2007 - 2021

Brexit: Britain’s end of empire and Scotland’s constitutional moment

brittaniaThe Sun Finally Sets

Some supporters of Scottish independence have hailed the Brexit vote as the ‘beginning of the end’ for the United Kingdom. Of course, it is nothing of the sort. The beginning of the end happened long ago. This present crisis is pretty much the end of the end, the culmination of a period of imperial decline and disintegration.

It probably began in 1947, when the retreat of the British Raj from India demonstrated the ultimate futility of military power in the face of a sustained non-violent popular liberation movement. Yet much of the world was still a reassuringly imperial shade of pink. Ceylon and Pakistan were still Dominions. Cultural, institutional and economic links with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were still strong. The African, Mediterranean, Caribbean and South Pacific colonies were still some way away from independence and, while elected devolved legislatures had been established almost everywhere, their powers were limited by appointed Governors responsible to the Secretary of State in London.

The Empire was gradually evolving into the Commonwealth, but the values and assumptions of the Empire, and of the British-Imperial ruling class, remained firmly in place. The British-Imperial state had won two world wars through its unique ability to coordinate collective efforts under elitist – but ultimately democratically responsible – leadership. It now turned its attention to running the NHS, the Welfare State, and nationalized industries, confident in the superiority of its historically evolved institutions and in its implicit values of duty and public service.
This was the world into which Theresa May was born in 1956. It is the world to which many Brexiteers look back with fondness and nostalgia – as if, having left the European Union, the United Kingdom could somehow go back to being a global empire. But that ship has not only sailed, it has sunk.

The Suez Crisis proved that the UK, whatever it still was, was no longer an imperial power. By the 1960s, countries were achieving independence in succession almost too brisk to keep count of: Nigeria in 1960; Jamaica in 1962; Kenya in 1963; Malta in 1964; Gambia in 1965, Botswana in 1966. For the most part, it was a peaceful, orderly, process. National elites were co-opted into negotiations. Shiny new Constitutions were drafted, most of them to a Colonial Office template. Independence Acts were passed in Westminster. Across the globe, British flags went down, Royal Marine bands played for one last time, and new national flags went up – fluttering joyfully in the warm ‘Winds of Change’.

Back home, these winds brought a foul backdraft of post-imperial miasma. The British State was formed and forged by empire, for empire. Without an imperial project to unite it, Britain had lost its purpose, ethos and identity. Self-delusion and denial followed. The multi-national British State – with had its origins in a series of ‘Unions’, not unlike those by which ancient Rome had once united Italy under its leadership – was slowly beginning to unravel.

Britain’s Constitutional Crisis

The Scots, of course, had always recognized the multi-national nature of the Union. As seen by Scottish elites, the United Kingdom was not a ‘Unitary state’, but a composite ‘Union-state’, entered into by Treaty for certain common purposes. An appreciation of this distinction marks the crucial difference between Scottish Unionism and an Anglo-centric view of British Nationalism. Scottish nationhood – and even a residual kernel, though obscured, of Scottish statehood – was preserved by the Union, within the wider framework of a global British imperial system.

Darien disasters and handsome bribes aside, Scotland entered into the Union in 1707 primarily in order to share in this emerging imperial system. With poor soil, mountainous terrain and an atrocious climate, Scotland’s elites knew they could not attain prosperity and plenty through agrarian self-sufficiency. During the four centuries of Scotland’s political independence, international trade, especially with the Baltic, Scandinavia and the Low Countries, had been recognised as essential for economic success. By the early 18th century, with England as the rising mercantile and seafaring power, the Union enabled Scotland to participate in the imperial project and thereby avoid geopolitical and economic isolation. The Union allowed Scotland be part of a larger common market, with freedom of trade and travel, with all the opportunities that provided.

union_jack_british_flag_postcard-p239557016442345309envli_400English and Anglo-British elites were slower, however, to recognise the multi-national, and essentially conditional, nature of the Union. In response to the unexpected rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism in the late 1960s, the Kilbrandon Commission offered only some half-baked regionalism. It failed to get to the root of the fact that, without an empire to hold it together, the United Kingdom was a Union which had no purpose or future, only a past.

The problem of post-imperial Britain is, at root, a constitutional one. Every other country in Europe stopped at least once between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries to have some sort of national conversation, to try to reach consensus about basic rules and principles, and to write these down in a Constitution. The United Kingdom never did. While our governments concerned themselves with the affairs of a global empire, nation-building and state-building efforts within the ‘home nations’ were, at best, partial and sketchy.

The basic institutional founding of the British-Imperial state took place between the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and the Union of 1707. Since then, there has been some incremental reform and an expansion of the franchise, but no fundamental re-constitutionalisation of the State. We did not have a Jacobin revolution in the 1790s, or a liberal-nationalist revolution in 1848 revolution, a collapse of the old order after the First World War, or a social democratic constitutional refoundation after 1945.

So the opportunity never arose for a return to first principles which would have enabled us – perhaps through a specially elected Constituent Assembly – to address such questions as ‘Who are we?’, ‘What do we hold in common? ‘What do we stand for, and what will we not stand for?’, ‘What rights and liberties are of paramount importance?’, ‘How should we govern ourselves?’, ‘How shall we prevent the abuse of power’ and ‘What process should we have for reassessing these things from time to time?’

Instead of addressing these fundamental constitutional issues, the UK muddled through on the twin pillars of parliamentary sovereignty (which means that a government with a majority in Parliament can do whatever it likes) and unwritten convention (which means that all the other rules are made up as we go along, interpreted and enforced by the government of the day, bound only by the constraints of political expediency). A thin and minimal democracy was grudgingly tolerated by the UK’s ruling class, but the principles of constitutionalism and popular sovereignty never were.

For a long time it was argued that, whatever theoretical objections to this absurd system of parliamentary absolutism might be, in practice it worked tolerably well. The rules of the game, although vague, esoteric, implicit and unenforceable, were known and generally respected by a governing class which, for all its other faults, had a sense of public duty, responsibility, and propriety. Where other countries had written Constitutions, supreme courts and checks and balances, the UK had pragmatism rooted in tradition and restrained by a sense of fair play. However loose the written rules might be, some things were simply ‘not cricket’.

The deferential public, used to doffing hats and tugging forelocks since the Norman conquest, was for the most part content go along with this (the few radical agitators not content with it were hanged, transported to Australia, mown-down by the yeomanry, or vilified by the press).
All that, for good or ill, has gone. Whatever validity it might have had during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the ‘Good Chaps’ theory of government no longer holds. It is not just that the rules are flouted with impunity, but that no one really knows what the rules are anymore, or indeed whether they still exist at all. Developed haphazardly in the age of the steam train and the empire, and suited only for gentlemanly politics and a deferential people, the sloppy mess of unwritten rules seem hardly seems fit for the fractured, tense, multi-national UK of today.

The people by whom we are governed today might belong to the same privileged class as their forefathers, but they have all of their vices and none of their virtues. What once could portray itself as a relatively benign aristocracy has yielded to a crass, greedy and shameless oligarchy. The rich and powerful still see politics as a game for schoolboys, but it is more like illicit gambling than cricket. They gamble recklessly with your job prospects and wages, with your parents’ care in old age, and with your children’s education. They play banker and dealer, and they have loaded the dice. These are not the sort of people that you want to be able to make up the rules as they go along. They are not the sort to be trusted with absolute power.

The United Kingdom faces a double constitutional crisis. On the one hand, it cannot recognize its own multinational character and has not been able to reconstitute itself in a way that allows for the equality of the nations within it. On the other, it is stuck with a political system which has become dangerously corrupt, aloof, and undemocratic. Brexit – the decision by England and Wales to isolate themselves, while Scotland wishes to remain in the European Union – is a symptom of the first crisis. The Chilcot report – evidence of bad decisions made by unaccountable and unrestrained power at the centre of the British state – of the second.

These two crises cannot be treated in isolation. The most far-reaching response so far to emerge to this double crisis is a new ‘Act of Union bill’, proposed by a cabal of Westminster worthies led by a Conservative Peer and calling themselves the ‘Constitutional Reform Group’. In so far as this plan for ‘home rule all-round’ would transfer a greater range of powers to the four constituent parts of the UK, it might be cautiously welcomed. However, the bill steadfastly refuse to address the wider and deeper aspects of the UK’s unfolding constitutional crisis: the unrepresentative electoral system, the shadowy and unaccountable crown prerogatives, the fragile protection for human rights, the murky that results from reliance on unwritten rules, and the collapse of both political ethics and public trust. It might have been an adequate patch had it been proposed a decade or more ago, but the time for such partial and piecemeal solutions is over.

A choice between two unions

Indeed, it might well be that the time for any solution to the UK’s constitutional crises has passed. From 19 Sept 2014, when Scotland quite narrowly decided, for the time being, not to become independence, to 24 June 2016, when Scotland decided rather more emphatically to remain in the European Union, I thought it might have at least theoretically possible to come up with a new confederal constitution for the UK, failing that some sort of ‘Home Rule with Full Fiscal Autonomy’ arrangement. This might have provided the sort of life-extending surgical treatment that the 1867 ‘Compromise’ provided for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

No doubt many Scottish citizens would still prefer to remain part of both the UK and the EU. There are some very innovative proposals in circulation, such as the so-called ‘reverse Greenland’ option, or the plan set forth in the ‘Dalriada Document’ for simply excluding England and Wales (but not Scotland or Northern Ireland) from the European Treaties. These could in theory provide a way of making it possible for Scotland to remain in both the UK and the EU, and the First Minister is right to explore all these options.

However, there are intractable questions of statehood and sovereignty to be resolved and it is hard to envisage any solution that would protect Scotland’s place in the EU while also being acceptable to the UK Government. For example, a reverse Greenland solution would require Scotland and Northern Ireland to jointly take responsibility for making appointments to, and representing the UK in, European institutions, meaning that the UK Government – with responsibility for foreign policy – would have no say in the UK’s European affairs. Given the emphasis placed by English lawyers and Westminster politicians on parliamentary sovereignty, and their in transient aversion to a proper written Constitutions in which powers are shared across the home nations, I do not see how that could be feasible. At most, Scotland’s influence within the UK might be able to secure a ‘soft’ Brexit (an outcome that keeps the UK within the European Economic Area rather than ‘hard’ Brexit that burns all bridges), but that is not likely to be acceptable to the hardline Brexit camp, and is in any case not what Scotland voted for.

So, once all these options have been explored and rejected, we will have to face a straight choice between two Unions. Scotland’s next referendum should be framed in a way that makes that choice explicitly clear. The irony of the situation is that the very same impulses of trade and opportunity, and a desire to avoid isolation, which drove Scotland into the Union with England will drive us out of it.

Reaching and reassuring

The stable cosmopolitan UK that people voted for in 2014 no longer exists. This changes everything. In 2014, those favouring independence could plausibly be portrayed as ‘risky separatists’, while those opposing independence could present themselves both as broad-horizoned internationalists and as cautious pragmatic defenders of the status quo. That is no longer the case.

Scottish independence was then primarily attractive to the social democratic left, who wanted less austerity, a more solidaristic set of domestic policies, and the protection of public services. This package was attractive to the working class, who had been disappointed by the anemic performance of Blair and Brown. But the middle class, if not entirely unsympathetic, remained mostly unconvinced. Scottish independence now has to potential to be become attractive, too, to the Whiggish element of Scotland’s middle and upper classes. It can appeal to the liberal-cosmopolitan Guardian readers, to those who can speak passable French and to those who are more likely to buy jamon iberico from Waitrose than a macaroni pie from Greggs.

Members of this key demographic are now open as never before to being convinced of the case for Scottish independence. But convince them, it will be necessary to provide a series of reassurances – on pensions, on the currency, and on general economic stability. These people do not necessarily want the sort of radical change that the more ambitious Yessers advocated in 2014. They want, above all, to know that things will not get worse, and that independence will save them – and their precious five-bed houses, golf club memberships and holidays in Tuscany – from the carnage of Brexit.
This is where the constitutional question once again becomes relevant. In 2014, it was far too easy for the opponents of independence to portray an independent Scotland as a state of and for nationalists, or as a sort of SNP-only state. The Scottish Government unfortunately and unwittingly colluded in this by setting out a prospectus for the new state which was in essence a manifesto for government. In other words, they created the impression that voting for independence was one and the same as voting for Alex Salmond and the SNP forever.

That mistake must not be made again. If there is to be a Scottish state, it must be a state for all Scottish citizens – rich and poor, male and female, native-born and immigrant, socialist, liberal and conservative. Only a sound constitutional foundation, based on a written constitution that reflects the sovereignty of the whole community of the realm, and cannot easily be amended by the government of the day or the incumbent parliamentary monarchy, can provide this. Only a constitution can establish a common set of ground-rules, principles and institutions that transcend differences of party and of policy.

A broad, inclusive, cross-party constitutional process, including civil society, offers the best hope for creating a new Scottish state in which liberty, justice, stability and good government are extended to all citizens.

Comments (66)

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  1. Andrew Morton says:

    Good thoughtful article which should be widely read.

  2. baronesssamedi says:

    Enjoyable account of the state we’re in. I hope it’s read widely and acted on.

  3. Broadbield says:

    I buy my JAMÓN DE BELLOTA IBÉRICO from a producer in a small village in Extremadura. Black pigs fed on acorns, ham sliced almost transparently thin. Excellent – like this article. A constitution is key as is a road map for a better, more democratic Scotland (lets explore some alternatives to Representative Democracy and elections) and with greater equality for all at its core.

    1. C Rober says:

      I use mine in browning onions for my 4 cheese MacAroni Forno with sundried tomatoes …. , with petit pois dressed in Acorean Butter , Patata Fritos done in East Coast cold pressed rapeseed , then sprinkled with Flor de sal flavoured with smoked Hungarian paprike and a drizzle of Balsamico. Works with chorizo too. Now If only I could wrap it all up and then deep fry it.

      1. Broadbield says:

        I can recommend the Pimenton de la Vera, genuine smoked paprika from Extremadura, available in 3 varieties, Dulce, Agridulce and Picanto. Must experiment with the deep frier.

  4. R Mundra says:

    Great article, beautifully put.
    Pedantic point: India & Pakistan achieved independence simultaneously in 1947.

    1. Elliot Bulmer says:

      They became independent at the same time, with dominion status like Canada. But whereas India became a republic very quickly (by 1950), Ceylon and Pakistan remained dominions, with the Queen as head of state, for several years.

  5. Edward Harkins says:

    I stopped reading this piece after the rather cod history at the start. Leaving aside the debatable question to whether there is ever a ‘beginning’ in the progress of history, there is also a great conflation of ‘the United Kingdom’ and ‘The Empire’ and ‘The Commonwealth’ and something cited as ‘the British-Imperial state’. There is no ‘probably’ that the end of the United Kingdom began in 1947. The confusion on that point is emphasised by the reference to 1947 being about ‘the retreat of the British Raj from India’. That suggests a lack of understanding about the period and meaning of the Raj in India. There is also an insufficient recognition that the withdrawal in 1947 was not at base about, ‘the futility of military power in the face of a sustained non-violent popular liberation movement’. It was arguably at least as much about the United Kingdom’s inability to resource the necessary scale of military force. The United Kingdom was bankrupt after WW2. This inability was especially so given what had been a slow but perceptible rise in military resistance among pro-independence Indian entities (there was also the still little examined interface between erstwhile British Indian Army servicemen and the INA and the Asia-invading Japanese in WW2). The (ironically) anti-Imperialist USA was a political force towards withdrawal, with an expansionist USSR in the ascendancy. No part of the world after India’s liberation was truly ‘still a reassuringly imperial shade of pink’. Churchill had recognised and proclaimed India as ‘the jewel in the Empire’. He was right, but also was rightly ridiculed at the time as an imperialist dinosaur. With India gone, the withdrawal and dismantling of the Empire was an evident and accelerating business. The Suez crisis 10 years later made clear to all the world that any notions of UK quasi-Imperial adventurism were wholly gone (again ironically, with the USA a major catalyst in this).

    1. James Henry says:

      Pity you stopped reading it, otherwise your criticism might have been valid.

      1. Edward Harkins says:

        Pity you are sarcastic, and unjustified in what you opine. My criticism was made, and made appropriately. My criticism was specifically about the material that I read at the start of the piece. I was clear and open about the at material being why I did not read the rest of the piece – on which I therefore offered no criticism.

    2. nick says:

      i would say the retreat from empire happened in 1916-1917 when the uk became a net debtor (to the good old us of a) rather than a net creditor in the world – by then we had sold all our assets abroad (to the yanks) at cut-down prices (we had no choice and they knew it) for war materials and food supplies…its like that old humbug – when did the middle class attain political ascendancy over the aristos’s – was it marked by the 1832 reform act or by the 1848 repeal of the corn laws? (corn being of interest to aristos as free trade was to sections of the middle class)…i.e. what is more fruitful for a historian to study – politics or economics? (economics obviously!)

      1. nick says:

        of course the sleight of hand contained in my argument is the hypostasis of ‘aristo’ and ‘middle-class’ as congealed identifiable exclusive groups…

        in the maelstrom of history these groups interpenetrated and separated and mixed according to conjunctures and fashions as the conditions themselves underwent transformations…

    3. Ian Vallance says:

      With hindsight The British Empire was doomed when it entered the WW1. It was WW1 that Bankrupt the UK and effectively entirely ended the Age of Empires. WW2 was merely the last act.

      1. K. A. Mylchreest says:

        It seems to me then that between the wars the UK/British Empire was rather like the cartoon character who walks unknowingly over a cliff-edge but fails to fall until he happens to look down. The WWI debt provided the starting conditions, but it seems the trap wasn´t sprung until after WWII, when the empire actually did start to fall apart.

        1. Broadbield says:

          And Suez showed where power truly lay, ever since when the UK has been the USA’s willing poodle. Only Harold Wilson refused to fetch when the US misadventure in Vietnam beckoned.

    4. K. A. Mylchreest says:

      Thank you for the added detail and correction re. Pakistan, but on the whole you seem to be agreeing with the writer.

    5. John S Warren says:

      I believe there were excellent points raised both by Mr Bulmer in his article and by Mr Harkins in his response. It is therefore unfortunate that Mr Harkins chooses, a little gratuitously if I may say, to begin with the provocative observation “I stopped reading this piece after the rather cod history at the start.” While Mr Harkins is particularly sweeping in his criticisms of (notably a very select part of) Mr Bulmer’s piece, he replaces them with a case that notably relies on such unassertive terms as “arguably”: indeed.

      There was lively debate issuing from this article, but the tone of Mr Harkins’ comment introduced what I felt was a completely unnecessary element of friction. I make this point only because it is a habit that is all too often followed, and always produces the same effect; more heat than light.

  6. Wul says:

    Good article and good points about our lack of a constitution and adult debate about what we want from our country ( both UK & Scotland).

    Community groups can’t even apply for a cooncil grant without a written constitution, yet we try to run a union of kingdoms for 60 million folk without one.

  7. Amanda Lothian says:

    snobbish and short sighted

  8. ben madigan says:

    it’s not up to the scottish nationalists or the irish nationalists/republicans in northern ireland to make the decision – they have already decided. it’s up to the unionists. so which is it to be?
    political or economic union?
    UK vs EU?
    The margins of a failing political union vs An independent country with all the powers, that takes its place among the nations of the earth?


    1. Doubting Thomas says:

      Thought that choice had already been made by the Scottish people in 2014.

  9. ben madigan says:

    forgot to add – there’s also a little issue of Westminster/Unionist bullying The UK held a referendum on EU membership with no hindrance or obstacle – despite Brexit, Scotland and northern ireland (who voted against it) are being refused a referendum or border poll on whether they want to remain in the UK


  10. Alf Baird says:

    Meanwhile, the ‘British-Imperial state’ is busy making sure its elite unionist centurions continue to remain in charge of all key public institutions in Scotland (i.e. civil service, police, military, courts, parliament corporate body etc etc). Whitehall retains a tight grip on the ‘strategic internal colony’, no matter which talking heads sit in Holyrood.

    1. Alex Beveridge says:

      Don’t forget the Establishment’s control of the M.S.M either Alf. Possibly the most important tool in their box of nasty tricks. When the official date of the next Scottish Independence Referendum is announced, the opprobrium unleashed on the Yes campaign, if indeed that is what is to be called, will be like nothing seen before, because they, Westminster, are ruthlessly determined to hold onto their cash-cow which is Scotland, especially since their departure from the E.U will leave them in desperate financial straits.

      1. Alf Baird says:

        Thanks Alex, aye the BBC/msm etc keep us ‘informed’, or rather indoctrinated with the supposed benefits of all things British. The UK’s managerial/colonisation ‘strategy’ has intensified over the past 10-15 years I believe, not unexpected given the rise of the SNP and real ‘threat’ of independence, though this is nothing new really – see this nugget below from the latest report of National Registers of Scotland: http://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/files//statistics/rgar/2015/rgar-2015.pdf

        “..in every decade except the 1920s, there was significant net migration of English-born people of working age into Scotland. In 1911 a quarter of men employed in mining, metal manufacturing and engineering in Scotland had been born in England or Wales. So had more than 2,700 men in professional and related activities, over 4,200 men in the commercial sector, more than 1,100 women school teachers and 574 men employed in printing and lithography. This pattern of skilled and professional migration into as well as out of Scotland has continued to the present day. The 1991 Census of Scottish recorded over 22,000 English born ‘corporate managers and administrators’, over 9,600 science and engineering professionals, 11,780 teaching professionals, over 14,900 clerical workers and around 10,000 men employed in iron and steel, electrics and electronics and other engineering employment (Watson 2002: 38-39). If life was that much worse north of the border, why did they come? ”

        Why indeed.

        1. C Rober says:

          I have been looking for the resulting one from 2011 , strangely its not as open source without directly asking for it , those of you in the lecturing realm will no doubt be able to get this data easy enough.

          Would be a correlation for sure to the higher average of no voters in certain locales , keen to suckle from the Westminster teet reserved for services to QAC.

  11. Alan says:

    Entertaining and you make a strong point about the need for a proper constitution that represents the broader social interest. However, one has to wonder if you have read the Guardian or its comments sections recently if you imagine their readers are mostly liberal and cosmopolitan.

  12. Haideng says:

    Where to start with this populist non history? let’s try the beginning (with the caveat that this is not a defense of the British Empire, just an appreciation of nuanced and contested history.

    ‘It probably began in 1947, when the retreat of the British Raj from India demonstrated the ultimate futility of military power in the face of a sustained non-violent popular liberation movement.’

    1) No it didn’t begin in 1947. The first overseas crown territory to be returned was Weihai in China. Governor Reginald Johnson second to commissioner Sir James Haldane Stewart Lockhart (clue to his nationality is in the name) – Ex Edinburgh Uni Scot (Peter O toole in Bertollucci’s Last Emperor), decided in 1906 ish that it should be returned to China – and oversaw the return in 1930. Problem was the Chinese and certainly the Weihai folk didn’t want it back. They were doing nicely out of the British a) the trade b) the infrastructure – hospitals, roads, judicial system c) the stability – after the collapse of the Qing and then Republican govts, the country, especially Shandong was plagued by bandit warlords. So every time the British tried to give it back no one would take it and hence the port was leased by the Chinese for another ten years to the Royal Navy after 1930 to stop those pesky Japanese in Manchuria over the way invading. Didn’t stop them ultimately. And with neat symmetry the final overseas possession was returned was Hong Kong. That was when the sun finally set.

    2) It is one of the enduring myths of left liberals (of which I am one) that Indian independence was all about Ghandi. ‘He’ may have pursued non violence but the overall independence movement consistently used forced and terror tactics, against the British – assasintation, bombing, armed struggle, also against Sikhs and Muslims – violent Hindu nationalism is still alive and well. After 47 during partition 1 million died in the ensuing violence.

    ‘Ceylon and Pakistan were still Dominions’ ?????

    1) Pakistan was created OUT of India in 47 AFTER the British left.

    ‘Cultural, institutional and economic links with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were still strong.’

    1) I think you will find they still are??

    ‘The British State was formed and forged by empire, for empire. Without an imperial project to unite it, Britain had lost its purpose, ethos and identity. Self-delusion and denial followed. The multi-national British State – with had its origins in a series of ‘Unions’, not unlike those by which ancient Rome had once united Italy under its leadership – was slowly beginning to unravel’

    1) Maybe so, but ALL modern states (European and Asian and some African nations (multi national kingdoms) were also forged by Empire. Italy, Germany (remember Bismark, France, China, Japan, Vietnam, Zulu nation, Yoroba, all multiple Swahilli speaking co federations, Turkey, Russia…get the picture. Pressumably by your logic then all nations should fragment in post empirial decline – that by the way is when major wars occur. In the fault lines. See the congress of Vienna and Italy – nothing to do with the Romans.

    ‘The problem of post-imperial Britain is, at root, a constitutional one. Every other country in Europe stopped at least once between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries to have some sort of national conversation, to try to reach consensus about basic rules and principles, and to write these down in a Constitution. The United Kingdom never did.’

    1) Eh???? UK never had a national convo? Really – apart from a ref in 79, incremental devolution, the good friday agreement, the creation of the Supreme Court…pretty sure we had a ref on Independence also?

    2) The UK has a perpetual conversation about basic rules and principles – it’s called supremacy of Parliamentary sovereignty. It’s one of the better things about the UK IMO. You will never get consensus over basic principles that endure over time. Flexible parliamentary authority, checked and balanced by a long standing rule of law and supreme court/ privy council/ autonomous civil institutions is far better than a ‘ten commandments’ constitution. e.g) the reason why guns are still legal in the US is because 300 years ago the consensus/ basic rule was the right to bare arms. Now due to it being in the const and political attempt by the congress to change it is near impossible due to the autonomy of the supreme court and their job as guardians of the constitution. Also, constitutions in practice do not defend any rights at all. Lets play guess the constitution –

    ‘…..We, the multinational people of the…………………………, united by a common fate on our land, establishing human rights and freedoms, civic peace and accord, preserving the historically established state unity, proceeding from the universally recognized principles of equality and self-determination of peoples, revering the memory of ancestors….’

    is this a) Canada b) Norway c) Putin’s dictatorship?

    Which country’s const provides these securities????………….civil and political rights, such as freedom of expression, the right to elect officials, the right to a fair trial, and freedom of religion. It asserts the right of every citizen to work, education, food, and healthcare..’

    Is it a) South Korea b) Japan c) North Korea (seriously it is – see the pointlessness of constitutions).

    ‘The basic institutional founding of the British-Imperial state took place between the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and the Union of 1707. Since then, there has been some incremental reform and an expansion of the franchise, but no fundamental re-constitutionalisation of the State.’

    1) Total nonsense. The UK is the adaptable const in Europe due to the very fact it isn’t written. It changes every parliament through parliamentary due process – if Scotland becomes independent I sincerely hope we don’t bother with a meaningless written constitution. 3rd amendment – all citizens have the right to sing caledonia.

    ”’to address such questions as ‘Who are we?’, ‘What do we hold in common? ‘What do we stand for, and what will we not stand for?’, ‘What rights and liberties are of paramount importance?’, ‘How should we govern ourselves?’, ‘How shall we prevent the abuse of power’ and ‘What process should we have for reassessing these things from time to time?’’

    1) Erm did you miss the bit when the EHCR was signed up to? How about the UK Supreme court? that pesky institution that enacts and guards ECHR in Scotland that the SNP wanted to abolish in favour of a Scottish bill of rights (all very Tory eh). The process is called parliamentary democracy and a separate legal system.

    ‘….Instead of addressing these fundamental constitutional issues, the UK muddled through on the twin pillars of parliamentary sovereignty (which means that a government with a majority in Parliament can do whatever it likes) and unwritten convention (which means that all the other rules are made up as we go along, interpreted and enforced by the government of the day, bound only by the constraints of political expediency)…’

    Total nonsense again. See the UK supreme court ruling against the snoopers charter. Even if EHCR was left, there would still be a Bill of Rights that superceded Parliamentary Sovereignty. And again it’s pointless arguing which is better a) a constitution b) Parlaimentary soveriegnty as they are both entirely dependent on who is in power…see Zimbabwe, everything is constitutional. See the US and all the fact that Obama couldn’t pass Obamacare as everything, every piece of legislation can be filibusted/ rejected legally on the basis that it is unconstitutional – hence the reason Washington is full of lawyers.

    The only thing of efficacy that matter is the rule of law and the division of powers. Const or no const is neither here nor there.


    1. Bill says:

      Also, don’t Waitrose do a macaroni pie ?

    2. Edward Harkins says:

      Thanks Haideng, you well expand on my points (although clearly you managed to persevere with the whole piece!). Only today this telling little item was posted on Twitter (rt by @Traquair):

      ‘On this day in 1908, the British hanged 18 year old Indian revolutionary Khudiram Bose for resisting colonial rule’.

      1. Veronique says:

        Edward – is it possible to edit your article for grammar, spelling and missed words. This is not to say I didn’t find your take extremely interesting, given that I am a Colonial living in Scotland. I agree with your broad points.

        Still, it would be less aggravating if a proof read had been exercised.

          1. Gashty McGonnard says:

            Edward or no Edward, a bit of proofreading would up the quality. Can’t you just ask contributors to get a friend or colleague to check the text before publishing?

            The author has clearly put a lot of thought into presenting his argument – and it’s weakened by errors that most likely come from automated spelling and grammar checkers, or from rushed edits (either pre- or post-submission).

            Bella would feel very authoritative and credible, but for her sub-Grauniad typesetting regime.

        1. Edward Harkins says:

          Sorry Veronica :0( [note in C2 jotter, ‘must try harder, and try to articulate a more flowing disposition]

        2. Edward Harkins says:

          (Further note in C2 jotter, must try to get a person’s name correct, it helps when saying sorry)

    3. Robin Kinross says:

      You (and maybe Bulmer too) need to explain that Britain did have a constitutional moment in 1997, which could have led on to greater things, including reform of the electoral systems. New Labour was timidly pushing for that; the Jenkins committee did its work, which was then binned. But this moment – when New Labour was at its brief best – did give us the referendum in Scotland and then the Scottish parliament, the assembly for Wales, and the Supreme Court which you rightly praise. But all this was in the context of an essentially unreformed UK state. So as long as the UK persists in its present unreformed condition, these achievements remain stunted.

      If and when Scotland gets independence from the UK, it will certainly write a constitution. You just can’t make a new state without one. Elliot Bulmer, in his two books, has made a good contribution to this process.

      1. Robin Kinross says:

        Reading your comment again, I can see that you do refer in passing to the 1997 moment. Apologies. But I think it’s worth emphasizing it, and the fact that this was an achievement of New Labour, whose reputation has suffered with all that it went on to do. It was a time when Labour seemed to shake off its attachment to the British imperial state. For all the present radical noises that the UK Labour leadership makes, it still doesn’t want to see the Union break.

    4. Broadbield says:

      How easy it is to pick nits in an opinion piece without actually addressing the central question – the constitution. For me, a written constitution is one of those self-evident things. You have neither shown how written constitution is problematical or how an unwritten one (something of a non-sequiter) is superior.

      However, to reiterate, a constitution which merely adopts the aristocratic version of representative government, with the sop of regular elections, will not effect much change, because what we have at present is a device to keep the plebs away from power. If the people are to be truly sovereign then we need something else. To deny that is to continue with the institutional corruption of Westminster and corporate hegemony, but on a smaller scale.

      1. Crubag says:

        It’s interesting that the European Union – another multi-national union – doesn’t have a written constitution either.

        It proved too difficult to get all the peoples to agree with it. Perhaps in those situations it’s easier to have ad hoc working arrangements rather than top-down principles?

        1. Robin Kinross says:

          The EU does have the Lisbon Treaty, with its now famous article 50. That is its consitution.

        2. Cloggins says:

          It is not because they did not try but the European constitution was voted out in a referendum by the French and by the Dutch. Later the same proposals (less european anthem) were hammered through in the treaty of Lisbon.

    5. Piotr says:

      Of course constitutions are abused, but not all are. It is difficult to see Scotland or the UK naturally joining the club of constitution abusers.

      There may be advantages to a parliamentary system coupled to the rule of law and a division of powers rather than a constitution, but this is a false dichotomy. These precepts live naturally and comfortably together.

      Responsive constitutions are possible.

      I see few signs that a Scotland moving from being a country and nation to a state aspires to a Westminster model of governance that is is definitely showing its age.

      Better to talk about constitutions now rather than later or not at all.

    6. K. A. Mylchreest says:

      How can one have faith in the Rule of Law when Parliament is free to revise or repeal any existing law? You arguments imply either (a) a reasonably strong opposition or weak ruling party unable to effectively whip its MPs, or (b) the sort of gentlemen´s agreement referred to in the article where everyone tacitly agrees that certain things are ´not cricket´, ´just not done, Old Boy!¨ etc.

      Every organisation, company, club, co-operative etc. that I´ve been involved with over the years, anything that handles more than trivial sums of money, owns or rents property, equipment etc., appoints officers and/agents to act on its behalf … has had a written constitution or the equivalent setting out its purpose, its powers, rules for membership, electing officers, their powers to act on behalf of the whole, arrangements for arbitration … as necessary in each case. Why then should no such arrangements be in place for the State which increasingly touches all our lives in so may ways?

    7. John S Warren says:

      Once again, a very interesting contribution by ‘Haideng’. Reginald Johnson was tutor to Pu Yi, the Last Qing Emperor of China. He was, to all intents and purposes, a representative of the British Intelligence Services. I think the return of Weihai demonstrates principally that Britain was in retreat after WWI, and not just after WWII. Incidentally in retirement Reginald Johnson flew the flag of Manchkuo (The Japanese puppet state rule by PuYi after Japan’s invadion of China) on his private island in Scotland until his death. I do not think the British viewed China in the same way as, for example India. Britian never made any pretence to colonise China. China’s weakness was ruthlessly exploited by the British, but in a rather post-imperial way.

      On your qualified dismissal of the argument “The British State was formed and forged by empire, for empire”, I suspect that your following argument rests on a logical fallacy (post hoc ergo propter hoc). I doubt if Mr Bulmer is required to concede that because the British Empire formed in this way all empires follow the exactly the same formula in every respect. Reality is contingent.

      1. John S Warren says:

        My apologies for the spelling errors that I apparently left strewn in my wake.

  13. Crubag says:

    To be accurate, the next Scottish referendum will be about leaving the UK.

    Scotland could then become an applicant for EU membership – and the political parties may or may not offer us a referendum.

    BREXIT won’t be quick, but I don’t see the SNP calling a referendum before it is complete and the new dispensation clear. Eire and its borders will be the test case.

    1. ben madigan says:

      “Eire and its borders will be the test case” –

      Over in Ireland, North and South, they’re saying Scotland will be the test case.

      for the series “you first” “No I insist . . . .”

  14. Iain Roberts says:

    Good article. There are only a few things I’d take issue with:

    “the same privileged class as their forefathers, but they have all of their vices and none of their virtues”

    One paragraph earlier, you point out the forefathers were ruthless in suppressing popular dissent. 😉 If you look at what aristocrats actually did in the 18th/19th centuries, they were no nicer than their modern counterparts, and had a lot less democratic accountability. But they delivered rising living standards funded by the profits of Empire, which meant they could get away with being corrupt and undemocratic, in a way loosely analagous to the Chinese elite today. When living standards are falling, that bargain no longer holds.

    “some sort of ‘Home Rule with Full Fiscal Autonomy’ arrangement”

    Under current circumstances the SNP doesn’t want anything of the sort, because it would mean massive tax rises and/or spending cuts.

    “it will be necessary to provide a series of reassurances – on pensions, on the currency, and on general economic stability”

    That is exactly right. But unless the post-Brexit economy is a complete and utter disaster, providing sufficiently robust assurances may not be easy.

  15. Michael Cadoux says:

    Yes, thought-provoking, and by and large I’m in tune with it. But being a pedant, I’m absurdly distracted by typos, of which there a quite a few – e.g. “in transient” for “intransigent”; switch off that predictive text, and get somebody other than the author to proofread!

  16. Crubag says:

    The EU referendum also had another interesting outcome. Those who identified as British were more likely to vote for the union, those who identified as English more likely to vote to leave.

    Whatever the future, people on these islands look more likely to identify with their ethnic status, rather than the supra-national British political identity.

    A union of ethnic states on the British isles is still possible – it’s largely what the EU is on a continental scale – but the appeal will more probably be a practical one than the idea that we are all “one people.”

    1. C Rober says:

      Perhaps why the word of the month is now “federal”.

      1. Crubag says:

        It works for Switzerland, which is a collection of ethnic states with the bare minimum of supra-national government.

        1. c rober says:

          Is Germany , the EU biggest partner , not also federal?

        2. Interpolar says:

          Switzerland is an interesting case, but bear in mind that even the largest canton has no more than a fifth of the entire population. (By the way, cantons are not ethnic-based, and only loosely associated with language, several split between two or even three languages.)

          For the UK to become federal and Britishness to become a true identity, England would have to die. The English of today would have to start identifying with their region (e.g. Northumbrian or Anglian) and then with the UK, with their English identity falling by the wayside. The unlikeliness of this ever happen is what makes me pessimistic about British federalism.

          1. C Rober says:

            Dont tell the rugby or cricket fans that , some of them identify with region more than nation.

  17. David Sangster says:

    “The carnage of Brexit…” Carnage?? For goodness’ sake, that caps all of the hysterical bilge that has been uttered over Brexit. Does Elliot Bulmer really believe that a single 5-bedroom house, golf-club membership or holiday in Tuscany is somehow threatened by the UK bidding farewell to the EU?

    And further : what makes the writer think that such people – the “key demographic” as he calls them – don’t want “the kind of radical change that the more ambitious Yessers advocated in 2014”? Surely they too must be concerned about the UK’s constitutional crisis – the unrepresentative electoral system, shadowy and unaccountable crown prerogatives, fragile protection for human rights, absence of a proper written constitution and so on? At the heart of the argument for independence is the firm belief that we in Scotland can do better than Westminster has ever done, and will confer the benefits equally to all Scotland’s people whether they live in 5-bed home near a golf course or a 2-bed flat above the chippy.

    1. C Rober says:

      The the author is , well I feel , pointing with the GC and overlooking house set as an analogy of the ” Rural Suburban Commuter Set” – as one of the primary reasons for indy failure numbers in certain wards , but as others have rightly said the secondary one is Pensioners – fearful of change for the worse on the chance of the better.

      The GC and home set will not care about Tuscan hols , they will always be able to afford it , not just the hols but 2nd homes on the continent – regardless of any punitive measures salvoed at the UK larger demographic , it will not impart on them much change. But those just slightly under them , lets call them the council golf club set may perhaps be swayed , your spam fritter brigade in order to be mortgaged (in their shadow) may be a little easier to jump ship from no to yes…

      One only needs to look at areas where the EU has benefited them more than perhaps Westminster has with funding , Sunderland , where I was suprised they voted to not just leave the EU bu render the employed unemployed as a result. Sunderland being the place in England with the least amount of EU immigration and or any immigration level percentage wise , chose leave.

      With Sunderland , and the SKY documentary so beware editing to suit cause , the overall perception for me anyway was the lack of knowledge in the respondents , blaming everything on the EU , but with the occasional educated interviewee seemingly somewhat more knowledgeable on the subject always having voted remain.

      So here in lies the rub for Indy II , education , of which others have already responded needs to be tackled , ie bias and prevention of project fear II. Importantly with regard to brexit , as we have now seen just a couple of hours later , lies and damned lies and lack of a cohesive exit strategy , one thing I can praise Cameron for is his last retort…. allegedly , ” Fxxk em , they can clean up their own mess”.

      Without Holyrood taking them to task las time , or legislating media with criminality and therefore accountability since , then just how can that field of play be levelled? One cannot beam alt media into the brains of those without the ability to see it , so thus remains the propoganda machine power.

  18. nick says:

    constitutions are instruments designed to prohibit change, i would say that apart from a fixed term there should be no other constitutional provisions – the will of the people is sovereign, i think selection by lot (statistically representative of the population) for 2 years should do it…if you want that sort of representative parliamentary (legalistic) arrangement – i prefer direct democracy at the level of the community and larger units arising from the needs of these communities themselves (i.e. communities of communities) : )

  19. bullykiller says:

    Good article in general, but I wonder why Ireland´s war of independence doesn´t merit a mention in your analysis of the fall of the British empire. I think, for better or worse, it inspired a lot of Nations to stand up to British imperialism.

  20. w.b.robertson says:

    worthy contributions from all. I enjoyed studying them. however, all empires rise and fall, whatever the reasons posed and argued over by historians.

  21. Rab Cochrane says:

    “many Brexiteers look back with fondness and nostalgia – as if, having left the European Union, the United Kingdom could somehow go back to being a global empire.”.

    That’s about the sum of it for some, they have a sense of superiority and entitlement, Alf Garnetesque. Those that wanted out of the EU and to send back hard working poles and Estonians, imagine their delight if these folk are replaced by Chinese and Indians?

    It’s difficult for the English to accept they ate no longer top dog and proof of this is their malevolent holding onto Scotland with every sinew despite it being obvious Scots are leaving. They assume they know what is best for us, how condescending is that?

    I think the point about Scotland being treated like a colony needs to be made more forcibly, however without the racist overtones and undertones the English press deploy when ‘informing’ the not so great british public on Scottish affairs.

  22. K. A. Mylchreest says:

    ¨What once could portray itself as a relatively benign aristocracy has yielded to a crass, greedy and shameless oligarchy.¨
    That single sentence sums up the first part completely. This is a most excellent exposition of where we are now and how we came to be here.

    IMO it deserves wide circulation, especially perhaps in England where there appears to be serious misinformation and misunderstanding of the aims and motivation of the movement for Scottish independence. We need to get the message out that this is all part of a broader and much needed UK-wide readjustment. Readjustment to 21st century and beyond.

    Much as I admire NS, it´s not all about her and never can or should be. Could someone please tell the English 🙂

  23. Dennis Revell says:

    This is a good article. ‘Nuf said …

  24. kininvie says:

    The word of mouth should be confederation rather than federation. The crucial difference being that a confederation is an association of fully sovereign states. It can even call itself a Union if it so chooses (see Benelux).
    A confederation is flexible and can encompass both large and small units, if desired (see Delian League), and can be expanded as and when polities wish to join. There is no requirement for a separate constitution, other than an agreed mechanism and body of law to address those areas of common interest which the component states have agreed to ‘pool and share’ (to coin a phrase).
    An Act of Confederation – initially encompassing just England and Scotland – potentially solves many of the Brexit issues, allowing a sovereign Scotland to carve its own path in the EU and possibly providing a status which would allow the Northern Ireland problem an easier long-term solution.
    It also allows comfort to those who wish to be in two unions at once. The confederation would clarify the partnership of equals status between England and Scotland, while allowing as many structures of the current Union to remain as both partners agreed (and there probably would be many).
    Best of all in the current circumstances, it could be achieved relatively quickly, relying on a framework treaty jointly drawn up until such time as the details could be fleshed out.

  25. muttley79 says:

    It probably began in 1947, when the retreat of the British Raj from India demonstrated the ultimate futility of military power in the face of a sustained non-violent popular liberation movement.

    Arguably the decline of the British state began in 1776, and the decline started to accelerate after the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly after the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, which led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921.

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