FOREIGN AFFAIRS - Fintan O’Toole - FEB 21, 2023
In September 2022, the body of Queen Elizabeth was driven across Scotland from Balmoral Castle, where she died, to the royal palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. The coffin was draped in the Royal Standard of Scotland and carried by members of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, who wore tartan kilts. For the first six days after her death, the queen’s passing seemed a very Scottish affair indeed. Only then was her body flown south to London, where the rest of the United Kingdom got to show its respects.
This last journey echoed another royal passage, prompted by the death of a previous Elizabeth, that can reasonably be taken as a point of origin for the United Kingdom itself. In April 1603, King James VI of Scotland, then just 36, began a much slower ride from Edinburgh to London, where he would succeed the childless Queen Elizabeth I as James I of England and Wales. A year later, in his first address to the English Parliament, he compared the union of his two kingdoms to a marriage from which there could be no divorce: “What God hath conjoined then, let no man separate. I am the husband, and all the whole isle is my lawful wife.” Taking the hint, James’s court dramatist, William Shakespeare, wrote his most terrifying play, King Lear. It warns of all the dreadful things that can happen if a united kingdom is foolishly broken up.
Anxiety about the future of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is not new. It goes back to the beginning of the story. Yet for many British citizens, the death of Queen Elizabeth II has given a sharp new edge to these old apprehensions. The stability she embodied for so long has been, as Shakespeare might have put it, interred with her bones. Liz Truss, the prime minister whom the queen swore in two days before she died, plunged the United Kingdom almost immediately into a fiscal crisis and was gone just weeks later. Since then, the country has faced soaring energy prices, widespread strikes, and what will likely be the worst economic contraction in decades. Having abandoned Europe, the British government now finds itself not only less influential in the world but also increasingly at odds with Scotland and Northern Ireland, where large majorities voted to stay in the EU. And the monarchy, once an imposing symbol of British influence and British identity, is now the breeding ground for lurid tabloid tales of petty fratricidal wars and princes mired in scandal and enmity.
Of course, the United Kingdom has endured existential crises before. Formally inaugurated in 1707, when Scotland dissolved its own parliament and joined with England and Wales, the kingdom has grown and shrunk over the centuries, with the addition of all of Ireland in 1801 and the loss of most of it in 1922. Yet this peculiar multinational state persists. The first modern book on the topic of dissolution—The Breakup of Britain, by the brilliant Scottish socialist intellectual Tom Nairn—was published in 1977. Nairn asserted with absolute confidence, “There is no doubt that the old British state is going down.” Nearly a half century later, it is still afloat.
Although Nairn’s dire prognosis may have been premature, it could nonetheless have been quite prescient. He described the end of the United Kingdom as “a slow foundering rather than the Titanic-type disaster so often predicted”—a useful metaphor for the way the good ship Britannia now seems to be holed below the waterline. Scottish politics are now dominated by the Scottish National Party (SNP), for which leaving the kingdom is a defining mission. For the first time, Northern Ireland has lost the Protestant majority that for more than a century has formed the backbone of its union with Britain; demography alone suggests that its population will, over the coming decades, be ever more inclined toward unification with the Republic of Ireland. Even Wales, which England annexed as far back as 1284, has become increasingly distinct from it. In December, the interim report of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, established by the devolved government in Cardiff, found that current political arrangements with London are not sustainable. The commission pointed to more radical options, including the possibility of Wales becoming a fully independent country.
Most intriguing, as popular support for Brexit revealed, English voters themselves are increasingly asserting an English nationalism that was previously buried under British and imperial identities. These multiplying challenges leave the United Kingdom unsure about not just its place in the international order but also whether it can continue to be regarded as a single place. A polity that once shaped the world may no longer be able to hold its own shape.