Behind the bluster that has sought, somewhat over-anxiously, to articulate the Scottish Referendum result announced on 19th September, 2014 as being in some way “definitive”, there is an uncomfortable Unionist problem; even Unionists do not seem to believe their own story of triumph. The conventional question in Unionist media, endlessly and rhetorically repeated with the same populist gloss, amounts to the following: what is it that Yes voters do not understand about ‘No’? Indeed in a curiously perverse turning of the world upside-down, it is the losers of the Referendum that are now being accused, gratuitously, of unseemly triumphalism.
One mischievous form of answer might be to observe that given the result of the referendum, and the enduring existence of the Union; why do Unionists feel the need to ask such a question? Simon Jenkins, however has provided a more reasoned response in ‘We must heed calls for self-rule, or the union is doomed’ (Guardian, 17th December, 2014); but only to reveal Unionism’s inarticulate exasperation with the discovery of what victory actually meant; a Unionist victory which is anything but “definitive”.
Jenkins’ explanation for the Pyrrhic nature of the Unionist victory is that the referendum was not a final answer, but rather part of a process. We may think such a considered process may have required first, the rebuffed two-question referendum to provide the required momentum for appropriate, measured constitutional change that took into account the heartfelt wishes of voters (along with a reference to DevoMax), only to discover that this is just the memory of events that everyone in Westminster is now so eager to forget altogether: but rather than dwell on past Unionist blunders, let us jump ahead to the point at which Jenkins reveals where he wishes this staged process to lead: and it turns out to be DevoMax, power-sharing and, according to Jenkins, like “all big countries”, some kind of British ‘Federation’.
We may ask with some surprise, just what sort of “federation” is the UK? Of course we know the answer; for most of us did not know that the UK was actually a ‘federation’ at all (neither confederation nor federal state), or indeed that it had ever claimed to be a federal state; but rather, that quite deliberately the ‘Union’ was designed to be precisely the opposite; an “incorporating union”. For those still in doubt, the words of AV Dicey (1835-1922), Britain’s most influential constitutional lawyer of the late 19th/early 20th century from his notably, but perhaps not entirely accidentally titled, “England’s case against home rule” (1886), in which Dicey argued against Irish Home Rule, may prove usefully unambiguous:
“The federalism, again, of America or of Switzerland is the consequence of the existence of the States which make up the Federation. The United Kingdom does not consist of States.” (Ch.IV, p.53)
Dicey’s principle objections to the prospect of the innovation of federalism in Britain are nothing to do with democracy, equity or accountability, but almost wholly because of his opinion that it will produce a diminution of power; the power of Parliament, the power of England at home and abroad, the power of the British Empire. Federalism represents a “fundamental revolution” (Ch.VII, p.191) and the resistance to fundamental, federalist overhaul of the constitution is palpable.
It is however, quite remarkable the facility with which Unionists seize on Federalism as their first, and often last, favoured line of defence of the Union, as if it existed already and they did not ever really believe in ‘incorporation’ at all; only, and equally seamlessly, to adopt a contradictory position over Europe, lurching off in the opposite direction to denounce Federalism as a kind of nasty EU plot to defeat stout, hard-won British liberty. They do not even notice, that anyone else might notice, the obvious rational lacuna or the hopeless muddle.
If the UK was a ‘federation’, frankly in Scotland we probably wouldn’t be in this mess; but then, it wouldn’t be ‘Britain’ either, would it? Leaving Unionist blunders and non-sequiturs aside however, let us allow Jenkins to develop the idea of the Referendum as a “process”, in order to discover his ultimate destination:
“That process is clearly one of ever greater separation for the component parts of the United Kingdom, a separation that was obvious from the day in 1921 when Ireland began to dismantle the “first British empire”. It did so not because Irish people really wanted it, but because the London government was so incompetent at regional autonomy”.
Ah, history! It is unfortunate perhaps that Jenkins’ most obvious problem, as we try to sew together the disparate thoughts he has scattered so indulgently around his article, is that he does not appear to understand the implications of his own position, or the reason that ‘London Government’ has been, throughout its history; so obtuse, so obdurate, so hapless that it continually loses (forever) what Jenkins believes is part of ‘itself’; and yet, it cannot change, or learn from history, or prevent itself from making the same mistake over, and over, and over again…. ….: which leaves us to muse whether the Union is perpetually living out the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog?
In order to understand the can of worms he has so determinedly opened, Jenkins perhaps should have first read the brilliant historian Richard Bourke on the nature of the underlying problem of “autonomy”, “history”, “empire” and British government, which Bourke addressed with magisterial clarity in his Historical Journal paper, ‘Pocock and the Presuppositions of the New British History’ (2010). What Bourke reveals in this paper; a contribution that should be of far wider interest than professional historians alone, if not required reading for all (including Simon Jenkins); is the reason why Britain never, ever manages to solve Jenkins’ problem of autonomy, but instead seems to this reader fated to play out the destructive role of the Scorpion in the fable; and it appears now, to play it to the end of history.
Bourke deconstructs the ‘New British History’ thesis in a historical context that, conveniently for us, reflects the unintended political consequences of Jenkins’ 1921 starting-point in Ireland; the fall of Stormont in March, 1972. Within Britain, this 1972 outcome produced what Bourke refers to as ‘Ulsterization’, by which is intended a generic term describing British Imperial history, and thus is a mere identifier of a particular historical process. Ulsterization for Bourke is therefore not a phenomenon peculiar to Ulster, or to one period in British history, or to one place; rather it is a political phenomenon distinctive in British history, or more precisely the phenomenon of Ulsterization reveals the underlying nature of Britain itself.
The process of Ulsterization is typically best seen and described in periods of British imperial retrenchment affecting settler societies, from Northern Ireland to New Zealand, from the 18th to the 20th century: but a process that falls outside the scope of contractual theories of government. Ulsterization represents a one-sided exchange, a non-reciprocal commitment in which an asymmetrical relationship is formed between supplicant periphery and imperial centre, in which the settler-society expresses its loyalty (to Britain or Empire) in terms of what Bourke describes as being essentially a “unilateral pact of submission”.
We may, I think, suggest that Jenkins is not proposing Ulsterization as the solution for Scotland. Perhaps his position, as exemplified by his remarks about Ireland, is closer to the New British History, which in Pocock’s hands pursues a historical understanding of the development of British citizenship (‘civic virtue’ for Pocock, albeit in an Empire of ‘subjects’) on an imperial, global canvas, and in critical response to the end of Empire and the threat of an Europeanisation programme to British autonomy that followed accession to the EU (EEC) in 1973; if it is also neo-Seeleyan, then that was Pocock’s own characterisation, in reference to the historian JR Seeley (1834-95), in such works as The Expansion of England (1883). Seeley sought a deeper union, a meaningful commonwealth across the Empire. He wrote in ‘The Expansion of England’:
“What is the good of colonies ? That question implies that we think of a colony, not as part of our State, but as a possession belonging to it. For we should think it absurd to raise such a question about a recognised part of the body politic. Who ever thought of inquiring whether Cornwall or Kent rendered any sufficient return for the money which we lay out upon them, whether those counties were worth keeping?” (p.74)
Seeley did not consider ‘Greater Britain’ (a phrase borrowed from Dilke, but not the latter’s idea of ‘Saxondom’; a reminder however that late-19th century British intellectual life became awash with the unfortunate, abrasive, hubris-laced, late-Darwinist folly of eugenics) to be an Empire, but “a vast English nation”; a concept not without its dangers, which his own choice of words did not always avoid. He was however, acutely aware of imperial failure, the loss of the American colonies; drawing the lesson from such experiences that an enduring Empire would require to develop the idea of mutual respect in order to prosper. The capacity to develop a new, evolving relationship between province or colony and imperial centre, which Bourke describes in adaptive, evolutionary terms, sought to discover a new sense of a ‘Greater Britain’ emerging from the dynamics of such exchanges that at least potentially seem to transcend an otherwise commonplace British nation-state.
There is something nostalgic, almost melancholic about the New British History’s neo-Seeleyism. For Bourke, it seems that Pocock presents a dialectical view of Britain in which the development of an imperial Great Britain through a process of anglicised assimilation dynamically produces a countervailing reaction against anglo-assimilation among settler communities or provinces, rather than one-way submission; something actually different from the British original, or of Ulsterization is possible; a synthesis – a Greater Britain, a higher, trans-oceanic calling. Let us call this synthesis (to use Bourke’s words) a compromise or stalemate, because the synthesis stands for an underlying tension; and behind the tension there is always a stark binary option threatening to end it; independence for the settler, ‘cut-and-run’ for the Imperial centre. The New British History struggles to account for the resilience of the expectation of Imperial assimilation and anglicisation, the demand for submission, or the facility, increasingly over time, the alacrity with which the Empire withdrew. Resistance to complete assimilation (or perhaps this was settler society reaction to a lack of ‘central’ vision or at least of an attractive, compelling or competent approach to assimilation) led to the reversal of 1776, the violent and sudden loss of America.
We may also think of other ways resistance to assimilation was displayed; more typical of imperial priorities when confronted by a challenge to authority than the United States precedent, perhaps, is the slow leakage towards an uncontested separation by the ‘old’ colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand); characteristically if perhaps perversely viewed from the British perspective, as the line of least imperial resistance – withdrawal. This response is perhaps what the Empire chose to learn from the bitter blow of 1776; at least in the American or Australasian continents. Adam Smith acknowledged that accepting the loss of America was the sensible solution. We may notice that his equanimity on the matter was notably remarkable for being maintained, in the midst of, and in spite of the fact that, the Tobacco Lords of Glasgow (the transatlantic Banks or Hedge Funds of their day, with financial risks and profits to match) were confronted by the American tobacco planters seizing the opportunity presented by revolution, to default on their huge debts to Glasgow, overnight.
Hume subscribed vigorously to the same opinion as Smith; indeed his radicalism on this matter, his support for the Revolutionaries, albeit permeated with his philosophical scepticism, was an inspiration for Madison, Jay and Hamilton in ‘The Federalist Papers’ (1788); which ends the final paper with an anonymous quotation from Hume’s ‘Essays’ and a tribute to the unnamed writer as “a lesson of moderation to all sincere lovers of the Union”. This fulsome tribute has already left concern for Imperial objections to the American Revolution far behind in the ozymandian dust of a forgotten history; Madison and his colleagues use the wisdom of Hume in this peroration to counter the threat of factionalism among the individual States of the new Union. Hume would have enjoyed the irony, had he lived to see it.
It was Home Rule in Ireland, but Home Rule in principle, that undermined Seeley’s argument, and it was only when the issue of Home Rule was raised close to home that the implicit nature of Greater Britain’s limitations, the narrow interpretation of the imperialist venture, hiding behind the vanity of ‘assimilation’ or the euphemism of ‘withdrawal’, was given explicit form. In Dicey’s take on incommensurability in ‘England’s case against home rule’, he states baldly that:
“I entertain the firmest conviction that any scheme for Home Rule in Ireland involves dangerous if not fatal innovations on the Constitution of Great Britain.” (Preface, p.4)
The book that followed is a 311 page explanation of his reasons for this uncompromising position. There are no compromises in Dicey’s constitution: it is either Ulsterization or independence (withdrawal). At its heart this is a statement about power, drafted by the hand of a lawyer rather than engaged by the mind of a broader thinker of human nature or of the dynamics of human or institutional engagement, and certainly not written by a philosopher:
“Under all the formality, the antiquarianism, the shams of the British constitution, there lies latent an element of power which has been the true source of its life and growth. This secret source of strength is the absolute omnipotence, the sovereignty, of Parliament.” (Ch.VII, p.168)
The thought is not free of illusions, but the word “sham” is not used carelessly. The constitution is a sham; the reality is “latent”. For Dicey sovereignty is absolute:
“Hence, it has been well said by the acutest of foreign critics that the merit of the English constitution is that it is no constitution at all…. …. Thus freedom has in England been found compatible at crises of danger with an energy of action generally supposed to be peculiar to despotism. The source of strength is, in fact, in each case the same. The sovereignty of Parliament is like the sovereignty of the Czar. It is like all sovereignty at bottom, nothing else but unlimited power;” (Ch.VII, p.169)
I will pass no further comment on the precise meaning of the tem “unlimited”, save to offer some level of mild scepticism about its operational efficacy. The problem such a statement makes for a statesman in the real world, and in a retreating Empire is simple; how do you craft a constitutional compromise with a province intent on Home Rule or independence, from a position of relative weakness, in a constitution that does not recognise the issue? It is easier simply to reduce the state and maintain the constitution than to meet the challenge. Or to express this differently; an Empire has been won and lost and the constitution is unchanged. For the constitutional lawyer nothing has changed, and there is nothing to see; but perhaps Hamlet provides an illuminating insight into the prospects for such a static, inert State; “I could be bounded by a nut-shell, and count myself a king of infinite space”.
Diceyism is not consonant with Pocock’s neo-Seeleyian, Harringtonian vision, but at the same time the New British History cannot account adequately for the authenticity, the persistence, the implicit authority of Dicey’s relentless emphasis on the integrity of Westminster sovereignty, or for its dogged resilience long after Dicey’s death. Ironically on the same issue of Ireland, neither could Seeley; indeed he seems to have crossed the floor and joined Dicey; Seeley opposed Irish Home Rule and defended the Imperial status quo on Irish independence, and received an approving letter from Dicey for his efforts; they even appeared together on the same Liberal Unionist platform. With Ireland, Seeley’s vision of Greater Britain begins to unravel. The sham consitution survives intact; but everyone else, save England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Falklands and a few other isolated dependencies known to few outside the FCO, has simply left.
The British “imperial secret” is thus finally revealed by Dicey: Bourke argues that when the decisive crisis between peripehery and imperial centre arises, in Britain’s case, and in contradistinction with the Roman Empire, where the Imperial destiny and the affairs of the provinces are deemed inseparable, in the case of Imperial Britain the security of government is promptly disengaged from the affairs of the provinces. What is finally and alone inviolate is Westminster sovereignty. This is what is meant by British exceptionalism.
Britannia leaving Hong Kong with the Heir to the Throne and the Governor of Hong Kong on board was an extraordinary, solemn and very British ritual; unconsciously celebrating the continuity of this detached, sovereign Lesser Britain. In the end Britannia always sails away from its dependencies and into the sunset, when these possessions can no longer be identified as ‘dependent’. The faint, etiolated reverse-image of Britannia steaming away from Hong Kong is of a ghostly, remote, swashbuckling, privateer-adventurer opportunistically seizing a new British possession over the heads of bewildered inhabitants: finally and theatrically, rich in symbolism, Britannia rings down the curtain on empire. The escape and return home have been negotiated, content in the knowledge that Westminster sovereignty has been rescued, intact and unblemished by the collapse of empire.
The gloss is provided to the world, and to the British people that for British colonial possessions this is the constitutional analogy of ‘growing-up’; the condescending and complacent view that the Mother of Parliaments knows best how, when, and who to let go. The critical sub-text however is that in Lesser Britain the only alternative to ‘withdrawal’ is Ulsterization. Great Britain, it seems, is an evolutionary dead-end. All that seems left now is the slow death of Lesser Britain, from the inside-out.