When Tom Nairn was assembling his book The Break-Up of Britain in 1977, the publishers were keen to add a question mark. After all, Marxists had been embarrassed by prophecy before. Nairn resisted, successfully: his point was not just that the British state seemed to be on the verge of territorial disintegration, but that the mirage of national unity which underpinned that state’s legitimacy had already vanished. The SNP had broken through to the mainstream in 1974; Northern Ireland was in turmoil; even Wales had rediscovered its voice. The apparent Britishness of “Ukanian” politics after the second world war had been revealed as a temporary hiatus from a more multipolar and ad hoc alignment of several overlapping political systems and identities. In 2000, with devolution established across the ‘Celtic’ nations, Nairn could happily publish a book called After Britain.
Today, Britain’s asymmetric and improvised constitution feels no less secure. The Scottish parliament, in particular, seems less like the “settled will” of the Scottish people and more like a layover en route to something more substantial. While New Labour appeared at first to have patched-up the Ukanian gaps, its collapse has restored to the idea of ‘break-up’ the halo of inevitability which Nairn first fashioned for it in 1977. Not just in Scotland, either – in Ireland, a border poll seems closer than ever; in Wales, the independence movement has gained confidence in recent years, asserting itself both within and beyond Welsh Labour, while the Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford has called for a far looser and more voluntary form of union than currently exists. A question mark has even emerged, however tentatively, over ‘Northumbria’ in the form of the Northern Independence party, while Cornish nationalism has experienced a quiet revival in the midst of a harsh and deeply unequal housing crisis.
But Britain has been vigorously shaken before, and still held its shape. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, multiple challenges to the territorial and constitutional status quo emerged from the peripheral nations, and – with the exception of Ireland’s special case – faded from sight with little to show for it. In the 1960s and ‘70s, again, nationalism threatened the whole structure, and was ultimately contained within devolution. To understand how a break-up might (or might not) occur today, it’s worth asking how these previous challenges came about, and how they were resolved.
Home rule: a history.
The modern pattern of British territorial politics began in the late nineteenth century alongside a wave of romantic nationalism across the world. In Ireland, Scotland and Wales, demands for ‘home rule’ developed in dialogue with one another, linking questions of church disestablishment, land reform and national representation. These demands were often pushed onto the agenda by ‘radical’ liberalism – Lloyd George, the future Liberal prime minister, was a leading figure in Cymru Fydd (Young Wales), which briefly gained momentum in the mid-1890s. In Scotland, the Scottish Home Rule Association launched in 1886 also attracted leading leftwingers like Gavin Brown Clark of the Crofters’ party and Keir Hardie.
Labour’s rising leftwing challenge to liberalism continued these intertwined social and national demands, often expressed in openly nationalistic terms. In 1918, Labour’s general secretary Arthur Henderson declared that “given self-government, Wales might establish itself as a modern utopia and develop its own institutions, its own culture, its own ideal of democracy as an inspiration to the rest of the world.” At a large Glasgow rally supporting a Home Rule Bill in 1924, the Independent Labour party MP James Maxton called for the transformation of “the English-ridden, capitalist-ridden, landlord-ridden Scotland into a Scottish socialist commonwealth.”
Despite such revolutionary rhetoric, these were more generally what the historian James Kennedy has called “state-reforming” nationalisms. They sought to mix social and land reform with political decentralisation, rather than break up the state entirely. They were heavily influenced by the efforts of the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell to achieve self-government short of full independence, and the idea of ‘home rule’ which they adopted was influenced more by efforts to reform the empire than overthrow the British state altogether. In the early twentieth century, the demand for ‘home rule all round’ reflected sincere cooperation between nationalists, but also the desire of the British ruling class to displace the particularly thorny question of Irish home rule from the top of the agenda. In 1912, Winston Churchill’s suggestion of “ten or twelve regional parliaments” was viewed by some as an attempt to avoid making Ireland a special case, or even a coded plea for Irish partition.
After the first world war, ‘home rule all round’ also briefly appealed to British elites as a means of dividing up the work of running an increasingly burdensome empire. Westminster, as ‘imperial parliament’, could deal with imperial matters, while self-governing nations could handle the domestic front. “We are deeply impressed by the need for a far-reaching system of Federal Devolution for the United Kingdom,” declared one Conservative party group in 1918. “We cannot see how otherwise […] we can escape from the most dangerous congestion.”
Yet in the 1920s, the pressure for change that had built up over previous decades largely vanished. The most significant driver of ‘home rule all round’, Ireland, secured its independence through far more radical and violent means between 1916 and 1921, and this bloody precedent was combined with rising militancy amongst the Welsh and Scottish working classes to diminish the appeal of self-government amongst national elites. Labour, too, began to lose interest for pragmatic reasons. When the party had been performing especially well in Wales and Scotland, self-government looked like a good short-cut to socialism; but the closer it came to power at Westminster, the more comfortable the party became with the existing distribution of that power.
While there were efforts to keep the pot bubbling in the immediate post-war years, such as the ‘Scottish Covenant’ movement, Undeb Cymru Fydd and the Parliament for Wales Campaign, it was not until the 1960s and ‘70s that the national question forced its way back to the top of the UK’s political agenda. By-election victories for Plaid Cymru in 1966 and the SNP in 1967 encouraged both Labour and the Conservatives to consider new proposals for devolution, and by the mid-1970s – after the SNP’s even bigger breakthrough in the two 1974 general elections – the Labour government was committed to assemblies for both Scotland and Wales. This was, in part, an effort to defend Labour seats from the new nationalism; yet it was also supported by some MPs as a means of re-legitimising the sprawling, bureaucratic post-war state by bringing power “closer” to people, and reacquainting national-cultural “feeling” with the institutions of government.
For some Scottish radicals, these rather unexciting proposals nevertheless exposed a vital weakness in the state’s armour. Nairn, like many critics of devolution, believed that a Scottish assembly would snowball into full-fledged independence and plunge the British state into a more general crisis that the left could exploit. The journalist Neal Ascherson wrote in 1975 that “the assembly is the hole under the fence of the British system, which can only get wider as first the SNP, and then the bolder Scottish socialists, and finally a whole people thrust their way through it.”
Yet in reality, the slim potential for this more revolutionary vision of break-up – what we might call ‘independence all round’ – is clear in the comparison with Ireland. As the civil rights struggle in the north developed into the Troubles, the mainstream of Scottish nationalism worked hard to differentiate itself from militant nationalist politics of all stripes. In 1968, the party proscribed a group called the ‘1320 Club’ which called for a provisional government and an accompanying paramilitary ‘army’. When the 1320 Club dissolved itself into the ethnic fundamentalist group Siol nan Gaidheal in 1982, they were proscribed as well – so, too, were the leftwing republicans of the ‘79 Group’, who were condemned for inviting a speaker from Sinn Féin to a meeting with various Irish nationalist groups.
Labour’s plan for devolution had initially been to simply legislate for assemblies in Scotland and Wales without referendums, but with a fragile majority in parliament they were exceptionally reliant on the loyalty of MPs who were deeply sceptical. Many of these sceptics were on the left of the party and represented peripheralised areas themselves, including Neil Kinnock in Wales, Tam Dalyell in Scotland, and MPs from the north of England who feared being further marginalised by a Scottish assembly on their border. In a series of skirmishes with the Labour leadership, these sceptics engineered a series of conditions for the creation of assemblies that made them almost impossible to achieve. Referendums were ultimately held in 1979, with the further proviso that over 40% of the registered electorate would have to vote ‘yes’. In Scotland, a slim majority of voters failed to reach this threshold, while Wales fell further short, and assembly buildings that had been prepared for occupation in Cardiff and Edinburgh were mothballed once Thatcher took power soon after.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, it was Scotland more than Wales that made the constitutional weather. That weather was more overcast than stormy, as Scottish activists and intellectuals patiently drew a gloomy shroud over the British state, condemning its archaic, pre-modern structures in an attempt to build greater support for devolution amongst liberals and leftwingers across the UK. This revived the technocratic, modernising and state-reforming nationalism of previous elite support for home rule, far more than any radical, disruptive intent. By the end of the 1980s, Labour seized the opportunity to promise sunshine and threw itself behind a cross-party campaign for a Scottish parliament. In 1997, after several more years of planning and agitation, Tony Blair’s new government held new referendums on devolution and won both – in Scotland by a massive majority, in Wales far more narrowly.
This was not a symmetrical federalism of ‘home rule all round’, but a more ad-hoc process of giving out as much or as little power as could be negotiated between the centre and periphery, reflecting the relative strength of national demands and distinctive institutional systems. Scotland received far more power than Wales, yet in both cases there was no break-up of actual sovereignty. Devolution remained, and remains, a downwards delegation of power rather than a decisive blow against Westminster rule. The utopian optimism of Maxton or Henderson in the 1910s was largely gone, and in its place was Blairite ‘modernisation’.
How does the last decade of revived constitutional dissent fit into this story? The SNP took power in Scotland partly on the basis of disenchantment with Labour after the Iraq war, but it largely succeeded as a more self-confident and competent vision of devolved governance; as with earlier constitutional proposals, independence was safely deferred to a referendum. In that referendum, the independence movement took inspiration from Occupy Wall Street, anti-austerity campaigns and the Arab Spring, dusting off old ideas of a radical break with the British system. Yet that rhetorical radicalism was contained within a firmly electoral project, led by Scotland’s governing party – the ‘yes movement’ was ultimately more of a public-relations and electioneering machine than an independent political force in its own right. Its main consequence was a gigantic surge in support for the SNP after defeat in the referendum.
As Nairn observed in 1977, the nationalism of the SNP has always been that of a new establishment on the make, and the revival of the independence cause after Brexit has only emphasised this. Nicola Sturgeon has pragmatically updated the case for independence to reflect the changing priorities of Scottish swing-voters, ditching much of the anti-austerity rhetoric of 2014-15 in favour of an independence designed to escape Brexit and recover from the Covid-19 crisis. This has pushed support for independence up to record levels, but it is yet to reach the sustained 60% support that would be a secure basis for a fresh mobilisation. More importantly, the SNP are up against a UK government which has no intention of granting a new referendum.
Federalism all round?
What insights can history offer into this new situation? Most important is that with the exception of Ireland, the British state has usually been able to contain territorial unrest within some variant of ‘home rule’. Yet it has been moved to do so because one of its three historic parties of government has held power in one of its restless territories. With the SNP dominant in Scotland, things are different. The last of the peripheral nations to be controlled by an explicitly (non-British) nationalist party was Ireland; yet as we have seen, Scottish nationalism has self-consciously diverged from its Irish cousin whenever the temperature of the latter has risen. It is significant that, in Ireland’s absence, it is this more cautious, reformist and parliamentary nationalism that now sets the pace of constitutional change in Britain.
The SNP’s own position is somewhere between the reformist vision of home rule and a more disruptive independence – close, in fact, to what Donald Dewar once called ‘independence in the UK’. They propose to retain pounds sterling, the monarchy and NATO membership, and to transfer the remaining ‘reserved’ powers to the existing Scottish parliament rather than establishing a wholly new institutional and economic unit. This is not so much an ideological position as an electoral calculation, based on an awareness that the Scottish people actually want something far closer to a maximalist home rule than full-fledged independence. Their proposed means of achieving this are similarly cautious: a legally-binding referendum, agreed to by the UK government, or a more unilateral and ‘advisory’ referendum that would probably have to be legitimised through a courtroom battle with the UK government before going ahead. There will be no Unilateral Declaration of Independence, nor is there likely to be anything that can be portrayed as unconstitutional.
But to build further pressure on the UK government, the SNP will need not just the support of the Scottish public but a greater foothold at Westminster itself. Sturgeon has repeatedly pitched her arguments at England’s liberal media as well as Scotland’s, but without the harder power of electoral arithmetic there is not much road left for the ‘gradualist’ strategy which the party has pursued for decades. The most likely change would come from a hung parliament in which the SNP holds the balance of power; a situation in which Labour claims it would still not offer a new referendum, and instead dare the SNP to side with the Conservatives. Stalemate appears inescapable for the foreseeable future.
Yet there is still room for Labour and the SNP to move closer together. Since 2014, the Labour party has slowly attempted to articulate a vision of ‘progressive federalism’ that picks up where ‘home rule all round’ left off. This has the largely rhetorical support of Keir Starmer and Scottish Labour, and the more substantive support of Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour party, who wish to close much of the deficit in power between the Senedd and Holyrood. As leader, Jeremy Corbyn commissioned a lengthy report on the British constitution which proposed a more fundamental overhaul of the state, dispersing sovereignty and further powers across the nations and regions and replacing the House of Lords with a federal senate. Starmer has promised a ‘Constitutional Commission’, chaired by Gordon Brown, to flesh out his own constitutional plans. Many within Scottish Labour hope that these ideas can help the party to distinguish itself within the debate over Scotland’s future, and one idea being prominently discussed is for the party to back a referendum that features a ‘third option’ of federalism. This could involve a ‘gateway’ question, in which voters are first asked whether they want more powers or the status quo, before being offered a choice between independence and something that falls slightly short.
The thing most likely to break the current impasse, then, is for the SNP and Labour to find common ground on a radical programme of UK-wide constitutional reform, which would include a clearer mechanism by which Scotland can democratically gain independence. The SNP’s grassroots, and much of the wider independence movement, has neither faith nor interest in such an outcome; yet there are probably fewer grounds for optimism about a new independence referendum on their own terms. It would also require, of course, Labour’s return to government, which is an optimistic prospect in itself. But the most striking lesson from Britain’s constitutional history is that neither Scotland nor Wales have ever managed to expand their own powers without the support of at least one ‘British’ party.
This will require a degree of ego-moderation amongst Scottish nationalists, who tend to alternate between overexcitement and scapegoating about the extent of their own agency. But more importantly, it will require a far more sincere and sustained engagement with Britain’s constitutional and national questions amongst the Labour party in England – in which members, councillors, MPs and affiliates work to incorporate more peripheral needs and demands into a programme of political transformation. Such a transformation may not ultimately feel like the revolutionary ‘break-up’ once promised. But Labour will need to become far more comfortable with break-up nonetheless, as Britain is gradually replaced by a more voluntary and confederal association of democracies, in which – to repurpose Marx – “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
Rory Scothorne recently completed a PhD on the relationship between the Scottish radical left and nationalism, and is the co-author of Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland.
Breaking Britain is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).