The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not as old as some would think. While its history has been better documented than most over the past thousand years or so, its constitution and territory have fluctuated considerably over that time. The current arrangements can substantially be dated to the act of union in 1800, notwithstanding the secession of the Irish Republic in the early twentieth century. A series of threats to the legitimacy of that state are circling, and its breakup appears a very substantial possibility. These threats are not merely the increasing levels of separatist politics in Scotland, Ireland and to a lesser degree Wales, which are symptoms of the fundamental challenges. These are related to some fundamental institutions of the state: Monarchy, Church, Parliament and the Military.
The British monarchy is often chastised as an anachronism by republicans, and dismissed as a political irrelevance by constitutional politicians. Its persistence however is more than a simple appeal to tourists, or traditionalist nostalgia. The Queen and the Royal Family in the UK offer a protective layer to the political classes, where those dissatisfied by their representation in parliament can point to Buckingham Palace as the dignified custodian of their values. With her son and heir the Prince of Wales, and her primary Summer home at Balmoral in Scotland, the Queen has been an effective monarch across Scotland and Wales as well as England, and a strong unifying force for that. Less than twenty per cent of the population see the abolition of the monarchy as being good for the future of the country.
The imminent demise of the Queen at 96, and the accession of Charles poses serious risks for the persistent integrity of that position. The Prince of Wales has been particularly outspoken on the subject of climate change, an increasingly politicised policy in the culture wars where net-zero is seen as anti-economic (notwithstanding the support of outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson). He has also been critical of the policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and of Brexit as a policy. This has not gone unnoticed on the political right. Other scandals including the exile of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle amid suggestions of racism, coupled with the scurrilous behaviour of Prince Edward, have weakened their authority. Shorn of the protection of the monarchy, the state will be further exposed.
Similar to the Monarchy, the Church of England has been considered a political irrelevance for much of the last fifty years. Declining attendance numbers in the Anglican Church (less than 5% in 2019) combined with similar falls in most other Christian denominations may at first glance reinforce the point of irrelevancy, though spiritual allegiances remain substantially Christian (59%) based on the 2011 census (the 2021 census results on religion will be released later this year, and it would be a poor bet to forecast anything other than continued decline). The Church of England in particular retains something of a position of moral arbiter, at least for the leadership and elites, and the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular has not been shy to voice political judgements, notably on immigration, Brexit, and economic inequality.
The voice, however, is shrinking, and the Church is fading as a source of legitimacy for the constitution of the UK. Those who look to the Anglican Church for guidance are invariably voting Conservative, while the church itself has been inordinately critical of the Conservative Government since the Brexit vote. It is separated from the State in a way that has not been the case for centuries – possibly since the Reformation.
The Brexit vote in 2016 created a schism not just in the population, but in political structures too. Both the Labour Party and the Conservatives were split internally, with even 57% of Conservative Party MPs voting remain. Within the Labour Party, the accession of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership was part of a revolutionary response that was in part a response to the circumstances that birthed the Brexit vote, and doomed to fail because of them. Corbyn’s agenda was socialist and economic, while Brexit was in large part an identity statement (on both sides), and bringing an economic textbook to a culture war is, to borrow from an old gangster movie, like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Not only was it unsuccessful in its political ambitions, it was destructive to the hopes for socialist transformation in the UK.
In this febrile environment, the Tories made an extraordinary power-grab in the years after 2016, jettisoning remain-supporting MPs through deselection (or those merely in favour of a softer Brexit), and riding a coach-and-four through parliamentary propriety. While sustaining the party and Boris Johnson through an election in 2019 (arguably one that Labour and Jeremy Corbyn lost rather than an election that the Conservatives won), the government has found itself in a position where its contradictions and abandonment of manifesto promises (not to mention the de-legitimising effect of appointing a leader without the mandate of a general election) leave it dramatically open to attack. Its ‘levelling up’ commitment to the ‘Red Wall’, a string of Northern England constituencies that had traditionally voted Brexit but also Labour, and who had voted Conservative in 2019, has been revealed as underfunded and vacuous. Its promises of sunlit uplands for a Global Britain having become the punchline for a bad joke, typified by the appointment of arch-jingo and Monopoly-styled robber-baron Jacob-Rees Mogg (who had moved his own hedge fund to Dublin after the Brexit vote) as Minister for Brexit Opportunities. That the Chancellor of the Exchequer retained a US Green Card while in post (confirming his status as a permanent resident of the US) was another of several instances of detachment.
The institutional assaults however have been more damaging, particularly: Boris Johnson’s attempts to prorogue parliament; extraordinary political attacks on the judiciary and the legal system; the siphoning of power from mechanisms of accountability (in particular the opposition, but also back bench Conservatives); the centralisation of repatriated European powers in Westminster rather than distributing them to the devolved governments; and the appointment of a party flunky as the Attorney General, responsible for rubber stamping political decisions rather than offering considered legal opinions. Decades, centuries of established principles and traditions have simply been swept away in the interests of the persistence of political power, in a state left open to such assault by the absence of a written constitution. The insistence of parliament can no longer be expected to retain the weight it once had in guiding the future of the country.
The number of military personnel has been in consistent decline for the last fifty years, with its current staffing made up of around 40% reserve forces. The navy is similarly in perpetual decline. It has become the world center for military contractors by some measures, fighting wars on behalf of the highest bidder. Its arms business is murky and large, being heavily involved in some of the most appalling conflicts in the world. Its own record in armed conflict is perpetually in question, its army systematically resiling from human rights obligations, and repeatedly accused of war crimes. Its reaction to such allegations has not generally been to deny them, or to defend against the allegations, but rather to argue that those rules don’t apply, that the other side was worse, or some other exceptionalist standard.
Historically, the military has been at the vanguard of the UK expression of its identity, the officer class providing politicians and other leaders, though this too has faded, the last significant military figure being Paddy Ashdown (though a number of current MPs, notably Tom Tugendhat, are seeking increasingly higher office). Its current weakness, both in terms of investment and relevance to the general population, bodes ill for the security of the state. If called upon to defend civil unrest, it is questionable whether the army would be well positioned to defend law and order at home. The experience of Ireland certainly proved a dreadful lesson in how weak the capacity had become.
These combined phenomena are realised in the secessionist movements in Scotland and Ireland, and to a lesser extend in Wales. The recent pandemic emphasised the problems in having those regions administered from London, and the trend towards Westminster centralisation since the economic crisis of 2008 has favoured England, and in particular those parts of England who tend to vote Conservative. In reflective comments about Brexit, Archbishop Justin Welby in 2018 suggested that the outworking of the 2008 crash had directly led to Brexit, and that it would “…make the next couple of decades or more a period of reimagination on the scale of post-1945 or in the mid-19th century rather than simply an adjustment as in the 1970s and 1980s.”
This ‘reimagination’ will require the UK to either redefine its constitution, or to break up. The level of disconnection between the current constitutional arrangements and the populations in the regions (in particular) cannot be sustained. Two more years of Conservative insistence on power in the face of eroding legitimacy may consign the UK to its demise, at least in its current form; even a Labour victory in the election that follows may not be enough to save it. Indeed, a Labour government may decide that the people of the UK would be best served by alternative constitutional arrangements.