Last week, Scotland voted to reject independence and to remain part of the United Kingdom. Yet — oh, the irony! — the greatest impact of the vote may be the fomenting of an English nationalism and the greater fragmentation of the Union.
In the run-up to the vote, as opinion polls suggested that the Yes vote might just prevail, panic-stricken politicians in London promised to devolve, or transfer, more powers to the Scottish Parliament. A result has been a backlash from English politicians, resentful of Scottish “privileges” and wanting greater powers for England. If Scotland can decide its own health and education policy, they ask, why should not England do so for the English (who make up about 84 percent of Britain’s population)? And if English members of Parliament have no say in deciding Scottish laws made by the Scottish Parliament, why should Scottish M.P.s have a say in deciding English laws?
So, in the wake of the Scottish No vote, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to link greater devolution for Scotland with greater devolution for England. Many are calling for the creation of a separate English Parliament. The constitutional ramifications are huge, the potential for instability and chaos manifest.
On one issue both sides in the referendum debate agreed: The prime motive in the drive for Scottish independence was a resentment of Westminster and of “London rule.” There is, however, nothing specifically Scottish about such sentiment.
Next month, there will be a parliamentary by-election in Clacton-on-Sea, a town not far from London, triggered by the local M.P., Douglas Carswell, formerly a Conservative, defecting to the U.K. Independence Party. The success of this populist anti-immigration, anti-European Union party in recent years has created panic within the mainstream.
Mr. Carswell may well be re-elected in UKIP colors. There is in Clacton as deep a disaffection for Westminster as there is in Glasgow, as overwhelming a sense of “they’re not listening to us” as in Dundee. But whereas in Scotland such resentment expressed itself in support for independence, in Clacton, and in many other English towns, it expresses itself in support for UKIP.
For many Scottish nationalists, UKIP represents much of what they loathe about Britain, an expression of the suffocating conservatism from which they seek to break free. Yet many in England back UKIP for much the same reason that many in Scotland support independence: because they feel disengaged from mainstream politics, marginalized and voiceless.
Not just in Scotland, nor even just in Britain, but throughout Europe, there is a crisis of political representation, a growing sense of political institutions as remote and corrupt, of voters’ concerns being ignored. One manifestation of this has been rising support for populist parties. Scottish nationalism is another expression of this public mood. It is not that the Scottish National Party and UKIP have the same kinds of policies. What connects them is a disconnect between the public and the political class.
In Europe generally, the sense of being politically abandoned has been most acute within the traditional working class as social-democratic parties have cut their links with their old constituencies. And support for Scottish independence is greatest among the working class and the urban poor — traditional supporters of Britain’s Labour Party. But it is not simply those whom sociologists call “the left behind” who have cleaved to the independence camp in Scotland.
A new generation born into a postindustrial, high-tech world of insecure jobs and low wages and cut adrift from the political institutions that shaped their parents, but without a new set of ideological markers, also saw voting for independence as a way of expressing their frustrations. It is an anger born, as Paul Mason, the economics editor of Channel 4 News and one of Britain’s most acute journalists, has observed, “not just of economic hardship but the absence of any coherent narrative, or alternative, to the narrow range of possibilities on offer.”
It is against this background that we must assess the drive toward greater devolution in Britain. “There’s no difference between any of the main parties” is a claim often made by Yes voters in Scotland and UKIP supporters in England alike. It is not a complaint that giving Scotland greater powers, or creating an English Parliament, will answer. What greater devolution promises is not a new politics that can address voters’ concerns, but the old politics doled out from an office a bit closer to home.
Suppose Scotland had voted for independence. How long would it have taken before resentment of London rule transmuted into resentment of “Edinburgh rule”? An opaque political clique is an opaque political clique whether it speaks with an English accent or a Scottish one.
The argument for devolution confuses fragmentation with political transformation and localism with democracy. It aims to remake not the content of politics but its form. It imagines that people yearn not for coherent political narratives, or alternative visions of society, but for a more parochial sense of identity.
The logic of all this is continued schism. Already, English regions are clamoring for more regional powers, as opposed to a London-based English Parliament, while many London politicians are demanding the right for the capital to pursue its own policies, freed of the shackles of England.
What binds politics together in Britain today is not a common project but a common sense of resentment. And once resentment becomes the binding for the body politic, the body politic necessarily corrodes.
Political change comes about only when people choose to act collectively, to put pressure on those in power. The more fragmented we are, the more we imagine that identity matters more than ideology, and the less we are able to enforce change. The drive toward devolution can only deepen the British public’s already acute sense of political disengagement.
Kenan Malik, a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, is the author, most recently, of The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics.