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RIP, Late Britain (March 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Born out of expediency, the union always was slightly frosty. And now it is melting away entirely



Great Britain was a concoction of James (VI of Scotland and I of England) to stop his magnates north and south of the border quarrelling over precedence.

It gained reality in the 18th century as the Union for Empire, but was still regarded, by other powers and even by the Scots, as England writ large.

John Buchan, a subtle unionist, slipped in and out of both modes. "I'm English. I'm a Scotsman like yourself," his autobiographical hero, Edward Leithen, tells a Scottish-Canadian in his last novel, Sick Heart River (1940). This was a verbal construction just about coherent while the British empire lasted, but no longer.

Buchan lived at a time when the UK, as a state, functioned as a balance between the political and financial power of the metropolitan core and the technology and commerce of the Atlantic-facing arc, from Cornwall to the Clyde. The Lloyd George war cabinet, (1916-1918), which mobilised the latter to grind down the central powers, had only one English-born Englishman - the Marquess Curzon - among its five members. Bonar Law and Arthur Henderson were Scots, Milner German.

Fictionalised by the cosmopolitan northerner Arnold Bennett in Lord Raingo, the munitions wizard-turned-premier was a hypnotic, brilliant extemporiser with "not a drop of English blood in him".

Victory in 1918 was gained at the cost of the arc, which moved from being the ‘workshop of the world’ to being that distressed area out of which the modern nationalist movements of Scotland and Wales emerged.

What are the contemporary British signifiers? Their literal business end is the the hyper-commerce that has gripped (in a well-calculated strategy) the groundlings of Larry Elliott's United Kingdom of London: the house-price/retail driver - supermarkets and shopping, brand labels, tabloids and celeb mags, shopping and drinking, daytime TV.

This hyper-commerce - often multinational in ownership and crude in populism - has grown under Gordon Brown's housing/retail boom. But its claims on ‘Brit’ loyalty are shallow and, in such aspects as the media's sport obsession, sharply divisive.

In order to survive, an over-centralised politics has had increasingly to endorse centrifugal forces, in proportion to its overall loss of civic authority, and devolution has helped this.

The Scots and Welsh, eyeing the success and solidarity of European nations of similar size, are at home in this compromise, hollowing out the once powerful conventions of Westminster to their advantage; the English are not.

What is certain is that Timothy Garton Ash's ‘Britain’ exerts, both in the polls and at a practical level, fast-diminishing influence on the conduct of politics at Holyrood. I would say that, wouldn't I? But the former first minister Jack McConnell, on a BBC discussion on devolution three years ago, counted his Brussels links as more important than those with Whitehall.

Just as Victorian secularists talked of "the innutrition of the religious faculties" - starving the churches to death - Britain as a framework, as distinct from England as a good neighbour with whom all sorts of ad hoc cooperation can be arranged, is vanishing, as John Galt wrote of Toryism in 1832, "like snaw aff a dyke".

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