I wrote a post last week about the British general election, and what it means for the idea of nationality and Britishness. Is that British idea vanishing, just like other identities that I grew up knowing about, such as Yugoslav, or Soviet, or Czechoslovak? Looking at the actual UK election results, the answer still seems to be yes, probably. The story suggests just how rapidly beliefs and concepts that seem inevitable and even eternal can change utterly: forever changes.
In the recent election, Conservatives won overwhelmingly in England, and made great strides in Wales. Wales, definitively, seems to be so merged into English identity that nothing is going to change that.
But look at Scotland. I remember the stunning day in 1967 when the Scottish National Party (SNP) actually for the first time won a seat in Parliament! Astonishing! Everyone knew that Scotland was natural Labour territory, with some Conservative and Liberal contribution. In 1966, the score was Labour 46, Conservative 20, and Liberal 5. All, of course, were national British parties, and whatever else it might be, Scotland was naturally and inevitably part of that phenomenon.
This time, the SNP won 48 seats out of a possible 59. Conservatives won just six, Liberal Democrats four, and Labour one. That’s one. If anyone ever tells you that political parties cannot actually disappear, ask Scottish Labour.
Arguably the most nervous person in Britain on Thursday night was my favorite politician on either side of the Atlantic, Scottish Conservative (and former party leader) Ruth Davidson. She is a kind of anti-Boris Johnson, at every stage negating or inverting most of his key features: she is female, gay, highly competent, seriously religious, monogamous, and by all accounts, a decent human being. (Johnson is none of the above). Ruth Davidson describes herself, disarmingly, as a “shovel-faced lesbian.” In the lead up to the election, even this very well-informed person dismissed warnings of a major SNP sweep as nonsense. She promised that if they got fifty seats, she would swim naked in Loch Ness, potentially unnerving the monster. Initial exit polls projected the SNP winning 55 seats, rather than the actual score of 48. We were that close…
What is most striking about these Scottish results is how normal and natural they seem to commentators today. Well of course, they assume, national British parties can never be more than a marginal presence in Scotland: it’s a different country with different politics. Tell that to someone fifty years ago, and they would think you were from another planet. That is how rapidly the sense of nationhood can transform. It is an interesting question just how long British governments can stave off a new independence referendum.
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, used to be utterly dominated by the (Protestant) Ulster Unionist party, which was closely affiliated with what is still technically known as the “Conservative and Unionist Party.” In 1966, Ulster’s twelve MPs comprised eleven Ulster Unionists plus one Nationalist or Catholic, and that was obviously the way God intended things, until the last syllable of recorded time. This year marked a historic landmark, as for the first time ever in Northern Ireland, traditionally Catholic and Nationalist parties actually won more seats than Unionists, by nine to eight (plus one Alliance MP).In the 1970s, it was inconceivable that the radical all-Ireland nationalist party Sinn Fein would ever become a serious voice in mainstream politics. In 2019, Sinn Fein had seven seats in Northern Ireland, compared to the Democratic Unionist eight.
As the British withdrawal deal from the European Union effectively cuts Northern Ireland loose from the rest of the United Kingdom, Unionist politics will become ever less relevant.
The news, meanwhile, correctly reported an overwhelming Conservative victory in the United Kingdom as a whole. But it was very markedly an English triumph. Of 365 Conservative seats in the final tally, 345 are in England, plus fourteen in Wales, and six in Scotland. If we just count those English Conservative seats, that would be more than enough to give a government a decisive parliamentary majority. Actually, those Conservative numbers would have been even higher if the fringe Brexit Party had not split the working class vote that was defecting from Labour. In effect, that intervention saved a fair number of Labour MPs, probably twenty or so, and specifically in the English North and Midlands.
Look at the numbers. The British Parliament has 650 seats, of which 117 are not in England. The Conservatives hold just twenty of those. A majority of those 117 non-English MPs (sixty more or less) are now pledged to challenging or ending the British union. But if we just count English seats, then the Conservatives won a victory that goes beyond anything so trivial as a landslide.
You can actually tell the story of the 2019 election as the collapse of the Labour Party in England, with the Brexit/Europe issue as the driving force. (Yes, I know Jeremy Corbyn was a cataclysm on legs). It was in large part a matter of assertive English identity, manifested most conspicuously through anti-Europeanism. Scotland is European; England, we now find, is palpably not. We call those irreconcilable differences. Can this marriage be saved?
Can Great Britain solve its English Problem?
With Scotland and Northern Ireland so tenuously attached to the union, where does that leave “British” politics, and British identity? I quote columnist Stephen Bush: “Boris Johnson occasionally likes to refer to himself as a One-Nation Conservative: but the nation he presides over may end up as just two: England and Wales.” Would it still call itself Britain? Or England-Plus? Or realistically, just England.
So yes, nations and national identities can and do vanish. And new ones are born.