dumped on  its citizens, Scotland would have borders with the UK, and all the headaches those entail,  on top of the Brexit train wreck.

In a bit of synchronicity, as part of an e-mail conversation about the pickle the DUP has gotten itself in, Clive just wrote:

But as Brexit has shown, leaving a union is hard. Nationalists dilemma (and this is the same for Scotland, too) is that, the more difficult Brexit turns out to be as a practical implementation, the more unpalatable it looks to the undecided. This group will be where independence votes, if any, make the difference. As Brexit demonstrated, getting 50%+1 in a referendum is the easy part. What happens next is the hard bit. Both a United Ireland “deal” and a Scottish independence one will make the UK’s negotiations with the EU look like a Buckingham Palace garden party.

More on how neoliberalism has been digging a grave for universities.

As we Yankees sometimes say, “You can’t get there from here.” Or to put it another way, psychological studies have found that most people have trouble making decisions when faced with only bad options.

By Adam Ramsay, openDemocracy’s main site editor. You can follow him at @adamramsay. Adam is a member of the Scottish Green Party, sits on the board of Voices for Scotland and advisory committees for the Economic Change Unit and the journal Soundings. Originally published at openDemocracy

The Scottish government gives all new parents a box of crucial items., Crown Copyright

I cried into my under-salted porridge.

We’d got back from a midwife’s appointment to find our free baby box from the Scottish government on the doorstep, and unpacking it brought a bubble of joy.

The basics were reassuring: ear and bath thermometers (we hadn’t thought of those), a changing mat, reusable nappy tokens, cheery gender-neutral baby grows. The box doubles as a cot.

Books about hungry caterpillars and traffic awareness were nice, but it was the art that brought tears: a National Orchestra of Scotland app with music for your baby; a poem from the Makar, the national poet. And a picture from the National Gallery. “Hello wee one,” it says on the back. “We chose this print especially for you.”

The Scottish government says the box “is designed to give every single baby in Scotland an equal start in life”. But it does more than that. A nation is an imagined community, and the Scottish state has worked hard to ensure that we feel our child will be loved by that community.

We don’t hear that from the British state.

Before 2020, a poll showing Scottish independence ahead was like our men’s football team scoring: celebrated magnificently by fans, but not indicative of a consistent lead. But all 14 surveys since 1 June have independence ahead, on average by 7%.

Something is changing, and not just in Scotland. This autumn, the pro-Welsh independence group YesCymru has grown from 2,000 paid-up members to 16,000. As new member Siwan Clark told me, until recently, independence “wasn’t on the agenda … Now, it’s crossed the threshold”. Support for Welsh independence has risen from 10% in 2012 to 33% today, similar levels to those seen in Scotland before 2014.

That year, the year of Scotland’s independence referendum, polls in Northern Ireland said that 65% wanted to remain in the UK. By 2017, in the wake of Brexit, young Protestants in Coleraine were telling me that although it made them sad, joining Ireland to stay in the EU probably made sense. Support for the status quo has fallen to 34%, with 35% preferring a united Ireland outright.

“The gears have shifted so much,” said Seán Fearon, a Northern Irish climate activist and PhD student who I recently spoke to over Zoom. “Particularly among younger people, there is a much, much stronger desire for Irish unification.”

In the north of England, after the unlikely rebellion from Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, over pandemic funding, a new party, the Northern Independence Party, has sprung up demanding an end to Westminster rule. Meanwhile Dick Cole, the leader of Mebyon Kernow (The Party for Cornwall), tells me that his home-rule party has had an injection of “new young members”, and says that a current Cornish council consultation has turned up significant support for “decisions in Cornwall being made in Cornwall”. “People want more power,” he said.

Over the past decade I’ve interviewed people from Derry to Norwich, Cardiff to Harris, Jerusalem to Madrid about the break-up of Britain. But my conversations for this piece uncovered a new mood among those who want to leave the UK: calm confidence that the centre cannot hold.

More and more people are seeing through the bluster of the ancient British state and concluding that their respective parts of the UK would be better off governing themselves. That the politics cultivated by Westminster does more harm than good, and that it’s time for something new. It’s harder than ever to avoid a simple truth: they’re right.

The Unmaking of a State

The United Kingdom has been a contested idea ever since it began to form. But it was the Marxist theorist, Tom Nairn, who first seriously traced the current fault lines in his 1977 book ‘The Break-Up of Britain’. Now 88, he’s usually cautious about predicting timelines. But speaking to me for this piece, he finally got specific. “Within the next five years, in one form or another, break-up is likely to come about”.

As Nairn identified, some forces driving this process move slowly. One is geopolitics. Three centuries ago, English and Scottish elites joined forces to colonise the world. During the Cold War, Britain’s family of ‘home nations’ huddled under the protection of nuclear weapons. Today, after Iraq, Brexit and genuflecting to Trump, the advantages of presenting as British rather than, say, Scottish are fading.

Another is communications technology. Modern nations were birthed in part by 19th-century innovations such as the printing press, followed by radio and television in the century after. Social media disrupts that process. More than ever, people are inventing new identities and putting old ones to new use. Every Welsh independence supporter I interviewed mentioned the lack of a Welsh press. Their movement is gathering online. The production of ideas and identities is less top-down than ever.

Economics is yet another. In ‘The Break-up of Britain’, Nairn defined nationalism as “mobilisation against the unpalatable truth of grossly uneven development”. Waves of capitalism break differently on different shores, intensifying regional variations and driving demand for independent governance. If this is generally true, then it’s very true in the UK, Europe’s most geographically unequal country. The City in London and the housing bubble in the south-east suck in investment, wealth and youth, and blow out debt, austerity, stress and regret.

And there are events.

After the banks crashed, Scotland and Wales voted for the steady hand of Gordon Brown but got David Cameron’s axe. Social security was the duvet under which we all snuggled. It gave millions a direct relationship with the British state. But that security was snatched away by the humiliating cruelty of Universal Credit.

Older English voters, infuriated by the status quo but unable to escape the cage of the British state, broke their heads against its bars, and Brexited. A younger generation radicalised by reality – war, climate change, austerity, housing – spent a dozen desperate years demanding change. Corbynism was the Westminster establishment’s chance to compromise. It didn’t.

Then came the virus. For many, the pandemic has been one of those moments that clarifies a question: do we want decisions about our lives made in Westminster – or in Holyrood, the Senedd, Stormont, or the Oireachtas?

Healthcare, once seen by Westminster as a ‘soft’, feminised issue that could be safely devolved while the British state hung on to the big boy stuff like security, has turned out to be the defining factor. If you’re Scottish, your government has been blessed by comparison with Westminster. If you’re Welsh, your first minister is suddenly a prominent figure. In Northern Ireland, it makes practical sense to collaborate with Dublin, whatever your tradition – and if you’re English, you get jealous.

Whatever the failings of leaders in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, they have at least struck the right tone. They have given the impression that this crisis is something other than a chance to shake up our public services, and spray their mates with a fizz of private contracts.

Britain’s leaders, by contrast, shelter behind a myth of ‘competence’ and hard-headed realism. But the borders of their ‘real world’ don’t extend far beyond London’s Square Mile, the headquarters of corporations like Shell or BP, estate agents in the Home Counties, and the editorial offices of right-wing newspapers. COVID-19, however, shows that politics isn’t about their fictional universe. It’s about our lives. And deaths.

Shifting Borders

Every country is a card-house of contradictions; every nation a disputed story, every state, a battlefield of institutions. So most claims about Britain have some truth.

Unionists often say that the UK is about pooling and sharing resources. In a sense, they’re right. Much of modern Britain was built by Labour in 1945, with its institutions of organised justice. But that settlement is being dismantled.

For many, Britain is an aid-giving, democracy-defending global goodie. To see through this, we need to travel 5,000 miles away.

In 2016, 214,488 papers were leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, detailing an offshore network of secretive deals, money laundering and tax avoidance. Headlines shouted about dictators and drug lords in the Global South getting their comeuppance. But less widely reported was that most companies mentioned in the Panama papers were registered in the UK, its Overseas Territories or Crown Dependencies.

Last year, academics Reijer Hendrikse and Rodrigo Fernandez analysed this growing offshore world. “Together with the wealth of the world’s billionaire class”, they concluded, it now “effectively constitutes the backbone of global capitalism”.

After 1945, as former colonies wriggled free, Britain was reinvented as something approaching a modern nation-state. But Westminster’s imperial detritus – Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Channel Islands – form the wheel turning Earth’s main money laundry. Hundreds of billionswash through it every year, wealth stolen from the workers of the world, impoverishing the planet.

Yet while London is the global financial hub through which much of this wealth travels, the vast majority of the population are excluded from it, regardless of their attachment to the stories and symbols of Britain.

It was spring 2015, at the depth of both Tory austerity and a grim hangover, when I first went to Cluan Place, east Belfast. Loyalist flags lined the fortified street and many of the women I spoke to checked their neighbours weren’t listening before whispering surprisingly similar opinions. As one put it, “I sometimes think that their lot” – nodding to the Sinn Fein-voting Short Strand over a vast iron fence – “do more for us than our lot.”

What’s now Northern Ireland has long been treated as a colony: first during the plantations, then as a useful ship-building outpost. When the minority Catholic population demanded civil rights in the 1960s, British soldiers who’d just put down an uprising in Kenyaarrived to inflame the conflict.

But as the Cold War melted, geopolitics changed. Having fought and tortured to keep its Hibernian enclave, British enthusiasm waned. In November 1990, Thatcher’s Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke said the UK government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. The qualifying clause would prove redundant. It soon became clear that Britain had no interest in Northern Ireland.

There’s a sign on west Belfast’s Shankill Road telling you that you’re in “the heart of the British Empire”. In the community centre nearby, staffer Ian McLaughlin told me in 2018 that people regularly come in with post, asking: “here, what does that say?”. A 2015 study concluded that one in five Northern Irish adults has “very poor” literacy skills. Working-class loyalist communities were taught they could depend on jobs building ships – until they couldn’t. Their loyalty has not been reciprocated.

A year earlier, I had watched Theresa May detonating Article 50 on the TV of the Bogside Bar on Free Derry Corner, republican flags outside. The man who’d bought my pint showed me an old photo on the wall of a balaclava-covered teenager carrying a makeshift bomb. It was him. Headlines about hard borders flashed across the screen, and it was clear that May had just done more to unite Ireland than his old IRA comrades ever had.

But it’s not just Brexit. To the south, in the Republic of Ireland, an inquiry into child abuse crumpled the country’s once-dominant Catholic church. Magnificent referendums on marriage equality and abortion rights transformed its image.

In 2017, the year that unionist parties lost their majority in Northern Ireland’s assembly for the first time, Sinn Fein campaigned on a pro-LGBT rights platform. Taking their cue from the social changes across the border, the Irish republicans positioned themselves in stark contrast to the Democratic Unionist Party, which is still heavily influenced by its conservative religious roots, and uses its veto power to block reforms on gender and sexual equality.

Suddenly, Britain seems like the conservative backwater. Dublin rule no longer means Vatican rule. Ireland looks towards Europe, and the future.

Northern Ireland’s infrastructure looks more eastern European than western; the only decent trains go to Dublin. Around 21% of children live in absolute poverty. One in every 120 people there is homeless. More have died by suicide since the end of the civil war than died from violence during it, and more miles of security wall divide the two communities now than did twenty years ago.

I first met Seán Fearon when he was student president at Queen’s University, Belfast. For him, Irish unity is not just about the 1.9 million people who live in the north joining a state of 4.7 million; it’s about “effectively restructuring that political configuration on the island of Ireland”, and bringing “an injection of new progressive ideas and new progressive, democratic weight”. The current arrangement, he told me, “is not capable of dealing with the climate crisis and the green economic transformation that has to happen.”

In December this year, Sinn Fein launched a campaign for a united Ireland. “A new Ireland,” it says on posters across Belfast “will work for you” – pledging “EU membership, jobs, prosperity, and an all-Ireland health service”.

“It’s time,” the party says, “to plan.”

What was once a fight about the past has become a debate about the future.

After the Defeat

In Wales, socialists and progressives disappointed by Labour’s election defeat at the end of last year are starting to plan ahead, too.

Siwan Clark is one of the many young people who moved home for lockdown. A few years ago she had left Cardiff for London because of “a feeling that you have to be there, that it was the centre of things”. The pandemic has changed all that. “For a lot of people who’ve moved home, their sphere is turning to more local things,” she said to me over Zoom recently.

Before COVID, Clark said, she wouldn’t have expected most people in Wales to know the name of the first minister. (It’s Mark Drakeford.) “I was extremely ignorant about the Assembly. I just didn’t really engage with it,” she said.

In London, she had joined Labour “in a rage” so that she could vote for Jeremy Corbyn during the post-Brexit leadership challenge. “I was so annoyed by that. I canvassed a lot in 2017. And a lot in 2019.”

Now 26 and back in Wales, Clark has joined Undod, the campaign for radical Welsh independence. Watching Labour’s disastrous result in the 2019 general election, then reading the leaked report that showed how some Labour staffers had allegedly worked to undermine Corbyn during the much closer 2017 contest, “I just became convinced that, firstly, he would never have been allowed to win. And even if he had somehow won, he would not have been allowed to govern. It would have collapsed,” she said.

“It’s not possible to build democratic socialism by using the institutions of the ancient British state, in the way that it’s not possible to induce a vulture to give milk,” said the Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson in 1985. It’s a quote with fresh relevance for millions of young people, for whom the defeat of Corbynism was a rough welcome to Westminster rule.

Look at a map of Britain, and you’ll see a pair of arms reaching out of north Wales to hug Ireland. Pwllheli, where Elin Hywel is a town councillor, is on the lower limb, the Llŷn Peninsula. It’s also where her party, Plaid Cymru, was founded.

With COVID-19 says Hywel, came the pandemic tourists. Thousands of people, escaping sweltering cities during the summer of 2020, drove to Wales. House prices and rents soared, and people who had grown up in this Welsh-speaking area found that their usual challenge – competing with second-homers – had suddenly got much harder.

It wasn’t just the housing shortage. Thousands arriving in the middle of a pandemic caused enormous stress. “They weren’t recognising that people in these communities […] were also trying to protect their own families and couldn’t escape,” Hywel tells me.

“People feel out of control. They can’t control all these things that are necessary for them to keep people that they love, safe,” she said. “The easiest way to bring that all into our control is to have independence.” The government in Cardiff, by contrast, “understand where we’re coming from, not just seeing us as an area that’s far enough away from everywhere.”

Chat about independence has started to make its way into everyday conversation, Hywel says, describing how a plasterer doing work on her kitchen was recently asking about YesCymru. He had been looking online, and wanted to know what it would mean for his family. “If it’s not going to make a positive impact on people’s lives, there’s no point to independence,” says Hywel.

If it were counted on its own, Wales would be the poorest country in northern Europe. A third of Welsh children live in poverty. GDP per capita in west Wales and the Valleys is about 10% of that in inner west London.

There are two ways you can understand this data. If you have faith in the high priests of classical economics, and see wealth as the bread of heaven, granted by the Gods of the market, then independence is apostasy. It is the natural order that Wales is poor, and Welsh people should be grateful for leftovers.

If, on the other hand, you think that the wealth of nations is shaped by us mortals and how we organise ourselves into societies, then government policies and public institutions matter. If one part of the territory of a state is ten times poorer than another, then that state has failed utterly.

The fact that Wales is the poorest country in its region is, in other words, not a reason to keep things as they are, but cause to demand change. Other northern European countries that have tended to vote for social democrats over decades – such as the Nordic countries – have become the richest and most egalitarian places on earth.

Welsh voters have voted for progressive parties as often as Finnish voters. Yet year after year, they have had Conservative governments imposed on them; governments whose agenda has been to extract wealth from the UK periphery to prop up the housing and financial markets in the core: the Home Counties and the City.

Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, grew up in Newport, south Wales, where she’s running for the Welsh parliament in May. “I think it’s interesting the way our transport networks don’t connect Wales,” she tells me. “[They] move goods, people and resources out of our country into England, making us better connected to London than [they connect] north and south [Wales], across our own communities”.

Despite backing Scottish independence, the Greens used to be vaguer about Wales. But this autumn, their conference took a clear position. As Womack put it to me: “Support[ing] communities across Wales while making sure that we tackle the ecological and climate emergencies can’t be done within the current frameworks.” For real change, she says, “Welsh independence is the solution.”

The Welsh cultural theorist Raymond Williams coined the term “structure of feeling” to describe the different ideas vying to become common sense in a society at any one time. In just a couple of years, yearning for independence in his native country has gone from the quaint passion of a few hobbyists to a sensation running up its spine.

Scotland’s Endgame

Welsh independence is far from inevitable. But many see it as an ejector seat, likely to be used if Scotland parachutes out of the union. And the situation here is changing rapidly.

“We’re going to get a vaccine in April, and a referendum on a referendum in May. I’d want to be Sturgeon not Boris Johnson in that situation,” says Jamie Maxwell, one of the most thoughtful observers of Scottish politics.

“Next year’s election,” he tells me, “is going to be quite an exciting moment. People around the world will be watching”.

It would be a shock if pro-independence parties – the SNP and the Greens – don’t win the most seats in the upcoming elections for the Scottish parliament. If they do, then a recent poll shows a significant majority also favour another independence referendum. Westminster can still refuse, but any debate about whether there’s a mandate for one will be over.

To Maxwell, the situation looks “a bit like Ireland at the start of the 20th century. You just feel like Scotland is heading towards some sort of denouement.”

A big part of that is Brexit. Miriam Brett grew up on Shetland, and works in London for a left-wing think tank. For her, it’s not just Boris Johnson’s tone, but also the content of what he says that is turning minds against the union.

Speaking to me over Zoom, she says that for most Scots, Brexit represents a “broad restructuring of our economy. What will that mean for labour rights? What will that mean for climate and environment protections? What will that mean for regulations?” Without the tinted lenses of Anglo-British nationalism, people see it as the same Thatcherite economic agenda that most Scots have been rejecting for decades, she says.

Brett highlights something else, too. Brexit involves the UK reclaiming powers from Brussels, often in policy areas that currently sit within the purview of devolved administrations. With the controversial new Internal Market Bill, Westminster is grabbing many of those powers for itself, and has been accused by the Scottish government of reversing devolution. Scots don’t have a settled view on independence, but the vast majority feel pretty damned protective of our parliament.

And that fact in itself is also significant. Holyrood has produced a distinct political culture.

People I interview across England usually believe politicians are “all in it for themselves” or “all the same”, or that the system is broken. In January, before the pandemic, researchers at Edelman showed British people trust their institutions less than those of any other country they surveyed except Russia. Some 60% in the UK, and 70% of the wealthy and educated, think “democracy is losing its effectiveness as a form of government”.

Boris Johnson and his pals nurture an anti-politics energy. “If you don’t like this way of deciding things,” they imply, “then let the market do it, leave it to our class.”

In the 2019 election, Johnson didn’t promise to use politics to improve our lives. He suggested we vote politics away. “Get Brexit done” – the next clause remained unsaid – “and get on with our Christmas shopping.”

For people in England, with little experience of what a functional political system looks like, this was profoundly popular, and won him the election. But for 20 years, Scottish people have experienced an alternative set-up that seems to – sort-of – represent the country’s various views, and which at least runs parallel to a practical negotiation about how to live together.

Maxwell is perhaps a little more cynical. When I mention the baby box, he describes it as “an astute political gesture. Sturgeon is astute at political gestures.” It’s not, he points out, going to change the gap in life expectancy between my middle-class Edinburgh suburb of Portobello, and nearby impoverished Craigmillar.

Of course, he’s right. The SNP manages to balance the demands of the various opposing groups within Scottish society. But in the storms whipping the world, that’s not enough. You can’t tackle global heating while appeasing the North Sea oil industry. You can’t level up violent health inequalities without confronting the economic system making people sick. You can’t resolve the housing crisis without pissing off landlords.

But they benefit from comparison with Westminster, as well as from sloppy opposition in Holyrood. And the baby box is really nice. More importantly, it’s not about the SNP, but whether independence would allow for better political structures and cultures to replace those we have now. It wouldn’t be hard.

There are still barriers. For international recognition, Westminster has to approve a referendum, likely requiring an electoral majority, civil disobedience and deft international diplomacy. An EU customs border with England would mean looking more often across the North Sea and Irish Sea for trade. And we’d have to start our own currency, transferring our mortgages and savings into it.

In 2017, I went undercover to a fundraising dinner for the anti-independence group Scotland in Union. I didn’t get what I was looking for, but it was fascinating.

Addressing nuclear lobbyists, failed Labour MPs and bumbling toffs, the keynote speaker summed up his case against independence, recounting how a Scottish person had told him “the Highlands are beautiful, and so is the Devon coast”. I managed to resist blurting out that Norway’s Fjords are stunning, but I don’t yearn to govern them.

Unionists may get better organised. But a recent focus group of No to Yes swing voters run by an anti-independence think tank highlights the challenge: the pro-union case that voters are open to is a progressive, even socialist one. The British state can’t make that argument.

Instead, unionists rely on sentimental nationalism. And as they beg for British flags on vaccine vials, they couldn’t look more backwards.

Confronting Our Demons

Despite widespread distrust of the British state, many people find shelter in their British identity. While the vast majority of White people in England call themselves English first, about half of people of colour in England and Wales feel more British. Perhaps this is why some English progressives, of all ethnic backgrounds, feel Britishness suits them better than Englishness.

But as the hostile environment tightens the boundary around citizenship and Black Lives Matter unleashes fraught conversations about the legacy of empire, the idea that Britishness is progressive is becoming harder to sustain.

In the meantime, as people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland edge towards forms of independence from Westminster, the question of England becomes harder to ignore.

As the first industrial nation, containing the most populous and wealthiest parts of the UK, “England” becomes the default in conversations about Britain. Often, the English idea of Britishness is really a kind of superiority complex: some English people don’t ‘feel’ English in the same way that White people don’t like being called White, or the way that my posh accent isn’t considered a ‘dialect’.

Yet as Anthony Barnett argues in ‘The Lure of Greatness’, his analysis of the right-wing upheavals of recent years, Britishness is a narcotic that distracts us from reality. For as long as the English middle class retains its attachment to aristocracy, empire and global greatness, the myths in which Britishness comes wrapped, England will be prevented from seeing itself as just another normal country – and one in which there is a serious imbalance of power.

In Scotland, we have our parliament protecting us from the British state, nurturing a different political culture. But the English – beyond a few flightless mayoralties and local government deliberately starved of power and resources – have no one to negotiate for them.

Low wages in England’s north-east and soaring homelessness in London are as much failings of the British state as poverty in Wales. The western part of inner London, with a GDP per capita of ten times west Wales and the Valleys, also includes the remains of Grenfell Tower. Just as Northern Ireland is cut up by fences, English towns are increasingly divided by barbed wire, CCTV and gated communities.

Opinion polls show that most people across the UK agree on most things. Like people across much of the West, broadly speaking, we’re liberal social democrats. Where people in England differ – why so many consistently vote Tory while most in Scotland and Wales don’t – is because the Conservatives are the party of Anglo-British nationalism.

That nationalism is a product of the British state’s archaic, elitist institutions, a legacy of monarchy and empire – and for the people of England to liberate themselves, they must free themselves from it. Confronting your demons is unpleasant, but the alternative is letting them govern you. And the prize is a chance to build a political system worth trusting.

Our baby is due on 8 January 2021. I hope they live well into the 2100s.

I hope they’re happy, and healthy, and don’t inherit my depression.

I hope that, as oceans rise and regimes fall, they live in a world that meets these challenges by unleashing the democratic genius and love of which humanity is capable.

I hope that, as technology once more transforms human experience, it is governed by the many, not the few.

I hope that, as they discover the world, they find something fresh and exciting, which everyone can shape, not governed from the musky corridors of long-crumbled empires.

Tom Nairn seems excited about that future. “No one has ever done this before. We’re making it up as we go along,” he told me. “What was once Great Britain, the British Empire, we’re struggling along to replace that with something else, with something new.

“Let’s go ahead, and see what comes out of the maelstrom.”

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  1. Alan McGregor

    Blimey, Yves, you might ask Adam before you dive in- Scotland already has an independent NHS (SNHS), so no issues there.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I suggest you do more homework before you make unfounded accusations. SNHS does not have independent contracts with pharmaceutical companies. It gets an allocation from UK wide deals. That means it is likely to get its medical devices and other supplies through UK-wide contracts too, since many devices are dominated by major international players (for instance, J&J virtually owns the hip replacement market), and so having more buying power is advantageous in facing off with big players on pricing.

      Romanticizing the additional services Scottish NHS does provide, like the baby boxes, does not mean that Scottish NHS is operationally self sufficient, despite imprecise claims commonly made even in pretty detailed-looking documents.

      See here, for example:

      ABPI Scotland Director, Alison Culpan, detailed the figures which show that NHS Scotland will receive up to £70 million from pharmaceutical companies over the course of this financial year (2019/20) – or about £1 million a week.

      The Scheme – a voluntary agreement between the Industry and Government – works by ensuring that the UK-wide NHS bill for branded medicines cannot grow by more than 2% in any year of the scheme, effectively capping the bill.

      Anything above the cap is paid back by pharmaceutical companies to the UK Government and apportioned across the country. The Scottish Government ring-fences this money for spending on innovative new treatments through their New Medicines Fund.

      The previous voluntary scheme – called the PPRS* – delivered £258 million back to NHS Scotland over five years (2014-2019).

      Speaking about the Scheme, ABPI Scotland Director Alison Culpan said

      “This unique agreement offers the NHS predictability when it comes to purchasing branded medicine and I can’t think of another industry doing more to keep NHS finances in check.

      In other words, the UK really is doing the buying, which also raises questions about logistics of orders and distribution.

      Scotland is not independent in medical devices either. It relies on EU and UK regulations. See:

      There are legal considerations as the design, manufacture and supply of devices are regulated in the UK and Europe through various legislation enacted both in the UK and in the European Union.There is specific UK Health & Safety legislation, such as the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations(PUWER)178,that identifies criteria that must be met. PUWER itself includes the conditions in which and the way in which equipment can be used, the appropriateness of training and qualifications of equipment usersand the provision of instructions.–61cXtAhWy1FkKHXf1AbEQFjAAegQIAhAC&

      I can’t find anything on how more mundane medical supplies are purchased. In general, the documents that go on very elaborately about SNHS funding and governance and policy are bizarrely silent on procurement, save contracts with GPs.

      Having said that, the insulin example is a bit overegged. I managed to forget that in 2015, when the Greek bailout negotiations failed and the banking system was effectively shut for weeks, there were shortages of pharmaceuticals (mundane hospital supplies were in even worse shape, they were even reusing sheets) but foreign players made special efforts to supply insulin.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    I was just chatting about exactly this topic last night online with some English friends. They feel the UK is spinning apart, not in the form of a dramatic series of revolutions, more a psychological shift whereby people no longer feel London is their capital. What this means in concrete terms, is anyones guess.

    Yves is right of course that independence for Scotland (or Wales) would be enormously disruptive, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. These things take on a momentum of their own, and when you have a combination of independence movements with a central government with neither the desire nor competence to maintain the Union, then things could break up with a speed that could well surprise everyone. I’ve always believed that the big driver of the break up of the UK would not be Scots or Welsh independence nationalism, but English nationalism (the latter being, in truth, the biggest driver behind Brexit).

    Things are shifting in Northern Ireland, the primary driver being that the traditional upper middle class Unionist core (mostly ‘high church’ Protestants), no longer feel so strongly about being part of the UK. The majority in NI still want to be part of a Union, but they also want to be part of the EU and they know something is going to break and tens of thousands have already secured their Irish (EU) passports. They will get ahead of whichever parade they see as likely to win (this is exactly what happened in 1921 when the Republic got its independence). The more hard line loyalists (mostly low church Scots Irish), will find themselves isolated and betrayed. Sinn Fein is waiting patiently, it doesn’t want to precipitate things, but it will choose its time to push for a united Ireland – probably if they get power in the Republic (they are flying high in the polls), and Scotland pushes for independence.

    I don’t entirely agree with Yves about Scotland/Wales and the EU. There are precedents for nations to be ‘affiliated’ to the European Union without being formal members – Greenland had that status, and French Guiana does at present (one of my favourite pub quiz questions is to ask which part of South America is part of the EU). A year or so ago I heard a really interesting interview with the leader of Plaid Cymru, where he openly talked about Wales staying within a notional UK under the Queen, while becoming part of the EU via an association with Dublin. He envisaged a sort of Celtic League of self governing nations, with Ireland representing them in the EU and other international forums. This isn’t unique, as many European countries, including the UK itself, has this sort of inventive constitutional arrangement with former colonies. So I think that where there is a will, there is a way, and I strongly suggest that it would strongly appeal to many in Europe to have a small hand in ripping apart perfidious Albion (and I suspect Biden would too, his anti-Englishness seems quite real). EU bureaucrats love nothing more than stitching together complicated multilingual multinational legally contorted deals. They did it in the 1990’s for Eastern Europe, this will seem a relatively simpler task to them.

    In a sensible world, London would realise this and seek a new constitutional settlement, recognising that if the UK is to prosper and go forward, it needs to divest far more power, not just to the Celtic Fringes, but to cities and regions in the North of England too. But I don’t honestly see any foreseeable government with the capacity or imagination to do this. Labour won’t do it because of their deep cultural hatred of the Celtic independence movements and refusal to make deals with other progressives (Greens especially), and the Tories certainly won’t.

    The worst case scenario of course is that once the ‘ripping apart’ starts, it doesn’t stop. The Shetlands and Orkneys most certainly do not want to be ruled by Edinburgh (they see themselves as much Vikings as Scots). South Wales is far more anglicised than north and central Wales and would dread being ruled by a Welsh speaking parliament (and you’d wonder where the big English cities would get their water from without Wales). Many prosperous little Tory voting towns and rural areas in the north would resent being told what to do by big urban mayors. In NI, you could well see a revival of old movements to create a more hard core Scots-Irish state in the heartlands of eastern Ulster (implicit in this is driving all catholics out). And then of course you have the weird status of places like the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Maybe it could all be funded by selling them to the Chinese.

    1. Donn

      Agree almost entirely with PK here, and it does seem the game is up for the UK. Re the various worst case scenarios for N. Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the final paragraph? I don’t know. I don’t think I’d really see these ‘micro-partitionist trajectories’ coming to anything without significant support and encouragement by a London establishment with both the intent and capacity to use them in thwarting full independence. Could very well be wrong, but I suspect this is only likely if circumstances in England allow it – and it’s quite possible that, for sustained periods in the times ahead, they won’t.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        I confess to not having considered PK’s line of thought, but IMHO the currency puts London in the driver’s seat. It could threaten to do what the EU did with Greece, cut off banks from Bank of England support. That would probably not be workable with any of the major clearing banks, since torching their regional branches, even if there were an operational way to do it, would put those banks into crisis. But any banks that were purely non-British?

        How about the accounts of the Scottish Government with the Bank of England? The lack of fiscal independence and tax collection operations are a much bigger problem than the SNHS drug buy issue:

        The money that central government has to spend, collectively called the Scottish Consolidated Fund, comes from the following sources:

        block grant from the UK Government
        EU funds
        Scottish income tax (collected by HMRC)
        non-domestic rates (collected by local authorities and redistributed by us)
        devolved taxes (collected by Revenue Scotland)

        1. PlutoniumKun

          I’ve often wondered about this – it should be remembered of course that Scotland does have its own pound and its own notes (as does Northern Ireland, but they are rarely seen now). When Ireland became independent it simply adopted the ‘Irish pound’ that was already in use issued by Irish banks and created a hard link with sterling. This of course proved massively deflationary but it solved an immediate problem. But that said, the Irish pound (later, the punt), became an achilles heal of the Irish economy for decades, which is why Ireland was and is a strong euro enthusiast.

          This is beyond my pay scale and skills, but I wonder if Scotland could simply declare initially that the Scottish pound is the new currency and initially float it as 1 to 1 with Sterling, with a medium term aim to link it to the Euro, or even float it when the time is right.

          With Northern Ireland, I think its simpler, as the euro is widely accepted and easily exchanged, in border areas people use both euro and pound without much thought. I would have thought a switch over would be a relatively straightforward operation if there was a reasonable run in time.

          A key point of course is whether or not the independence is with the co-operation of London. Politically, I would have thought that if the process was carried out through an open vote then they would at least have to make the appearance of cutting a deal. The Scots and others are not entirely without their levers, especially if they get the EU and US on side politically.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            That creates the same problems that Clive and other bank IT experts discussed long-form with Greece: you need to code IT systems to handle a new currency, and it’s not just banks in your country but all over the world, and payments processors like Visa, MasterCard, Choice, Amex. That takes years. Even printing currency and retooling ATMS to handle a new currency (or dual currencies!) is a massive undertaking. That takes years.

            1. Jack

              Can’t a country be independent and yet use a foreign currency? For instance, many independent countries use the US dollar as their official currency; Ecuador, El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Timor, Micronesia, and Palau. And many other countries might as well use the US dollar like Panama, the Bahamas, and most of the Caribbean islands.

              1. Alex Cox

                El Salvador is dependent on the US for remittances and approaches a failed state. Not a good case for abandoning your national currency!

              2. Nigel Goddard

                It’s not monetarily or fiscally independent without its own currency. So no, that doesn’t work.

            2. larry

              Varoufakis had such a plan regarding the Greek Drachma and the Euro. One part of his complicated plan was to give the drachma parity to the euro for the time needed for the new Greek system to settle down. This plan could be revisited for the Scottish situation. There is no need to start from scratch here. There will be issues with the Scottish bank branches in England, but the Varoufakis plan IIRC had taken this sort of thing into account as well.

              While there will be issues with goods and services, PK’s suggestions seem to ones to explore. Certainly, preparation in advance is the way to go if that is the path the Scots want to take. This is not the way in which the incompetent Johnson is treating Brexit, though. I wish I could say it was unblelievable.

    2. SOMK

      Re: Sinn Féin and the potential for a Sinn Féin government.

      It will be interesting to see how the establishment in Ireland will react to this. RTÉ (the national broadcaster) in the aftermath of the recent election did a very notable about turn in how they treated Sinn Féin, but Fine Gael certainly were casting envious eyes at how the UK establishment went all-in against Corbynism after 2017. Earlier in the year there was some kite flying of masses of bot-like low-follower twitter accounts claiming they’d been bullied off twitter (using a script remarkably similar to UK accounts that made similar claims a few months prior regarding anti semitism) for expressing positive opinions about the ruling(ish) Fine Gael, they were essentially laughed off twitter, but it shows a willingness to use such tactics or even dream up new ones. I saw a recent episode of Clair Byrne (topical political discussion thing on national broadcaster) where Brexit was being discussed and the hostess prior to speaking to the Sinn Féin guest stated that “and of course we all know what you would think of a united Ireland”, which is the standard “yeah, yeah” line, but the Sinn Féin guest responded “this is something we need to start talking about seriously,” and then quite rightly pointed out the example of Brexit being something the actual consequences (and necessary structural and legal realignments) of which had barely been considered. Sinn Féin find themselves being in the enviable position in terms of having capable people in strong places and being on the right side of several issues to the point that the traditional lines of attack become open goals for them, unlike with Corbynism they are experienced, well prepared for rule and have a united front.

      Also worth pointing out Sinn Féin’s current leftism came about not because of any deep leftist conviction of their leader Mary-Lou McDonald (once a member of Fianna Fáil), but because her attempt to pivot the party to her preferred centre-right style politics proved an electional disaster and she was essentially talked around to adopting the current centre-left approach, which has worked wonders for them, as because of their pariah status (no party large enough to form a government would countenance having them as a partner), as along with being the only large lefty party in town (the Irish Labour Party are so compromised they’ve become a laughing stock) they are the only political party completely untainted by the crash of 2008, austerity or the zombie recovery that has shafted two generations and led to an unprecedented housing crisis.

      As for polling in the north, unlike with Brexit a tight margin won’t be enough, the town leaders of Derry were happy to surrender to the army of James II, it was the hot headed apprentice boys who seized the keys, locked the gates and the people rallied behind them, 27% of respondents in the north stated they never want to see a border poll, that’s a problem, though not an unsurmountable one. Ireland has been praised in many quarters for their international diplomatic game over Brexit, but the real game lies ahead.

  3. The Rev Kev

    Being half serious here but I do like detecting patterns. Perhaps the problem here is not so much that places like Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the north of England, etc. want out. Maybe the real solution is that it should be Greater London that should exit the rest of the United Kingdom. It might work. London gets to keep the City of London which gives them access to the Treasure islands. They get to keep the Monarchy and the Palaces in London. The Queen would lose all the estates which is a massive chunk of the UK but hey, we all have to make sacrifices, right? It’s kinda like all the land that the US Federal Government owns out west. All those Crown Estate revenues would then go to the people that actually live there which would not be so bad. The rest of the UK might ask if they really need things like Trident or carriers and might better spend the money instead on defence forces that would be sufficient to defend the UK instead of sending them around the planet. There would be far less disruption with this idea and I am sure that with the expertise that the City of London has, that they could come up with their own currency – like a digital pound. Whatever. The more I think about it, the more I think that this might be the way to go.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Hah, this is taking the “Singapore on Thames” idea literally, which is more sensible.

      But London is sprawling. You do have the problem of where to draw the line. The City proper, “the Square Mile” is tiny.

      The Royal Family gives up all its exurban estates but keeps the London one and the Crown Dependencies too, right?

      You would have an issue with the various rail services and the National Post and other national networks/services.

      So the rest of the UK quits being a monarchy. Makes the Aussies look bad for not having gotten over that.

      1. Tony Wright

        Not as bad as we look (and are) for selling coal hand over fist to the rest of the world.
        And as a nation we keep voting for the Liberal(misnomer)/National(another misnomer) COALition, currently led by a Hillsong zealot PR man whose spin doctoring capacity leaves Alistair Campbell for dust. Expletives deleted.

    2. FFA

      I don’t think this captures the divides in the UK all that well so I will waffle a bit.
      Compared to the rest of England, Londoners are younger and more likely to have voted for remain and for Labour. In many ways they’re more like the Scots in Glasgow and Edinburgh than English people in the shires (although Labour can’t get votes north of the border any more).

      London as centre of power – both political and financial – does have a black hole effect of sucking power and wealth into itself. Note however, that the people currently controlling that power centre live in nice houses in Surrey and Buckinghamshire.

      I’m not sure you could carve out Westminster and Tax-Haven-on-Thames from the largest urban population in Europe but an independent London would want to rejoin the EU, just as Scotland will.

      A clear majority in Wales voted to leave the EU. This is less surprising if you consider that much of Wales is full of reactionary old people because it is:
      a) rural.
      b) a retirement village for the English.
      c) devoid of jobs and houses for young Welsh people, so they all went to London to join the young Spaniards and Italians.

      The monarchy is more popular outside London than inside – another issue where the Londoners are more like the Scots – but there isn’t broad support for getting rid of the current monarch anywhere.

      The black hole of London has made the south-east of England rich, or full of rich people at least. I think that this has had a particularly damaging effect on Wales and the regions of England that are more remote from London but that lack their own focus of power. Scotland has a distinct geography, legal system, financial industry, cities and – since 1998 – government and seems to have fared better for having them. There was an argument 20 years ago over devolution for the English regions but nothing came of it.

      On the subject of the article, I think Northern Ireland and Scotland will go. Staying in the union was supposed to avoid causing immense damage and disruption for the sake of ideology – hah!
      In the medium term the Scottish will be fine, look at their neighbours in Ireland and Denmark.

    3. larry

      I sometimes entertain a fantasy that the North secedes from England and either goes independent, unlikely, or is incorporated into Scotland, leaving the South (and the Midlands) behind. I think this is a better way to go than yours, Rev, with all due respect. Less complicated, in a sense.

  4. Halcyon

    The next five years or so are going to be extremely dangerous for the Union. I’m not inclined to suggest that Wales, Cornwall, or Yorkshire are anywhere near being taken seriously as independence movements yet [listed in order of how close they are to that threshold.]

    But we know that there will be a border poll at some stage, and Sinn Fein are probably just waiting for a few years of continued Brexit chaos and obvious economic detriment to occur. I don’t see how such a poll can be fought without political violence flaring up again, and that will get ugly.

    As has been pointed out, the position of the SNP is extremely difficult when it comes to both being pro-independence and harshly critical of Brexit. They must simultaneously argue that referendums are holy and cannot be corrupted and that the Brexit one should probably have been overturned; that it’s going to be incredibly easy to negotiate the terms of a future settlement, and that a major reason for leaving is the UK government’s failure to negotiate a suitable future settlement after 4-5 years of Brexit.

    I still wonder about the mechanics of independence now. Say the SNP sweeps the Holyrood elections. Johnson will still play hardball. I doubt there are any circumstances he would countenance a referendum short of 100,000 armed and be-kilted highlanders laying siege to the Palace of Westminister (or, maybe more pertinently, Chequers). So they can go down the Catalonian route of running their own referendum… I just don’t see the path to actual de jure independence as all that clear under a government that can ignore and sustain unpleasant political realities for a long time. It might need to wait for a government that would need the coalition with the SNP to give the formal order if it is legally decided that a referendum under the auspices of Holyrood was unconstitutional.

    Yet the whole thing is relentlessly depressing for the exact reason that all of these problems and crises are forseeable. We suffer from a ridiculous dearth of wisdom all over the western world and amongst our leaders where they fail to realise that some kind of major, public renegotiation of terms is required for the system to be even remotely stable into the future. This applies to neoliberalism just as much as it applies to the constitutional system in the UK with its constituent nations.

    FDR was derided as a “traitor to his class”, but his actions saved capitalism in the US. Huey Long’s plan to beat him was to split the vote and then rely on four more years of Hoover-type governance from the Republicans to make his even more radical policy agenda acceptable. Whereas we just keep electing Hoovers.

    The elites do not even have the wherewithal to realise that this kind of reform necessary to head off something they dislike even more further on down the line. Instead, they’ve split into a canny section who plan to continue the plunder while banging patriotic and jingoistic identity drums to distract everyone, and a less canny section who have decided “The People? No!” to quote Thomas Frank: they’re all stupid, racist, ill-educated caricature Brexit/Trump voters, and we must figure out ways of keeping democracy safe from them. Both of these roads are just roads to further ruin.

    1. Anonymous2

      I agree absolutely that the next five years are very dangerous for the UK but the time of peril could be longer than that. I attended the Electoral Reform Society lecture by David Runciman on Saturday and he postulated the next ten years. I think that is right. If one assumes a landslide victory for the SNP in May 2021, they will be in office until 2026. If denied another referendum by the Conservatives then one likely outcome would be a hardening of opinion in favour of independence in Scotland, at least in the short-term. That could result in another SNP landslide in 2026 with a mandate for another referendum.

      If the Conservatives lose their majority at the next UK election then the price of SNP support for a coalition would be another referendum. This could happen in 2023/4 or 2027/9.

      Johnson may say now that he will take a hardline against another referendum but he may be gone soon to an internal party coup and, even if he doesn’t depart, I am not sure that he really means it. If Scotland goes, it becomes much easier for the Tories to hold Westminster. At present Scotland delivers to Westminster about 50 seats which are probably never going to vote Tory.

      We all have different perspectives of course but as someone who is UK resident I consider that the mood in the UK is extraordinarily irrational. I do not expect practical considerations of what is in people’s economic interests to be decisive now. Identity politics has in very large measure taken over and in this context that means nationalism.

  5. Bad Robot

    When it was realised that HoP was in a truly parlous state and required serious renovations, that was one fantastic opportunity to plan on moving ‘HoP’ out of London to a more central location.

  6. David

    Scottish independence has come onto the radar at intervals ever since the late 70s (remember “Scotland’s oil?”), and for the most part the British establishment’s attitude has been “shut the door after you and don’t forget to leave us a big cheque on the table.” The economics have always been dubious, and, as you say, never more at the moment. Live off tourism? Not looking so hot now. Export haggis and whisky to the EU as a third country? Tricky.

    But there’s a wider question, which is the typically ramshackle construction of Britain in the first place. The Union with Scotland in 1707 was pushed hardest by the Scottish professional elites, after jobs and access to trade and the commercial empire then developing. (This is why the Scottish elite, even today, sends its children to be educated at English schools and speaks with an English accent – see one Tiny Blur). It just kind of happened, and was attractive largely to the English as a strategic anti-catholic reinforcement. Same really for Ireland, which was always seen as a strategic problem and a vulnerability, well into the nineteenth century. Reluctance to let Ireland have its independence was as much as anything to avoid giving encouragement to anti-colonialist forces elsewhere, and the retention of Northern Ireland wasn’t part of any worked-out plan, just a way of avoiding a crisis. By the 1960s, at the latest, London no longer really cared about the Protestant community there: “nuke the bastards” was a common cry in London during the Troubles.

    So there isn’t, and never has been, any logic to the political configuration of Britain. It’s been a process of improvisation, ancient and short-term finger-in-dyke. There was never any project of national unification, as in countries as disparate as Italy, Germany, Japan or even the US, and so very little cultivated sense of being “British”. It It’s perhaps inevitable, then, that a political system which has no underlying logic should start to fall apart under this kind of pressure. When this kind of process starts, it can quickly get out of control, as we saw in Yugoslavia, for example, thirty years ago. I don’t want to make silly comparisons, but it’s worth pointing out that the motor of the disintegration was elites in Slovenia and Croatia who thought that economically they’d be better off as independent states, cuddled close up to the EU.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think your final point is the key one – when a countries upper 10%ers decide that maybe a change is needed, suddenly what seems off the wall or impossible, suddenly gets on the agenda. I think we are seeing that in Northern Ireland, where the traditional middle to upper classes – not the elites, but the people who live in nice detached suburban houses and send their kids to the better schools – are seeing that maybe a united Ireland wouldn’t be a disaster after all. I don’t know about Scotland, but I’d suspect something similar may be happening given that the Scottish Tory party seem to be pretty much a party apart now from the English Tories.

  7. Alex Cox

    Craig Murray has pointed out that the current leadership of the SNP is extremely right wing – seeking to retain the English nukes at Faslane and join NATO. So an alliance with the Greens is impossible. But the physical links between England and Scotland are few: a few roads and two railway lines. So a hard border could be created. And it isn’t difficult to print a new currency. I saw the Nicaraguans do this in the 1980s – the new bills were manufactured by De La Rue, in England.

    Murray also observes that the Scots don’t need to ask permission from Westminster or have another referendum. They can simply declare independence.

    But this will require new leadership in the SNP. So a united Ireland will almost certainly come first!

  8. Kouros

    Interesting to observe that the word “pension” does not appear once in the article or the comments…

  9. Tom Bradford

    There are several micro-states with sovereignty in Europe – Andorra, Lichtenstein, Monaco and Switzerland off the top of my head, and the last isn’t even part of the EU yet. If, as I anticipate, Johnson buckles on the EU’s demands apart from a few face-saving cosmetic points, avoiding the need for a hard border and extensive paper-work to cross it, these surely show that Scotland and Wales – and even NI – could convert themselves over the course of a few years into sovereign self-governing states.

    1. apleb

      I would dispute that Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco are sovereign states. They are semi sovereign or protectorates. They have given away one or more rights a real sovereign state has to other states. E.g. the heads of Andorra are a spanish bishop and the french president. Monaco has no army and let the french protect them, etc. Non of them have a foreign policy to speak of, make no treaties, etc. They are mainly tax havens and tourist traps as all ares which aren’t directly incorporated into big states seem to be.

      Better pray the Swiss never find out you labeled them as a micro-state. Every swiss man has an assault rifle in his closet being a part of the swiss army.

      Real small sovereign states in Europe are Luxemburg and Malta, which are of course tax havens too

      1. Tom Bradford

        I would dispute your disputation – None of those I mentioned are ruled or subject to laws imposed from outside – apart from Brussels in the case of the EU ones, although even these are subject to internal confirmation which is not the case in Scotland or Wales.

        I don’t see why the Swiss should take offence at the term ‘micro-state.’ It’s purely technical, if ill-defined. And that they punch above their weight should be a matter of pride.

        Your point about tax-havens is right – but one of the features of sovereignty is that that you’re on your own financially so anything that brings cash into the coffers is fair game. Indeed it was the ‘giving up’ of sovereignty by losing that financial independence to the EU that is one of the main gripes of the Brexiteers – remember that “250 million a week to the NHS rather than Brussels” that was one of their original rallying cries?

        1. apleb

          If a foreign head of state is by your law head of your state makes you not sovereign. You obviously cannot vote for your head of state yourself. A state that cannot do treaties with other states is not sovereign. If your minister of state is selected from a list another country gives you, like Monaco, it’s not sovereign. If you have no military…

          With the EU this is a voluntary treaty organization between states. With Andorra this is perpetuity. Totally different thing.

  10. DJG

    The essay brought up so much to think about, yet I think that this observation is central. And I compliment the author: “Every country is a card-house of contradictions; every nation a disputed story, every state, a battlefield of institutions.”

    As I read through the article and noted how many times Ramsay used the adjective British when he had to describe the shambles that is the current economic system, system of government, and financial disaster (banks and money laundering), I noticed something: In my head, I started substituting “U.S.” This essay is just foreign enough to get any American to start thinking how U.S. problems have been left to fester and rot by an elite that is only slightly less out of touch than the English aristocracy.

    Baby boxes: I believe that the Finnish government invented them. It is time that we have them in the U S of A, too–and not just a bunch of coupons to spend on Amazon, or at Taco Bell, which is what they likely would deteriorate into. At this point, the U S of A can used just about any tactic that will lessen the fraying of society and the widespread general mutual mistrust.

    1. Dirk77

      I read only half the article, but all the comments so far. That said, my inference is that what all theses areas really want is to be governed by people who regard them as part of a community? That is, this Balkanization is about escaping neoliberalism. Since in neoliberalism the central virtue is everyone out for themselves, being on the make, a breakup of any government seems inevitable unless fascism is imposed. Yet, I wonder also how much of it is being driven by smaller players being on the make and thinking this is a way to get a bigger share by getting the bigger players, the City of London in this case, out of the way. In other words, they think moving to a new house will make them happy, but what they really need is to ditch the spouse. But I’m just a watcher and will see how this plays out.

  11. Mattski

    Versus letting it crumble? Seems to me that it’s more Blue Stilton than cheddar at this stage, anyway. The colonies have long since sailed and will no sail farther. And when Scotland goes Wales won’t be far behind. That will leave the Tories stuck with N. Ireland, their just desserts.

    Just wouldn’t wish any of it on the British working class.

  12. c_heale

    What about somewhere like Gibralter breaking away first. It’s further away and would have less to lose.

  13. Michael G

    It seems a no-brainer to me that an independent Scotland would have to have its own currency, or else it would be governed by a committee in London. This is not to underestimate the problems of pensions and debt, where most Scottish citizens could find themselves with a debt repayable in one currency serviced by earnings in another. Or a pension paid in UK pounds to be spent in Scottish pounds. All with currency exchange charges.
    I am fairly sure these problems could be overcome, with a pegged transition period, and a certain amount of pressure from the prospective Scottish Government. For instance, a financial institution that played hardball, might find it harder to obtain a licence to operate in Scotland. Worth checking out the Scottish Currency Group Facebook page.

  14. ChrisAtRU

    OK commentariat … ;-)

    It’s time for some game theory!

    In a perfect counter-dystopian scenario, the following would occur:

    • Ireland would unify.
    • Scotland, Wales and perhaps parts of the embattled Norf’ of England would leave the UK.
    •The artistes formerly known as the GIIPS would break out of the EZ and together with the ex-UK entities form a separate currency zone within the EU (SNoWEZ, pronounced Snowies! LOL)
    • As a separate entity in the EU, I’m assuming the Snowies could eschew the horrid Stability and Growth Pact nonsense and run their currency zone as a proper monetarily sovereign one, with a Snowies CB acting as a LoLR!

    Problem Solved!

    England – well what’s left of it – or (not so) Great Britain, becomes a low finance duchy of sorts. Its greatest exports will be the Premier League, tourism and bespoke automobiles for the boy racer class.

    Of course, this is highly unlikely … ;-) But a man can dream.

  15. Dirk77

    I read only half the article, but all the comments so far. That said, my inference is that what all these areas really want is to be governed by people who regard them as part of a community? That is, this Balkanization is about escaping neoliberalism? Since in neoliberalism the central virtue is everyone out for themselves, being on the make, a breakup of any government seems inevitable unless fascism is imposed. Good luck.

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