However, if we look at the recent history of Britain over the last half century,
and the ongoing, current processes within it, we can easily see that this constitution
is in its death throes, and by extension, that the days of the United Kingdom
as a singular and centrally governed entity are at an end.
The end of Britain is inevitably wrapped up with the death of its constitution
and its legitimacy. How did Britain manage to retain such an archaic, semi-modern
constitution through almost 300 years of history with no especially significant
changes? A host of reasons of course, but mainly that Britain until the 1940's
was a major power (with the wealth, status and pride in the institutions that
inevitably result), and one in which invented tradition was very important,
such that the invented traditions of the 19th century Monarchy and Parliament,
combined with the greatness of the old Realm, could make the unwritten constitution
a touchstone of all things best about Britain.
Now, however, the Old Constitution is in its last gasps. This process started
under Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government of 1979, when the old consensual
governing class was swept away under the banner of progress and replaced by
'the choices of the market'. At least in theory - and in effect, much of this
did happen. The government itself changed, the grandees of old replaced with
an increasing reliance on French style think tanks. The raison d'etre of Thatcherism
was the dismantling of the Old Britain, and the Old Ways of governance, and
yet, at the same time it pumped up (most clearly seen during the Falklands War)
Britain and encouraged nationalism and a kind of nostalgia about how great Britain
is - in this respect, it was utterly philistine, for it destroyed those same
things it was elevating to mythical status.
This process continued through the 90's, and gave rise (famously) to John Major's
witterings about the Britain of warm beer, bicycling Vicars, cricket on the
village green, and so forth. Meanwhile, in the real Britain, the 80's and 90's
saw the rise of mass insubordination over the closure of mines and steelworks,
and most impressively, the Poll Tax. The Poll Tax (a taxation system whereby
everybody, nomatter their income, paid the same rate for local services) was
impressive because it revealed just how insane and indeed suicidal the government
had become. The series of riots and protests that it spawned were amazing, for
it showed that the Poll Tax (and by extension the governing elite) was being
absolutely, unequivocally rejected by the lowest common denominator. Supposedly
the French are best at rejecting the ministrations of their government, but
in this instance, the British showed that they could do it too.
The Poll Tax had other important effects as well - by being tried out in Scotland
a year before it was introduced to England, it fostered further and more absolute
resentment in Scotland as every protest (and the riots in Glasgow) was ignored
absolutely by a blithe and seemingly English government. This was to have important
repercussions later in the 90's, both for the unity of Britain and its future.
From the doldrums of the last years of the late Conservative government, a
seemingly new, radical hope for Britain appeared - the modernised, reinvigorated
New Labour party. Under Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair the Labour party
first democratised itself (smashing the Union block vote and introducing One
Man, One Vote as a guiding principle for party elections), whilst at the same
time centralising power as much as it could around the figure of the party leader,
later Prime Minister. This is significant because it is exactly what the Labour
Party did to the country as a whole when it attained office.
When New Labour was catapulted to power in 1997 with a massive majority, it
was fond of revolutionary and radical rhetoric, but it quickly became apparent
that it wasn't fond of revolutionary and radical action. In fact, examining
New Labour's 'Project', it is quickly seen that the project has nothing to do
with modernising Britain at all - it is merely 'Project Preserve Britain', an
elaborate means to protect the continuing existence of the UK as a Constitutional
Monarchy and centralised, 18th century style state by means of offering fops
to modernising forces. So, Scotland got a parliament (thanks to the huge Scottish
contingent within Labour itself), but no more, Wales got a National Assembly,
and the House of Lords got something of a facelift. Of course, the House of
Lords wasn't democratised or anything - instead the number of Inherited positions
was curtailed and the remainder replaced with the direct appointees of the PM.
In other words, they compromised with the the landed gentry. This might sound
feudal, a government of the day bargaining with aristocrats over the running
of the Country's highest House, but it is just a typical archaism of Britain's
New Labour has been devolving power in the UK as a means of keeping the UK
together. Devolution was designed to stifle further calls for power, independence
and so on from the Celtic fringe, but has, of course, accelerated the breakdown.
For example, the kerfuffle over the 'Scottish Six' (a news programme that was
posited by BBC Scotland that would have aired at 6pm and shown, for the first
time, international news filtered through a Scottish perspective, and replaced
the main 6pm British news programme) had the backing of almost everyone in Scotland,
regardless of Unionist affiliation, and was only slapped down by central government
intervention. Numerous times the Scottish Parliament has shown that it would
like more power, and more importantly, there is a sense of inevitability within
Scotland that independence will occur, as part of the process of the UK's collapse
from the 18th century style state.
Scotland is crucial to the future of the UK because it is the part of the UK
most likely to become independent. It was not conquered like Wales, but rather
occluded. Scotland never ceased to be a nation, it just ceased to be a nation
state, and even then retained its own legal system, its own church and its own
identity. The difference is that the governing elite of Scotland decided voluntarily
to take Scotland into a sort of twilight zone of nationhood with no statehood,
and the result has been a sort of shame felt by many Scots ever since. The powerful
urges and forces that have been propelling Scotland on the road to independence
of late are greatly motivated by this sense of reclaiming the birthright. Scots
now see the future of their nation as lying in their own hands.
However, this is certainly not the attitude in Westminster. The attitude there
is perhaps best summed up by the revealing Rhodri Morgan affair. When it appeared
that Rhodri, a politician noted for his independent rhetoric, may well become
leader of the Welsh National Assembly, the Labour Party used the Union Block
vote to keep him out and instead install Alun Michael - which meant that, effectively,
the votes of three people determined who the leader of the Welsh National Assembly
would be. A few months later, the Welsh independence party Plaid Cymru showed
a massive resurgance in the elections. This affair showed that for the labour
party, devolution is just fancy words, radical PR speak, and that it really
wants to preserve the traditions of Britain as much as it can.
And speaking of the traditions of Britain, there is always the example of the
Monarchy. This centrepiece of the British state has been in crisis since 1990,
and yet has been consistently backed up by the Labour Party, which has urged
it to modernise. The Crown, traditionally, is supposed to be the idolised centre
of the state and the well of sovereignty, but is now, in practise, looking very
dishevelled indeed. However, it is revealing that in the aftermath of the death
of Diana, the 'radical' Labour Party closed ranks around the Monarchy, supported
it, and helped it to survive.
It is clear, to me at least, that the Labour Party's modus operandi for its
term in government is not to change Britain at all, but to keep it going as
long as possible, to maintain the Britishness of Britain and its fundamental
institutions, its continuity for as long as it possibly can, whilst offering
a salve of pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric.
The elites of London who vote Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative never realise
they are always voting for the same thing, but with different presentation.
All these parties stand for the propping up and conservation of a grotesquely
outmoded state barely altered, in principle, since the settlement of 1688. However,
the deep forces within Britain that are stirring, the Scottish finding themselves
and the English at last divesting themselves of their Britishness and again
considering themselves to be English, the desperate attempts of central government
to 'half-reform' the ailing, diseased carcase of the unitary state and Constitutional
Monarchy against the tide of the times, all these things show that the very
existence of Britain is under grave threat from these historical pressures,
and must, some day, come to a cataclysmic end.