Book review: How Britain Ends, by Gavin Esler

In this thoughtful survey of the fraying ties that still just about bind the UK together, Gavin Esler explores the pros and cons of a federal future. Review by Allan Massie
Gavin Esler PIC: Jeff OversGavin Esler PIC: Jeff Overs
Gavin Esler PIC: Jeff Overs

Gavin Esler is a distinguished journalist, a Scot who doesn’t live in Scotland and one with an Ulster Unionist family background. Watching football or rugby he is Scottish, watching the Olympics British. Brexit dismays him and he is worried by the rise of English Nationalism. Many of us have been, like him, content to be now Scottish, now British, now European. But for some time the British identity has been fraying. Brexit has torn another hole in it.

His book is intelligent, interesting and, like many thoughtful works, sometimes irritating. For instance, he observes that Boris Johnson, winning his majority with only 43 percent of the vote in the 2019 election, was rejected by 57 per cent of voters. On the other hand he seems sure that Nicola Sturgeon speaks for Scotland even though the SNP, benefitting from what he calls the “antiquated” first past the post system to win 48 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats on 45 per cent of the vote, was likewise rejected by a majority of voters, 55 per cent in her case. Sauce for gander, sauce, I would have thought, for goose.

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That the Union is in trouble is undeniable. It is not only that fewer Scots are comfortable with the dual Scottish-British identity. It is also, he argues, that the surge of a distinctive English nationalism is diluting England’s sense of Britishness. In a calm atmosphere the realization that English and British – England and Britain – are not identical might actually make constitutional reform possible, so that we arrived at some form of federal or confederal UK. But the atmosphere is not calm, and one reason for this is the extreme form of Brexit chosen by the Johnson Government. This has soured relations between England and both Scotland and Northern Ireland, the two distinct parts of the UK which voted Remain.

How Britain EndsHow Britain Ends
How Britain Ends

He is critical of the UK’s “unwritten” constitution, though accepting that it is not so much unwritten as written in scattered places, one, for instance, being the Act which established the Scottish Parliament and defined its powers and responsibilities. Written constitutions do indeed have their obvious merits. On the other hand, they may be inflexible, difficult to amend. The American Constitution provides for each state to elect two senators, thinly populated Montana having therefore the same representation as California. This would be hard to change. Conversely devolution was easily and swiftly enacted by Westminster.

Esler, like many, thinks Scottish Independence likely. However he hopes, even believes, it may yet be averted by remodelling the UK as a federal or confederal state. Any federation would be unbalanced, England having more than four-fifths of its population. You might seek to remedy this by making London a devolved city-state which, economically, it already comes close to being, and making a northern English city, say York, the federal capital, equivalent of Washington DC.

Indeed, if you are seeking federation as a means of preserving a looser union with a weaker central government, the rise of English nationalism, expressed in people’s preference for identifying themselves as English first, British second, should surely be welcomed. After all, the identification of England with Britain or the UK is something which has irritated even unionist Scots. Far better, therefore, that British becomes for the English what it is now for so many Scots and Welsh, a second subsidiary identity.

Esler is always interesting, sometimes provocative. His book offers much for anyone concerned with our political future to ponder. Like many journalists who drop in on Scotland from time to time, he tends to overestimate the SNP’s appeal, not remarking that the party is disliked or distrusted by half the electorate. Nor, I think, does he fully acknowledge that the extreme Brexit imposed on us has raised a formidable obstacle to a return to EU membership, even for an independent Scotland.

However much we Remainers may regret Brexit, the UK Government’s decision to leave the Customs Union means that an independent Scotland in the EU would meet with the establishment of customs posts along the old Anglo-Scottish Border. And who wants that? Nevertheless, this is a good book and a valuable one. Further radical constitutional change may yet be further off than many suppose. After all it’s 44 years since Tom Nairn published The Break-Up of Britain, which Esler frequently quotes; and it ain’t quite broken yet, not beyond repair – as his own federal recommendations indicate.

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How Britain Ends, by Gavin Esler, Head of Zeus, 324pp, £14.99

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