THE BLOG

What's the Problem With a Federal UK? England!

15/12/2014 10:59 | Updated 13 February 2015

The man who would be king of Scotland has proved himself once again to be a politician's politician. The statesmanship Alex Salmond showed by resigning at the end of an unsuccessful referendum has been matched only by his realpolitik in returning to Westminster politics. For politicians who would remake society in their utopian vision, any decision is the right one depending on the day.

Salmond's presence is important as a movement like the Scottish National Party requires a strong leader to whip up nationalist sentiment that would otherwise remain dormant, as it has historically in Scotland at only fifteen to twenty percent. The only way they became competitive in the referendum was by creating a bad tempered electoral arms race with sectarian and class undertones.

That still hasn't stopped the SNP under the underwhelming Nicola Sturgeon from conforming to Churchill's definition of fanatics; people who won't change their mind and won't change the subject. Rather than accepting the will of the Scottish people they now say independence can be achieved using some different paperwork, or a succession of never-endums until they get the result they want.

But the wider significance of the campaign was the promise panicked cross-party UK pols made to constitutionally guarantee Scots more political power than their brethren south of the border. Understandably, English and Welsh politicians want the same such powers over tax and spending, rather than allowing Scots to vote on both Scottish and the United Kingdom's matters.

Yet if the answer to this re-stated 'West Lothian Question' is universal devolution, that poses an even greater challenge to British politics. Scots and Welsh nationalism draws on intact national memories sustained by distinct language and culture. There is an emotional sense of community that sovereignty builds on. Relative to England they are small enough for a regional politics that could generate a good degree of consensus and administrative effectiveness.

But devolution within England, much as pub goers and local politicians may say they want it, raises an even more disruptive and retrograde specter. Of course we now have a University of the West of England but to even contemplate an Army of the West of England recalls antiquity. Since the horrors of English Civil War and resulting Glorious Revolution of 1688 England has been transformed by a central, London-based military and civil elite that aped the manners of the gentry. Local government, meanwhile, has always been left to the counties.

Unlike Scotland or Wales, Ulster or Ireland, the English regions just don't inspire the same loyalty. Can you imagine cheering for a North West England in the World Cup? Although we practically did last time around, with predictable results.

No, the ancient regions and the authentic belief patterns they generated have been virtually erased from English history, probably to forget the bloody religious and feudal strife they indulged. Unlike the US Civil War, the revolutionary battlefields of the English Civil War go quite uncelebrated.

Instead, from the 1620s, the cultures of the English regions were (literally) faithfully transposed onto different regions in North America by the first mass emigrants who wanted to escape the chaos of that same English Civil War. The grit, heart and pride of the Midwest and industrial north echo the no-nonsense graft of the Midlands. The courtly manners of the South were introduced by deposed nobility of the West Country. The Protestant pride and assertiveness of Appalachian south was inspired by Ulstermen. And the bustle and brashness of the metropolitan north east mirrors the estuarial trading ways of Essex and the City of London.

But if federalism works to mediate the regional and ethnic differences in the US, there are several reasons it would not in today's England. That patchwork of states was developed in a huge and unique historical experiment of frontier settlement. They are governed by a constitution that limits executive power, and allows money and industry a say at source because it was written before socialism was invented. And even so, regional patterns are still at the heart of contemporary US polarization and gridlock.

Federalism within England would be a power grab at every level by every professional protester and every town hall Napoleon at every level. Like the financial advisor whose advice is always to give your money to them, I can't think of a successful regional politician who does not want to grow their fiefdom without raising taxes, fees and regulations. Can you? The latent socialism of big self-governing northern cities would threaten to make a Detroit of each of them.

To even start dividing up the nation into neat Celt or State sized pieces Britain would have to rewrite its history and rethink its identity. It raises the absurdity of different passports for Wales and school lessons in Cornish. Ingrained as local differences may be within England, there is no obvious or emotional impetus to divide north versus south, east versus west. Why should we? Because our industries evolved along river systems?

It is these deeper questions of British identity that underpin the difficulty of re-engineering the country to accommodate an independent Scotland, even if England remains substantially intact.

It may be wildly politically incorrect, but for the Englishman or woman that still makes up five out of six UK residents, the best analogy for the country they inhabit is probably the ubiquitous semi-detached house. Wales is the roomy extension that gives us a view over the garden of the Irish Sea. The annex of Ulster stands as a bulwark by the fence of our nearest neighbor. And Scotland is our roof. The attic may be too cold and sparse for all but an occasional visit, but contains heirlooms of centuries and the infrastructure that makes the rest of our homeland viable and secure.

Some might welcome the decline of this hopelessly bourgeois and probably imperialist mindset. But it too is a product of the relative size of England within the UK. And at least it is about living in a greater nation that recognizes the beauty and older ways at our edges, rather retreating into a parochial 'Little England'.

It takes some time in America, where Celtic heritage is celebrated wholeheartedly, if superficially, to realize there are traditions within the British Isles that deserve recognition in and of themselves. That 'Old people in a new land' attitude again recalls the bygone age of smaller government and a smaller England; indeed, if not for New World emigration Ireland would today have a population of tens of millions similar to her.

So while Scotland and Wales still derive part of their identity from memories of resisting the English, the expansive role of the English in creating Great Britain means the reverse also holds true. With the exception of EU-bashing and cheap-bunting nationalism, an independent England would simply not know what to do with itself.

But the seeming triviality of jingoism, local government and old historical divisions masks a real, lurking danger. An independent Scotland governed by the SNP would be a prime example of the destructiveness polarized politics can wreck in a divided country. The Pound has still not recovered from the tribulations of the referendum. And if Salmond or an heir took the reins and abolished the UK's only nuclear weapons base, it would leave the US without any effective ally with significant defense spending. Just what Vladimir Putin wants for Christmas.

On the broad tapestry of history, Salmond is only the latest political Jacobite who wants to undermine commerce, demonize Anglo-Saxon values and impose top-down autocratic government from north of the border. The corporate cause today is socialism rather than monarchy, but the SNP's insurgency recalls a long line of pretenders who last marched from Scotland in 1745. It was only because Britain settled these internal differences before its competitors that it won a leading role in the world for England, Wales and Scotland. That must be our challenge today, too.