I cried into my under-salted porridge.
We’d got back from a midwife’s appointment to find our free baby box from the Scottish government on the doorstep, and unpacking it brought a bubble of joy.
The basics were reassuring: ear and bath thermometers (we hadn’t thought of those), a changing mat, reusable nappy tokens, cheery gender-neutral baby grows. The box doubles as a cot.
Books about hungry caterpillars and traffic awareness were nice, but it was the art that brought tears: a National Orchestra of Scotland app with music for your baby; a poem from the Makar, the national poet. And a picture from the National Gallery. “Hello wee one,” it says on the back. “We chose this print especially for you.”
The Scottish government says the box “is designed to give every single baby in Scotland an equal start in life”. But it does more than that. A nation is an imagined community, and the Scottish state has worked hard to ensure that we feel our child will be loved by that community.
We don’t hear that from the British state.
Before 2020, a poll showing Scottish independence ahead was like our men’s football team scoring: celebrated magnificently by fans, but not indicative of a consistent lead. But all 14 surveys since 1 June have independence ahead, on average by 7%.
Something is changing, and not just in Scotland. This autumn, the pro-Welsh independence group YesCymru has grown from 2,000 paid-up members to 16,000. As new member Siwan Clark told me, until recently, independence “wasn’t on the agenda … Now, it’s crossed the threshold”. Support for Welsh independence has risen from 10% in 2012 to 33% today, similar levels to those seen in Scotland before 2014.
That year, the year of Scotland’s independence referendum, polls in Northern Ireland said that 65% wanted to remain in the UK. By 2017, in the wake of Brexit, young Protestants in Coleraine were telling me that although it made them sad, joining Ireland to stay in the EU probably made sense. Support for the status quo has fallen to 34%, with 35% preferring a united Ireland outright.
“The gears have shifted so much,” said Seán Fearon, a Northern Irish climate activist and PhD student who I recently spoke to over Zoom. “Particularly among younger people, there is a much, much stronger desire for Irish unification.”
In the north of England, after the unlikely rebellion from Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, over pandemic funding, a new party, the Northern Independence Party, has sprung up demanding an end to Westminster rule. Meanwhile Dick Cole, the leader of Mebyon Kernow (The Party for Cornwall), tells me that his home-rule party has had an injection of “new young members”, and says that a current Cornish council consultation has turned up significant support for “decisions in Cornwall being made in Cornwall”. “People want more power,” he said.
Over the past decade I’ve interviewed people from Derry to Norwich, Cardiff to Harris, Jerusalem to Madrid about the break-up of Britain. But my conversations for this piece uncovered a new mood among those who want to leave the UK: calm confidence that the centre cannot hold.
More and more people are seeing through the bluster of the ancient British state and concluding that their respective parts of the UK would be better off governing themselves. That the politics cultivated by Westminster does more harm than good, and that it’s time for something new. It’s harder than ever to avoid a simple truth: they’re right.
The unmaking of a state
The United Kingdom has been a contested idea ever since it began to form. But it was the Marxist theorist, Tom Nairn, who first seriously traced the current fault lines in his 1977 book ‘The Break-Up of Britain’. Now 88, he’s usually cautious about predicting timelines. But speaking to me for this piece, he finally got specific. “Within the next five years, in one form or another, break-up is likely to come about”.
As Nairn identified, some forces driving this process move slowly. One is geopolitics. Three centuries ago, English and Scottish elites joined forces to colonise the world. During the Cold War, Britain’s family of ‘home nations’ huddled under the protection of nuclear weapons. Today, after Iraq, Brexit and genuflecting to Trump, the advantages of presenting as British rather than, say, Scottish are fading.
Another is communications technology. Modern nations were birthed in part by 19th-century innovations such as the printing press, followed by radio and television in the century after. Social media disrupts that process. More than ever, people are inventing new identities and putting old ones to new use. Every Welsh independence supporter I interviewed mentioned the lack of a Welsh press. Their movement is gathering online. The production of ideas and identities is less top-down than ever.
Economics is yet another. In ‘The Break-up of Britain’, Nairn defined nationalism as “mobilisation against the unpalatable truth of grossly uneven development”. Waves of capitalism break differently on different shores, intensifying regional variations and driving demand for independent governance. If this is generally true, then it’s very true in the UK, Europe’s most geographically unequal country. The City in London and the housing bubble in the south-east suck in investment, wealth and youth, and blow out debt, austerity, stress and regret.
And there are events.
After the banks crashed, Scotland and Wales voted for the steady hand of Gordon Brown but got David Cameron’s axe. Social security was the duvet under which we all snuggled. It gave millions a direct relationship with the British state. But that security was snatched away by the humiliating cruelty of Universal Credit.
Older English voters, infuriated by the status quo but unable to escape the cage of the British state, broke their heads against its bars, and Brexited. A younger generation radicalised by reality – war, climate change, austerity, housing – spent a dozen desperate years demanding change. Corbynism was the Westminster establishment’s chance to compromise. It didn’t.
Then came the virus. For many, the pandemic has been one of those moments that clarifies a question: do we want decisions about our lives made in Westminster – or in Holyrood, the Senedd, Stormont, or the Oireachtas?
Healthcare, once seen by Westminster as a ‘soft’, feminised issue that could be safely devolved while the British state hung on to the big boy stuff like security, has turned out to be the defining factor. If you’re Scottish, your government has been blessed by comparison with Westminster. If you’re Welsh, your first minister is suddenly a prominent figure. In Northern Ireland, it makes practical sense to collaborate with Dublin, whatever your tradition – and if you’re English, you get jealous.
Whatever the failings of leaders in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, they have at least struck the right tone. They have given the impression that this crisis is something other than a chance to shake up our public services, and spray their mates with a fizz of private contracts.
Britain’s leaders, by contrast, shelter behind a myth of ‘competence’ and hard-headed realism. But the borders of their ‘real world’ don’t extend far beyond London’s Square Mile, the headquarters of corporations like Shell or BP, estate agents in the Home Counties, and the editorial offices of right-wing newspapers. COVID-19, however, shows that politics isn’t about their fictional universe. It’s about our lives. And deaths.
Every country is a card-house of contradictions; every nation a disputed story, every state, a battlefield of institutions. So most claims about Britain have some truth.
Unionists often say that the UK is about pooling and sharing resources. In a sense, they’re right. Much of modern Britain was built by Labour in 1945, with its institutions of organised justice. But that settlement is being dismantled.
For many, Britain is an aid-giving, democracy-defending global goodie. To see through this, we need to travel 5,000 miles away.
In 2016, 214,488 papers were leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, detailing an offshore network of secretive deals, money laundering and tax avoidance. Headlines shouted about dictators and drug lords in the Global South getting their comeuppance. But less widely reported was that most companies mentioned in the Panama papers were registered in the UK, its Overseas Territories or Crown Dependencies.
Last year, academics Reijer Hendrikse and Rodrigo Fernandez analysed this growing offshore world. “Together with the wealth of the world’s billionaire class”, they concluded, it now “effectively constitutes the backbone of global capitalism”.
After 1945, as former colonies wriggled free, Britain was reinvented as something approaching a modern nation-state. But Westminster’s imperial detritus – Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Channel Islands – form the wheel turning Earth’s main money laundry. Hundreds of billions wash through it every year, wealth stolen from the workers of the world, impoverishing the planet.
Yet while London is the global financial hub through which much of this wealth travels, the vast majority of the population are excluded from it, regardless of their attachment to the stories and symbols of Britain.
It was spring 2015, at the depth of both Tory austerity and a grim hangover, when I first went to Cluan Place, east Belfast. Loyalist flags lined the fortified street and many of the women I spoke to checked their neighbours weren’t listening before whispering surprisingly similar opinions. As one put it, “I sometimes think that their lot” – nodding to the Sinn Fein-voting Short Strand over a vast iron fence – “do more for us than our lot.”
What’s now Northern Ireland has long been treated as a colony: first during the plantations, then as a useful ship-building outpost. When the minority Catholic population demanded civil rights in the 1960s, British soldiers who’d just put down an uprising in Kenya arrived to inflame the conflict.
But as the Cold War melted, geopolitics changed. Having fought and tortured to keep its Hibernian enclave, British enthusiasm waned. In November 1990, Thatcher’s Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke said the UK government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. The qualifying clause would prove redundant. It soon became clear that Britain had no interest in Northern Ireland.
There’s a sign on west Belfast’s Shankill Road telling you that you’re in “the heart of the British Empire”. In the community centre nearby, staffer Ian McLaughlin told me in 2018 that people regularly come in with post, asking: “here, what does that say?”. A 2015 study concluded that one in five Northern Irish adults has “very poor” literacy skills. Working-class loyalist communities were taught they could depend on jobs building ships – until they couldn’t. Their loyalty has not been reciprocated.
A year earlier, I had watched Theresa May detonating Article 50 on the TV of the Bogside Bar on Free Derry Corner, republican flags outside. The man who’d bought my pint showed me an old photo on the wall of a balaclava-covered teenager carrying a makeshift bomb. It was him. Headlines about hard borders flashed across the screen, and it was clear that May had just done more to unite Ireland than his old IRA comrades ever had.
But it’s not just Brexit. To the south, in the Republic of Ireland, an inquiry into child abuse crumpled the country’s once-dominant Catholic church. Magnificent referendums on marriage equality and abortion rights transformed its image.
In 2017, the year that unionist parties lost their majority in Northern Ireland’s assembly for the first time, Sinn Fein campaigned on a pro-LGBT rights platform. Taking their cue from the social changes across the border, the Irish republicans positioned themselves in stark contrast to the Democratic Unionist Party, which is still heavily influenced by its conservative religious roots, and uses its veto power to block reforms on gender and sexual equality.
Suddenly, Britain seems like the conservative backwater. Dublin rule no longer means Vatican rule. Ireland looks towards Europe, and the future.
Northern Ireland’s infrastructure looks more eastern European than western; the only decent trains go to Dublin. Around 21% of children live in absolute poverty. One in every 120 people there is homeless. More have died by suicide since the end of the civil war than died from violence during it, and more miles of security wall divide the two communities now than did twenty years ago.
I first met Seán Fearon when he was student president at Queen’s University, Belfast. For him, Irish unity is not just about the 1.9 million people who live in the north joining a state of 4.7 million; it’s about “effectively restructuring that political configuration on the island of Ireland”, and bringing “an injection of new progressive ideas and new progressive, democratic weight”. The current arrangement, he told me, “is not capable of dealing with the climate crisis and the green economic transformation that has to happen.”
In December this year, Sinn Fein launched a campaign for a united Ireland. “A new Ireland,” it says on posters across Belfast “will work for you” – pledging “EU membership, jobs, prosperity, and an all-Ireland health service”.
“It’s time,” the party says, “to plan.”
What was once a fight about the past has become a debate about the future.
After the defeat
In Wales, socialists and progressives disappointed by Labour’s election defeat at the end of last year are starting to plan ahead, too.
Siwan Clark is one of the many young people who moved home for lockdown. A few years ago she had left Cardiff for London because of “a feeling that you have to be there, that it was the centre of things”. The pandemic has changed all that. “For a lot of people who’ve moved home, their sphere is turning to more local things,” she said to me over Zoom recently.
Before COVID, Clark said, she wouldn’t have expected most people in Wales to know the name of the first minister. (It’s Mark Drakeford.) “I was extremely ignorant about the Assembly. I just didn’t really engage with it,” she said.