Boris Johnson likes to talk about his commitment to the United Kingdom’s “precious union”. But last Thursday’s elections call into question the future of his increasingly divided country.
In England, Johnson is master of all he surveys. Indeed, a 30ft inflatable blimp of the Conservative prime minister looked down over Hartlepool as the Tories won a stunning byelection victory in Labour’s once blood-red northern heartlands.
A few hours later, and less than a hundred miles up the road, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon effectively declared victory, and an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in office for the SNP in Edinburgh. Even in Wales, long the forgotten son of British politics, the stridently pro-devolution Labour party confounded polls to consolidate its power in Cardiff Bay.
Such political promiscuity might be held up as evidence that devolution works: different electorates in different parts of the country voting for different parties. But in reality, the results of Thursday’s elections are likely to herald a crescendo in the UK’s mounting constitutional crisis.
Johnson's 'muscular unionism' is proving to be catnip for English voters, particularly in Leave constituencies
Unionist tactical voting helped ensure that the SNP fell just short of outright victory, but the pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament has increased. Sturgeon hailed it as an “emphatic” mandate for a second referendum. This “battle of the mandates” between London and Edinburgh could end up in the courts.
None of this is likely to sway Boris Johnson. The prime minister said at the weekend that he would invite the devolved leaders to a “Team UK” summit – but only after confirming that he would not countenance another Scottish independence vote.
Johnson’s “muscular unionism” is proving to be catnip for English voters, particularly in Leave constituencies. Many of Britain’s right-of-centre newspaper columnists lap it up, too.
But the Tories’ electoral success comes at a potentially great cost to the union itself. The post-war – and post-empire – United Kingdom was held together in large part by social democratic reforms. The welfare state, particularly the NHS, bound Britain’s “nations and regions”.
In trying to force a unionism into a single form, Johnson and his colleagues are inadvertently flagging up its weaknesses
Now British unionism comes in a single shade of red, white and blue. A Union Unit has been set up in Downing Street, overseen by Michael Gove. When not beset by in-fighting, most of the unit’s proposals for “strengthening” the union have revolved around “better branding” for projects financed by the British treasury. Last November the unit reportedly asked for vials of the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine to be labelled with the union flag.
This is not how unionism has traditionally prospered. For centuries, unionism has taken on different forms in different places, from Orange walks in Ballymena to bake sales in Berwick. In Scotland the once dominant Tories, then Labour, were essentially nationalist unionists: each were pro-UK but won votes on promising to defend local interests. Such heterogeneity was key to the union’s success.
In trying to force a unionism into a single form, Johnson and his colleagues are inadvertently flagging up its weaknesses. The union has always worked best when nobody talked about it. Johnson’s muscular unionism increasingly serves to highlight – and accentuate – the union’s underlying tensions.
The devolution settlement that saw the establishment of Scottish and Welsh parliaments at the end of the 20th century radically changed all British politics – except at the centre. While Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast became seats of new-found power, London remained the same.
Many voters came to see their devolved parliaments as the primary source of sovereignty – even if legislative power technically rests in Westminster. The UK’s place in the EU papered over many of these tensions. Powers that might otherwise have been contested between different layers of government were often devolved to Brussels.
Brexit brought this constructive ambiguity to a shuddering halt. Since becoming prime minister in 2019, Johnson has sharply increased the power of the executive. In the name of parliamentary sovereignty – and better regulating the UK’s “internal market” – power has been centralised in Westminster.
Far from strengthening the UK, the Conservatives’ political dominance will likely hasten its break-up. The Tories have realised that there are votes to be won by being seen as standing up for English interests against the rest of the union.
The UK is listing towards a constitutional crisis
Ever since David Cameron’s election posters of then Labour leader Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket propelled Cameron to victory in 2015, successive Tory leaders have pushed this once-taboo message. It is no coincidence that the better the Conservatives do in England, the stronger the SNP performs.
Meanwhile, English views on the union are increasingly defined by ambivalence. Polls in 2019 suggested the vast majority of Conservative voters would happily see the UK break up if it meant delivering Brexit.
There might be some cause for comfort for less muscular unionists. Welsh Labour topped the polls, winning enough seats to govern alone. But Mark Drakeford’s unabashed Wales-centric strain of unionism increasingly feels like a minority concern outside the principality.
In Scotland the Tories finished second after a campaign that had revolved around a single policy: opposition to independence. The leaders of the two main unionist parties in Northern Ireland have resigned in recent weeks.
The UK is listing towards a constitutional crisis. Without an outright SNP majority, Sturgeon’s demands for a referendum might be tempered but they will not disappear. Neither will the question of a Border poll in Ireland.
A looser, more federal interpretation of Britain’s uncodified constitution could allow for divergence while retaining the union’s integrity – but in a contest between Boris Johnson’s electoral interests and the union, there will only be one winner.
Telling Scots there is no democratic route out of the union is not a long-term solution, much less the basis for a thriving partnership. Yet, with no solid majority for Scottish independence – or Irish reunification – Johnson’s “precious” union could yet limp on for years. History, however, suggests such a divided country is unlikely to stay united for ever.
Peter Geoghegan is author of Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics