Leading thinkers on the centre left and right are converging on support for a federal UK. George Kerevan examines the latest technocratic turn of the intellectuals.
Gavin Esler’s new book, How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations, has been described as a “forensic examination of the way in which resurgent English nationalism is pulling the United Kingdom apart.” Principally it concentrates on Brexit (which Esler opposes) and its impact on Scottish nationalism. The book comes with encomia from the stars of the left-liberal intelligentsia, including the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee (“Brexit has broken Britain and Gavin Esler captures the tragedy”) and a breathless Alastair Campbell (“an elegy wrapped around a hymn”).
Yet Esler’s is a disappointing book and far from forensic. It is oddly disjointed, full of TV-style vignettes but meandering in its structure. It is clear that Esler is saddened and angered at what he sees as the descent of England into a boorish nationalism triggered by Brexit, threatening the near inevitable disintegration of the UK. Far from seeing this as a Tory plot, Esler blames the shambolic ineptitude of the English governing elite for allowing the plebs to get out of control. As evidence, he spends far longer than it’s worth examining the serial incompetence of Chris Grayling when Cabinet minister.
If there is one reasonable idea in Esler’s suicide note for the UK it is his assertion that the infamous lack of a written British constitution was heretofore a success because it allowed the ruling establishment elite room for manoeuvre and compromise when dealing with crises. But Brexit has blown this elegant constitutional clockwork to smithereens, he asserts. Without a written constitution (and its enshrined legal checks and balances) there is no way of restraining English nationalism from running riot inside the UK system. This must inevitably drive away the Scots, Irish and even the Welsh.
What is to be done? Esler’s literary anguish at the break-up of Britain stems from his inability to provide a political solution, barring a ritual genuflection towards some sort of federalism. At least he has the good sense to admit this is a difficult proposition in the face of “the most meretricious and distrusted English nationalist government of our lifetimes”. Esler plumps for a move towards a confederal system with the four UK nations having complete internal Home Rule but united fo the purposes of defence and foreign affairs. (NB: This sounds suspiciously like the latest plan from Gordon Brown, published in the wake of the May Scottish election.)
Esler has the good sense to admit this project will not be easy, largely due to the unwillingness of the UK (basically English Tory) elite’s unwillingness to share power with the uppity Jocks, rebellious Catholic Irish or disdained Welsh. As Esler points out, the last time “Home Rule all round” was suggested, in 1914, it ended in bloody revolution and civil war in Ireland. He also notes that disagreements over links to Europe are likely to make a stable confederal approach impossible to negotiate. What if the Home Rule Scots and Northern Irish want a more open approach to the EU?
Esler opposed Scottish independence in 2014 because he feared it would take Scotland out of the EU. Now he is conflicted because the UK is out of Europe anyway and most independence minded Scots are desperate to get back in. He thus personifies the dilemma of much of the Scottish professional and upper middle class. Hence the gyrations in the numbers supporting independence, throughout the pandemic. Should they vote for Nicola and the EU? Or is independence too big a threat to their comfy New Town lives?
This raises the obvious question as to why mainstream English and Scottish intellectuals have so committed to the EU? Esler is frank that his opposition to Scottish independence in 2014 was primarily based on fear it would lead to exclusion from the EU. His subsequent ambivalence about Scottish secession (as expressed in his book) is based on support for the SNP’s love affair with Brussels mixed with his worry that England’s embracing of Brexit will drive the pro-European Celtic fringes away.
Yet Esler is incapable of explaining why he “feels” European to such a degree and (more to the point) interprets this as political support for the EU. One suspects this has nothing intrinsically to do with the EU as it exists. After all, in the last two decades since the creation of the single currency, the EU has morphed into a huge German industrial cartel, with the Commission and Central Bank now Berlin’s instruments for forcing bone-crunching austerity on the smaller member states.
The explanation for Esler’s political myopia towards the EU lies in the nature of modern liberalism itself. Neoliberal economics over the past 40 years has given birth to a new liberal ideology so beloved of intellectuals such as Esler. The global free movement of capital, goods and labour has wrecked the environment, destroyed traditional communities and centralised economic control in New York, London and Frankfurt. But this carnage has been hidden behind a synthetic new uber-liberalism.
This is not the original 19th century political liberalism that counterpoised elective democracy and human rights to feudal hierarchies. Rather, an ‘identarian’ model of liberalism that replaces the political with the pseudo-individual. A model that deliberately substitutes the reality of class for a synthetic, manipulated notion of personal space. This new global liberalism parrots the advantages of the ultimate right to be a consumer, drooling over the paid performances of so-called internet ‘influencers’; of the right to travel the planet at will regardless of CO2 emissions; of the right to work in any foreign metropolis on a zero-hours contract.
This false liberalism wets itself in awe at the EU. Yes, the EU gives young folk the right to travel but also to earn poverty wages. Yes, the EU ‘regulates’ pollution while happily protecting the big industrial cartels that cause the original environmental damage. Yes, the EU pays lip service to common labour standards but mostly to stop poorer nations daring to undercut Germany and France. Europe’s intellectuals have a material interest in glamorising the advantages of the EU and quietly ignoring the disadvantages. After all, they live off the media (often state media) and universities (mostly state universities) that provide the EU with its ideological façade.
It is also the case that the most ardently pro-EU intellectuals implicitly see ‘their’ Europe as a bastion of white privilege and political domination of the European periphery – ie North Africa and much of the Middle East. After Brexit, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy organised a group of British and European intellectuals to denounce populism in favour of protecting European liberal ‘values’. The same Lévy is a cheerleader for EU ‘liberal’ military intervention and led the demands to bomb Libya in 2011 (a move energetically supported in the UK Parliament by SNP MPs).
The personal problem facing the mainstream British intelligentsia is that – like Esler – they exist to defend and perpetuate a liberal, pro-EU, orthodoxy that has lost currency in the UK after the Brexit referendum. British intellectuals now find themselves historically marooned. There is always a danger when an existing establishment intelligentsia becomes un-moored by seismic economic and political change that it veers dramatically in a reactionary direction, out of self-protection or simple rage at being rejected.
It will not be long before elements of the British liberal intelligentsia – seeing no prospect of a return to EU membership – will secure their livelihood by ‘explaining’ and justifying a new age of British nationalism. Witness historian and archaeologist Neil Oliver joining Andrew Neil’s GB News channel.
JOHN LLOYD’S RE-INVENTION OF FEDERALISM
Another straw in this ideological wind is the vitriolic attack on the SNP launched by the FT’s Contributing Editor John **Lloyd in his book Should Auld Acquaintances be Forgot (complete with gushing dustjacket recommendations from Alistair Darling and historian Niall Ferguson).
Lloyd voted Remain in 2016 on strictly economic grounds. But since then, he has been punting a rapprochement with the Leave camp, explaining that Brexit is not some mad right-wing conspiracy but a rational democratic choice: “Britain can take real pride that a messy, fraught, passionate struggle over a fundamental principle of democratic and civic life is taking place within it”.
As a result of his turn towards “Red Wall” patriotism, Lloyd’s new book is more Unionist that George Galloway – and with too much spleen to be worth reading even as an intellectual exercise. He draws heavily on questionable economic data from arch Unionist bloggers such as Kevin Hague (“he has taken it upon himself to try to educate the Scots electorate on the fragility of the SNP’s promises”). John’s one positive reference to the SNP is to congratulate it for “sensibly” ignoring socialist economic advice from myself.
As it happens, there is nothing wrong per se with Lloyd’s re-evaluating EU membership in the aftermath of Brexit. This is now a very necessary procedure for a Scotland contemplating independence. The historic project of the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon and EU fanatics such as Alan Smyth is to reconcile the Scottish middle class with independence and make an independent Scotland safe for the middle class. The bridge to securing these ends is EU membership. For the Scottish professional and upper middle class, EU membership represents continuity with Brussels in the background to head off any hair-brained socialist nonsense after independence. For Sturgeon, the EU is a liberal banner to fly over Holyrood, while doing nothing to threaten vested interests in Scotland.
Lloyd has come up with a novel ideological response to Sturgeon and the EU. He argues the only way of defeating populism – in which he includes Scottish nationalism which he believes is a threat to the liberal world economic order – is to devolve power pre-emptively to new institutions closer to the electorate, aka a new “federalism”. Unless this is done, an electorate cocooned in identitism will gavel against the ruling liberal elites and shirk the “complex choices” that such a liberal world order has to manage.
Of course, Lloyd’s vacuous idea of a new federalism will leave the ruling elites still very much in charge while bamboozling the masses into thinking they have more control – which is the whole point. Thus: Lloyd’s apparent rapprochement with Brexit takes him in the direction of a new British federalism – a federalism he says that will explicitly affirm (through a Canadian-style ‘Clarity Act’) the right of the elite federal authorities to legislate on independence referendums in Scotland.
For Lloyd and Esler, a new (pseudo) federalism in the UK is a way of bottling up plebian resistance from below – of either a nationalist or ‘Red Wall’ populist variety – while leaving the liberal elites still in command and running the show on behalf of capitalism. However, the only way such an ideological project could work is if Labour buys into it, which is a big ask. This may explain why Lloyd has punted the idea that Gordon Brown takes over the leadership of Scottish Labour, the better to defeat the Nats and promote federalism. That sounds far fetched but we cannot rule out the variant that if Labour remains marginalised, one option for Starmer or his replacement is to embrace federalism as political cover.
For the Scottish pro-independence left, understanding this debate inside the UK liberal intelligentsia is cardinal. We are now watching sections of this element manufacture a synthesis of Brexit and federalism, the better to buttress the ruling order and secure a role in the governing bloc. This would provide the electoral cement for a “big tent” liberal centre left that can outflank Boris Johnson and save the bacon of the existing, decaying Labour apparatus and trades union bureaucracy. It could, conceivably see off the SNP challenge.
However, based on recent experience in Europe, the likelihood of the Labour Party actually escaping the historical eclipse of European social democracy seems limited – whether embracing federalism or no. Nevertheless, the turn of Lloyd and Esler is interesting in this context as are the continued efforts of Gordon Brown to save the British state via federalism. Perhaps it is easier for leftish Scottish intellectuals like Brown, Lloyd and Esler (who were all educated outside the Oxbridge ruling elite) to initiate this UK-wide ideological reconfiguration.
*For the purposes of disclosure, Gavin Esler and I worked together on The Scotsman and I hold him in great personal regard, though our politics are very different. Esler is the quintessential liberal journo and public intellectual. His family background is Scottish and Ulster Unionist (like me). He earned his spurs as the anchor of BBC Newsnight. In 2017 he left the Beeb to concentrate on freelance writing.
**I’ve known Lloyd through the decades. Indeed, he helped get me my first writing job at The Scotsman. A Scot from Anstruther, the youthful Lloyd was a member of the Maoist British and Irish Communist Organisation (which wanted an independent, workers Ulster). His day job was labour correspondent for the FT in the era when newspapers were interested in trades unions. Later he became editor of the New Statesman. Today he writes a regular column for the reactionary, libertarian CapX website.
How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations, by Gavin Esler (Head of Zeus 2021) and Should Auld Acquaintances be Forgot by John Lloyd (Polity, 2020).