I have spent most of my working life writing about countries where communal or nationalist differences determine and, on occasion, convulse the political landscape. My first experience of this was at Queen’s University Belfast, where I was writing a PhD on the Irish Home Rulers in Ulster pre-Irish independence, during the worst years of the troubles in Northern Ireland between 1972 and 1975. I moved on to Lebanon at the beginning of the civil war, and later reported on the Soviet Union before and after it broke up. I first went to Iraq in 1977 and over the following decades have watched it torn apart by communal conflicts stoked by foreign intervention.
Knowing these countries has given me a strong sense of the fragility of nation states when confronted by strongly rooted local nationalisms. The glue holding together nations is always a mixture of myth and self-interest which tends to become ossified and discredited over time. At the height of British imperial power in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Scots were part of a British super-nationality that acted as the ruling caste of the empire. Working class solidarity within an industrial economy fostered a sense of British identity, as did loyalty to national institutions, industries, utilities and infrastructure, from the army and the navy to the shipyards and the railway system.
The triumph of the Scottish Nationalist Party on Thursday and the annihilation of all other parties in Scotland has led to lamentations on left and right over the likely passing of Great Britain as a unitary state. There are panicky whiffs in the air as people who had scarcely noticed there was such a thing as the union between England and Scotland come to realise that it may soon be dissolved and wonder what the future will hold. It is ironic to recall that a decade ago British officials talked glibly about “nation building” in Afghanistan and Iraq, without a thought about the staying power of their own nation.
It was fairly clear at the time that these foreign “nation builders” in Baghdad and Kabul, who spoke in such patronising tones to Iraqis and Afghans about creating a functional national state, had very little idea what they were talking about.
Over the past year it has become evident that British political leaders are equally at sea when dealing with nationalists and nationalism on their home turf. They veered between over-reacting and under-reacting to the rise of the Scottish nationalists. The left in Britain has never been very happy dealing with nationalism of any sort, seeing it at times as covert racism or at best a divergence from economic and social
issues. This helps explain why Miliband, Balls and other leading Labour figures seemed so baffled and incoherent during the Scottish referendum. When they did act it was generally to line up with the Conservatives as unionists and justify damaging allegations by the nationalists that they were “Red Tories”.
In reacting to Scottish nationalism the right, in the shape of Conservatives, had a more coherent policy, although it often reminded one of the denunciations of Irish Home Rulers. The Conservative Party exploited British voters’ hostility to home rule in the decades before 1914, suggesting that the reliance of Gladstone and Asquith on the votes of Irish MPs was illegitimate and unpatriotic. Cartoons in Tory papers showed clod-hopping Irish peasants manipulating like so many puppets Liberal leaders greedy for power.
As a tactic, this demonisation of Irish nationalists still seems to strongly influence a sizeable number of English voters when applied to Scottish nationalists a century later. Indeed its political effectiveness has evidently surprised the Conservatives themselves – assuming it was the main explanation for their late surge in the polls. Nigel Farage’s jibe that English taxpayers’ money was being tossed over Hadrian’s Wall was just the sort of rhetoric used during the various Irish Home Rule crises.
Labour ended up being squeezed twice: once by surging Scottish nationalism overwhelming their strongholds in Scotland, and then by newly awakened English nationalism stirred up by the Conservatives in England. Ed Miliband seemed to accept too easily the premise that the SNP had somehow earned pariah status, and any that reliance on their support for a future |Labour government had to be ruled out. The argument sounded weird and wholly unconvincing, and Labour always looked as if it was running scared, never counter-attacking by saying that Tory rabble-rousing against the Scots was itself weakening the union of the two countries.
The problem with using the English nationalist genie against the Scots is that it may be difficult to put back in the bottle. Some of the rhetoric of the campaign will be forgotten, but not all. Big post-election concessions are on offer. David Cameron says that “in Scotland, our plan is to create the strongest devolved government anywhere in the world”, while also offering “fairness” to England. This may work to a degree, but Scottish nationalism has acquired momentum over the past year that will be difficult to stop. The annihilation of all other political parties in Scotland by the SNP means that opposition to separatism will find it difficult to take an organised shape and gain a public platform.
The SNP in power in Edinburgh may fail to implement its policies or be unable to pay for them, but it can blame everything on London.
I spent the first days of last week in Catalonia and am about to go to Iraqi Kurdistan. Both are regions where separatism determines politics. There are some analogies between the political situation of these three countries but one vast difference. The emotional power of Catalan and Kurdish nationalism is strengthened by memories of recent massacres and political oppression by the central state, in a way that is simply not true of Scotland for many centuries. Scottish politics does not have any of the bitterness and hatred of Northern Ireland.
What is striking about the coming dissolution, be it partial or total, of the British state is the lack of resistance to this from its political establishment. It is but one more element in the decline of British power in the world over the past decade. A striking feature of the election was the degree to which it was solely focused on domestic issues. Britain’s failure to achieve its military or political aims in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was scarcely mentioned. Likewise, Cameron’s intervention as part of a Nato coalition to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 only briefly surfaced when Miliband said that more should have done to plan for the aftermath of the invasion (although he wisely did not say what this should have been).
Whatever the degree to which Scotland achieves Home Rule, the new political alignment means that Britain will be more than ever absorbed in its domestic affairs.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.