British politics continues to consolidate around nationalisms. But this shouldn’t be taken to mean the immanent break-up of the United Kingdom state, argues David Jamieson.
It would be a mistake to try and deduce public attitudes from the 2022 local elections. The Tories took a beating, though not a mortal one. Labour stagnated in England, with the Liberal Democrats and Greens picking up more seats. The SNP continued to dominate in Scotland. The only dramatic development was Sinn Fein’s triumph in the Northern Ireland assembly elections.
But the biggest winner was public disinterest in a political system which feels increasingly remote from the concerns of most people. In Scotland, voter turnout was down from 47 to 43 percent, sinking much lower in many working class wards. There were a record number of uncontested seats. And there was certainly no sense that any party was offering a meaningful response to the cost of living crisis. An Electoral Reform Society poll found that two thirds of Scottish voters feel they had little or no influence in local governance, while just 7 percent thought parties were guided by the needs of voters.
With those caveats in place, we can discern one clear trend, confirmed in the 2022 elections: the nationalisation of UK politics. Though each national unit of the UK remains politically contested, each of the four have a dominant party: in England the Tories, Scotland the SNP, and in Wales Labour. The Northern Ireland statelet is of course an outlier in so many ways – being an artificial ‘nation’ designed to obstruct Irish nationalist sentiment and privilege its traditionally Unionist elite. But Sinn Fein’s new dominance there mirrors the rise of the party in the Republic of Ireland, and reflects a dire crisis for Unionism.
Of course, many liberal commentators have hurried to assert this nationalisation – and a projected impeding break-up of both the UK and Britain – as a kind of revenge on Tory England for Brexit and Boris Johnson. Since 2016 (before the Leave vote, they were typically hostile to the peripheral nationalist movements), this idea has become a kind of ‘copium’, anaesthetising the pain from the loss of the Britain of the 90s and 2000s.
For their part, the nationalist movements have embraced this liberal angst. The SNP has assiduously courted the old New Labour set, inveigling themselves with the London financial and Brussels diplomatic scenes. Fanatical support for Nato and the EU have obviously helped in these efforts. Sinn Fein have proved more difficult to cuddle in public, given their past status as the political wing of Republican struggle, but they too have shed their erstwhile Euroscepticism. Welsh Labour doesn’t need to work hard to glow next to the PM and the uninspiring London Labour leadership.
It is precisely the character of this two-way embrace that should cause us to doubt the immanence of British state disintegration. In Wales, the independence movement struggles to emerge from under Labour hegemony. Sinn Fein and its proposed border poll deserves a treatment of its own, but it can’t be controversial to note the major stumbling blocks it faces, being treated with hostility by elites in both Dublin and London, as well as an intransigent minority of Unionists who would resort to anything to oppose Irish re-unification. There will likely be some crucial debates among activists in Ireland in coming years about how these problems are approached.
Predictably, in the days leading up to the vote Sturgeon and co wheeled out the usual election time promises of ‘independence (forever) next year’. This pledge is obvious nonsense, but possibly does indicated a stunt some time in the next year or so: yet another request for the powers to organise a referendum that Sturgeon hopes will be turned down, providing fuel for a 2024 general election campaign.
It’s also hard to see where national sentiment goes in England. The case for a federal UK, or an English parliament seems to have few friends. There’s little demand for yet more layers of generally reviled politicians.
In each context, nationalisation is proceeding with ‘para-political’ energies. The object is not so much a given outcome, as a twin desire to differentiate from authority based at Westminster, and assert national difference.
Meanwhile the central British state is consolidating power. Restrictions on the right to protest, the redrawing of electoral boundaries and extending government control over the electoral commission all point to a concentration of power around Whitehall. This only augments a mood among politicians and civil servants, hostile to referenda after the experiences of 2014 and particularly 2016.
So for now at least, we have a nationalisation of politics without the rupture of the state. The national questions that plague the UK will be important to the future course of the state and public life, but not in some crude transactional way imagined by the liberal wing of the establishment.
And these national questions are not sealed-off from the turmoil in world markets, rising cost of living or war in Europe. The interaction between the enormous pressures now felt by millions and the nationalisation of politics will be complex and contradictory. For now it is helping parties like Welsh Labour, the SNP and Sinn Fein, even though none of these parties have done much to ease economic pain over many years in office. As the situation worsens, people might seek solutions outside of the party-political game altogether, and in ways that reject all politicians and their projects.