Renewed calls for Scottish independence, the looming possibility of the severance of Ulster from the United Kingdom, and the departure of Britain from the EU again bring to the forefront questions of national identity and the purpose of the British state. Those who desired this departure, but who wish to maintain the Union of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have some serious questions to answer. I was one of these people. I still am one of those people. But only a fool would deny that Brexit has potentially serious consequences on the Union. In light of this it is once again necessary to state what we see Britain as being for. That it is actively for something used to be accepted without question. But the last seventy years have changed that, possibly forever; the loss of Empire, Britain’s entry into the EEC and then the EU have both damaged the British state.
Following the loss of Empire, Britain was famously ‘yet to find a role’. Its politicians mistakenly saw its role as part of a European state, and so undermined the British state’s own claim to loyalty from all its subjects. That, combined with its defeat to Irish nationalists following the Good Friday Agreement, and the unnecessary and damaging creation of a Scottish ‘Parliament’, has created a situation in which the attempt to restate the sovereignty of the British state endangers the unity of our country. But Brexit is not a cause of this division, Scotland and Northern Ireland were being torn away from the rest of Britain long before June 2016. People in Scotland and Northern Ireland (and indeed in England and Wales) rightly question what the purpose of Britain is in the modern world. For seventy years their leaders have doubted its purpose, have denied its claims to loyalty, damaged its confidence in itself, attacked its history and its institutions. Is it any wonder that people argue for its dissolution?
The threat posed to the Union is a direct result of Britain’s self-abasement in European and world affairs. In 1902 Lord Curzon made a famous speech in Birmingham where he stated his belief in the necessity of an international role for Britain. For what would be the fate of the people of Britain if they retreated from the world stage? They would be reduced to a people ‘with no aspiration but a narrow and selfish materialism’, without the Empire, Britain would ‘become a sort of glorified Belgium’. Even earlier, in 1871, R.D. Nash warned in ‘The Fox’s Prophecy’ that:
Trade shall be held the only good,
And gain the sole device;
The statesmans’ maxim shall be peace,
And peace at any price.
Her army and her navy
Britain shall cast aside;
Soldiers and ships are costly things,
Defence an empty pride.
Such predictions have, in many respects, come to pass. Britain has, for many decades, denied its own history and, in doing so, has led to its very existence being placed under threat. When a country ceases to have pride in itself, it is little wonder that people should wonder why bother defending it.
The source of the current instability of the British state is, then, a direct consequence of the failure of British pride in itself as an international power and its inability to exist as ‘merely’ the union of four independent nations. The stresses and strains, the complexities, the inconsistencies, are too great to be ignored without a sense of driving purpose. Such drive and purpose existed when Britain was an expanding power, or when it fought in wars which threatened its shores. But, now, the memories of such power and such wars are – regrettably – distant enough that the bonds they created can be ignored by significant chunks of the population.
Such bonds have been further weakened by policies pursued by politicians, in their infinite wisdom. The divisions between England and Scotland are exacerbated by the fact that so few Scottish students study at English universities. The sense that we are one people is lessened by an ignorance of our own history. I am a British person – born in Scotland, educated in England, with an English father, a Scottish mother, and Irish ancestors. So it perhaps no wonder that I am in favour of the Union. But what are the bonds uniting us today, as opposed to the memories of previous bonds? What is being done today, to re-forge the unity that undoubtedly existed in previous times? Can anything be done? It is hard not to be too pessimistic when one wonders at the failures of the British state to defend itself, to support itself, and to make itself necessary to all the people of these islands.
We are left asking what is Britain actually for? If we provide economic answers then we are doomed to failure. No country can sustain itself by simply saying that it makes one richer. As Curzon knew, ‘narrow and selfish materialism’ cannot be enough to stir hearts in the way that is necessary to create a nation that is confident in itself. If we provide merely historical answers then we are also doomed to failure. Whilst we should not be shy of stressing our historical bonds and our historical achievements, such facts of history cannot be used indefinitely.
Answers might, however, be found when we look at post-Brexit Britain. Paradoxically, the opportunities afforded by an independent, sovereign Britain may allow us to re-create the dynamism that characterised the Union in the past. Our role in international affairs may yet enable us to rescue our sense of ourselves. The next few years are fraught with danger. There is a possibility that Scotland will vote for independence before we have even been able to begin reasserting ourselves. That is a risk that has to be taken. Continued membership of the EU made the dissolution of Britain inevitable. But we do now have an opportunity to change the course of history and reverse the inevitable.
Nash’s poem ‘The Fox’s Prophecy’ painted a bleak picture. In some respects this is reassuring, since Britain was able to last as a coherent nation for a hundred years after it was written, and able to weather two of the greatest and most disastrous wars in human history. Nash, while pessimistic, does give us hope:
Taught wisdom by disaster,
England shall learn to know
That trade is not the only gain
Heaven gives to man below.
The greed for gold departed,
The golden calf cast down
Old England’s sons again shall raise
The Altar and the Crown.
Britain is for something. It has been for something in the past and can be so again. The rediscovery of that purpose can be found in the wider world. To limit ourselves is to invite disaster and disunion. We must look to the role Britain can play in the world in order to demonstrate to ourselves the desirability of this union of nations. To do otherwise is to ensure that the Fox’s prophecy will have an unhappy ending.