Disunited Kingdom: Will Nationalism Break Britain? – Foreign Affairs Magazine

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.
The United Kingdom may still stand, but its foundations are shallower than they have been for many centuries. The first of those foundations was empire. To create one, England needed peace on its home island and control over its troublesome and fractious near neighbor, Ireland. It needed to know that if it went to war with Spain or France, it would not be attacked from the north by claymore-wielding Scots and that its European rivals could not use Ireland as a base from which to invade the homeland. Conversely, especially for the Scottish elites, England could offer a lucrative share in its rapidly growing mercantile power. The bargain made sense for both sides: England could dominate the island of Great Britain, but by joining it, Scotland could help it dominate the world.
Second, there was Protestantism. In the sixteenth century, the Reformation took different forms in the various British nations. Over time, Scotland became typically Presbyterian, Wales strongly Methodist, and England loyal to the official Episcopalian church that grew out of Henry VIII’s split with Rome. The tensions between these faiths were bitter. Ultimately, however, they carried much less weight than the imperative of not being Catholic. Ireland, where the majority held on to a strongly Catholic identity, was therefore a perpetually fraught presence in the United Kingdom. But Protestantism solidified the sense of commonality among the other nations.
A third footing was provided by the industrial revolution. Until the 1980s, anyone traveling around the United Kingdom would have been struck by the deep shared history of physical labor that encompassed the Welsh coalfields, the potteries of the English Midlands, the cotton mills of Manchester, the ironworks of Glasgow, and the shipyards of Belfast. This world forged its own bond of unity—the trade unions and the Labour Party that came, in the twentieth century, to represent a national working class that cut across regional divisions. Labour may have been, at least some of the time, radically reformist, but in terms of national identity, it was also deeply conservative. It gave ordinary people a powerful sense of common political purpose. The welfare state it created after World War II, buttressed by common institutions like the National Health Service, provided the same benefits to ordinary people regardless of what part of the United Kingdom they inhabited.

Finally, there was prestige. Britishness was a winning brand. The subject peoples of the empire may not have felt the same way, but for the denizens of the mother country, the “great” in Great Britain came to seem, even more than a geographic qualification, an obvious expression of moral and political supremacy. After the rather unfortunate business of the loss of the American colonies, the United Kingdom had an amazing run of successes: crushing Napoleon; smashing (with a violence it was rather good at forgetting) revolts in Africa, the Caribbean, Ireland, India, and elsewhere; defeating Russia in the Crimean War; humiliating China; and winning two world wars.
Even during its postwar decline, when the empire was dissolving and the United Kingdom was settling into its role as junior partner to the new Anglophone world power across the Atlantic, the country was extraordinarily good at replacing hard power with soft. Its sclerotic Establishment was slow to appreciate them, but the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Judi Dench, and Monty Python cast a spell of glamour over Britishness. The physical empire was replaced by a cultural realm. In the arts and entertainment, in science and thought, Britishness retained a cachet for British citizens themselves as well as for foreigners. Rule Britannia became Cool Britannia.
The success of this branding lay in the ability to encompass two kinds of coolness. The idea of a chic, dynamic pop culture was twinned with the self-image of phlegmatic Brits. Like James Bond’s martinis, the British people could be shaken by world events—the Suez Crisis of 1956, the collapse of the pound sterling in 1992—but they would never be stirred enough to make their own system of government, rooted in the mysteries of its unwritten constitution, truly volatile.
These are deep foundations. Many countries that now seem quite stable have shakier legs to stand on. The weakening of one, or even two, of the United Kingdom’s pillars would not seem to pose an existential threat to the country. But how about all four? For on any objective analysis, it is impossible to believe that any of these underpinnings of Britishness remain firmly in place today.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II marked, in a belated way, the demise of empire. When she ascended the throne in 1952, her subjects constituted more than a quarter of the world’s population. When she died, the United Kingdom had scarcely more than a dozen overseas territories, most of them island tax havens. Even the Commonwealth—long a convenient way to sustain a more symbolic form of cultural imperium—has lost much of its meaning. Such prominent members as Australia and New Zealand are considering following Barbados, which became a republic in 2021, in ditching the British monarch as head of state. The carnival of empire is now, at best, a nostalgic display. At worst, and arguably more realistically, it is a nightmare of unfinished business: the wages of slavery, racism, and savage brutality. (Recent work, such as Caroline Elkins’s Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, make one marvel at the United Kingdom’s ability to sustain for so long its self-image as a benign and civilized colonizer.) One of the attractions of Scottish or Welsh nationalism is the distance it creates between those nations and the guilt of imperialism: shame can be attributed to the United Kingdom and sloughed off as the country is left behind.
As for Protestant identity, the 2021 British census provides a rude awakening. For the first time ever, less than half the country’s 67 million citizens—46 percent—describe themselves as Christian, a staggering decline from 2001, when 72 percent did. Never mind the historic divide between Protestants and Catholics; basic Christian identity no longer serves as a marker of Britishness.
The United Kingdom’s prime minister throughout the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, smashed Britain’s industrial base along with its trade unions. During her decade in power, manufacturing output grew by 21 percent in France, 50 percent in Japan, and 17 percent in the United States. In the United Kingdom, it fell by nine percent. This decline began a decisive collapse from which the United Kingdom’s reputation as an industrial powerhouse has never recovered. Manufacturing now represents ten percent of the country’s economic output and just eight percent of its jobs.

Queen Elizabeth’s coffin in London, September 2022
Queen Elizabeth’s coffin in London, September 2022
Phil Noble / Reuters

For one part of Thatcher’s agenda—breaking organized labor—this was a triumph. But for another—the reassertion of Britishness—it was a long-term problem. As long as the Cold War was still a dominant narrative, Thatcher’s projection of Britain as a warrior nation facing down enemies from Berlin to the Falklands compensated for the real loss of industrial power. A mythically militant Britishness could mask the day-to-day experience of decline. But only for so long. Thatcher was simultaneously pumping up a British national identity and eroding its social foundations. Over time, this contradiction was bound to have consequences for the viability of the United Kingdom. When Thatcher carpet-bombed the working class’s political base, the collateral damage was a once potent sense of shared belonging that is now greatly diminished. The common culture in which huge numbers of people in England, Scotland, and Wales did the same jobs, belonged to the same unions, and voted for the same party (Labour) is almost gone.
Since the turn of this century, the prestige of Britishness has had to compete with the emergence of new centers of power in Scotland, Wales, and—albeit in more complex ways—Northern Ireland. Tony Blair’s Labour government, elected in 1997, gambled that the establishment of devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast would be enough to mollify all but the most fervent Scottish, Welsh, and Irish nationalists. Yet at least in Scotland and Wales, the very existence of those elected assemblies, and of ministers and leaders who behave like governments, has created a sense that significant political spaces, with their own agendas and discourses, exist beyond the reach of the London-based elites.
Meanwhile, the tradition of British military élan has finally lost its luster. During the Iraq invasion in 2003, when he stood shoulder to shoulder with U.S. President George W. Bush, Blair imagined that he could use, as Thatcher had done, military victory to consolidate a sense of shared British patriotism. But even within the larger disaster of Bush’s wars, Britain’s experience was a stark tale of hubris and nemesis. In 2016, at the release of his official inquiry into the Iraq war, the career civil servant John Chilcot issued a blunt assessment of British power: “From 2006, the U.K. military was conducting two enduring campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. It did not have sufficient resources to do so.” Chilcot described the country’s “humiliating” performance in the city of Basra, where British forces had to make deals with the same local militias that were attacking them. After these painful failures, it is no longer possible to see military might as part of the allure of Britishness. The United Kingdom still has important military and intelligence capacities, and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s moral and practical support for Ukraine had a very real impact. But it is striking that Truss’s signature promise to increase the military budget to three percent of GDP evaporated along with her ill-fated premiership. Even among conservative hawks, there is almost no appetite in London for fantasies about renewed global military power and no sense that glory of arms on foreign fields can ever again paper over the cracks on the home front.
Brexit was in part an attempt to compensate for the waning of British hard power. As the former Conservative cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg framed it at his party’s conference in October 2017, a break with Brussels would be a continuation of historical English triumphs on the continent: “It’s Waterloo! It’s Crécy! It’s Agincourt! We win all these things!” Well, not all of them. If Brexit was intended to provide a great psychological victory over the European Union, it instead swept away any notion of British immunity to a politics of mass delusion. Amid mounting evidence that leaving Europe has made the United Kingdom’s long-term economic problems both deeper and more acute, the political pantomime performed by five different prime ministers in the six years since the Brexit referendum has destroyed all notions of British calm, competence, or coherence.
For a while, the English (although certainly not the Scots or the Welsh) entertained themselves with the spectacle of Johnson’s knowingly ironic clowning, but the joke ceased to be funny after the COVID-19 outbreak. As Johnson and his circle dithered and broke the lockdown rules they had imposed on the public, the devolved regional administrations appeared far more capable. For the first time in many centuries, in the face of a common threat, people in Scotland looked to Edinburgh for leadership, and those in Wales looked to Cardiff. The bitter truth was that their respective first ministers, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, did not have to be spectacularly brilliant to seem impressive compared with the chaos-inducing Johnson.
Beneath the political farce of Brexit lies the mundane tragedy of impoverishment. “The truth is we just got a lot poorer,” Paul Johnson, the director of the London-based Institute for Fiscal Studies, said, after the British government announced its latest budget assessment this past November. He likened the country’s disastrous recent policies—a list that includes, along with Brexit itself, ill-considered cuts to education and other social investments—to “a series of economic own goals.” According to the independent spending watchdog the Office for Budget Responsibility, living standards are expected to fall by an alarming seven percent over the next two years, with the country’s economic contraction nearly on par with Russia’s. This harm can reasonably be called self-inflicted, but employing that description raises the awkward question of which national self is being talked about. After all, Brexit was decisively rejected by the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have good reason to think that the ensuing economic debacle was needlessly imposed on them by the English.

Indeed, at least since the 1980s, the smaller nations in the United Kingdom have been thinking about Europe very differently from their English counterparts. Before the United Kingdom joined what was then called the European Economic Community in 1973, almost all nationalists—English, Northern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh—distrusted and feared it as a burgeoning superstate that would destroy their individuality. (In 1975, when the United Kingdom held its first referendum on continuing EEC membership, the SNP claimed that staying in Europe would “strike a death blow to [Scotland’s] very existence as a nation.”) As the EU expanded and became ever more multi­lingual, however, it began to offer the United Kingdom’s non-English constituencies a new kind of buffer from London: an international body in which they could advocate for their own interests and remain connected to bigger powers without being dominated by them. Thus, in the EU era, the SNP promoted the rapid expansion of trade and professional ties between Scotland and the continent, allowing it to ditch its image as a throwback and project itself as modern, open, cosmopolitan, and European.
English nationalists, to the contrary, tended to see any pooling of sovereignty with Brussels as a betrayal of their own superior destiny. As Enoch Powell, the highly influential former cabinet minister and right-wing member of Parliament, put it in 1977, “submission to laws this nation has not made” raised the haunting prospect “that we . . . will soon have nothing left to die for.” It was not accidental that Powell—and such political heirs as former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage—combined opposition to EU membership with rage against immigrants: both stood for the surrender of English greatness to foreign interference.
In this sense, English nationalism today has become an outlier among nationalist movements in the United Kingdom: more obviously right-wing, anti-immigrant, nostalgic for past greatness, and, above all, anti-European. It is also in part driven by a justified resentment at the way in which England was left without its own specific political identity during Tony Blair’s devolution. Unlike its Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh counterparts, Englishness was given no positive expression in political life. It remained incoherent and poorly articulated—until, of course, the Brexit referendum gave it a cause and an opportunity. This was what almost no one who was thinking about the future unity of the United Kingdom had considered: that its most successful nationalist eruption might come not on the Celtic fringes but in the English heartland.
Driven as it was by English politicians and English voters, Brexit could only increase disaffection from the United Kingdom in both Northern Ireland and Scotland. According to the most recent report of the authoritative British Attitudes Survey, more than half the population of Scotland—52 percent—now say they favor Scottish independence—even though just 45 percent voted for it in the 2014 referendum. Likewise, the proportion of people in Northern Ireland wishing to leave the United Kingdom and join with the rest of Ireland, which before Brexit rarely exceeded 20 percent, has risen dramatically. Now, as many as 30 percent favor a united Ireland, and only 49 percent—no longer a majority—support remaining in the United Kingdom, with the rest undecided and arguably persuadable either way. Especially remarkable is the growing overlap between those who voted to remain in the EU and those who are now drifting away from Britishness. In Scotland in 2016, only 44 percent of Remainers favored independence; now, 65 percent do so. In Northern Ireland, 64 percent of those who voted Remain wanted to stay in the United Kingdom. Now, just 37 percent do so.
This drift is not just a matter of sentiment. In legal fact, Brexit has set in train a process of detaching Northern Ireland from Great Britain. In November 2022, British Foreign Minister James Cleverly told a House of Commons committee that Northern Ireland was as integral to the United Kingdom as was his own constituency in the east of England. “Northern Ireland. North Essex. They are part of the U.K.,” he said. But Brexit has already made Northern Ireland quite unlike North Essex: Northern Ireland has stayed in the EU’s single market and customs union, thanks to the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal agreement, whereas North Essex has, along with the rest of the country, left them. This sets an extraordinary precedent. No polity that was confident about its future integrity would allow one of its constituent parts to be governed by a very different international regime, and both Johnson and his immediate predecessor, May, had strenuously disavowed the possibility of such an arrangement. But in the end, the need to, in Johnson’s words, “get Brexit done” trumped the imperative of preserving the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

A Brexit supporter in London, January 2020
A Brexit supporter in London, January 2020
Simon Dawson / Reuters

There is, however, a further irony in the effects of Brexit on national identities within the United Kingdom. In another play that Shakespeare wrote for James I, Macbeth, the porter jokes about the effects of alcohol on “lechery”: “it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” Brexit has greatly enhanced the desire for independence among the United Kingdom’s constituent parts, especially Scotland. But it makes the performance a lot more difficult. Before Brexit, political, economic, and trade relations between England and an independent Scotland would have been eased by the continuity of shared participation in Brussels’s structures and processes. Now, were England to remain outside the EU and Scotland to rejoin it, the barriers between the two nations would be formidable. Brexit may have inclined the Scots more toward independence, but it has also provided a rather scary example of how hard it is to leave a union, whether European or British. And whereas the United Kingdom was in the EU for less than 50 years, Scotland has been in the United Kingdom for more than three centuries.
Even the mechanics of holding another vote on independence are fraught. In November 2022, the British supreme court unanimously ruled that “the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence.” This means that no such plebiscite can be lawful unless the British government in London agrees to it. Sturgeon is too canny to press ahead in these circumstances, her natural wariness no doubt reinforced by the bitter experience of the Catalan government, which in 2017 staged an unconstitutional and ultimately abortive referendum on independence from Spain. Her response to the ruling has been to declare that Scotland’s vote in the next British general election will be a “de facto” independence referendum. But this approach, too, is rife with uncertainties: a general election is not a referendum, and if pro-independence parties win a majority, it would still not be clear how their aims could be put into effect without London’s consent.
Nor is a serious push for a united Ireland likely to take place soon. There may no longer be a unionist majority in Northern Ireland, but there is no nationalist majority either. The most notable political trend is the large number of Northern Irish voters who say they are open-minded about the future but in no hurry to leave the United Kingdom. Over the long term, the prosperity of Ireland, the dynamic effects of Northern Ireland’s alignment with the EU, and its changing demography will make Irish unity increasingly likely—but not in the next decade.
What all of this means is that there may yet be a chance for the United Kingdom to save itself. Everything will depend on who forms the next British government—the next general election must take place no later than January 2025—and what that government does about constitutional reform. The current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is a technocrat at heart and seems to have little interest in identity politics. Yet if the economic reality continues to look grim, his party may have little option but to double down on the defense of an archaic Britishness. An intransigent Conservative party that somehow wins reelection by appealing to English voters to stand firm against the rebellious Scots and rally around the existing political order could turn a slow process of dissolution into an immediate crisis. It is not hard to imagine that, amid a deepening economic recession and with Sturgeon already a hate figure for the Tory press in England (in December 2022, one column in Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun compared her to the mass murderer Rosemary West), some Conservatives might actually relish a “patriotic” rhetorical war against Scottish and Welsh nationalists. The result, however, would be merely to exacerbate divisions and speed up the end of the United Kingdom.
The current likelihood, however, is that Labour leader Keir Starmer will be the next prime minister. Starmer has endorsed a plan, drawn up by a commission headed by former Prime Minister (and proud Scot) Gordon Brown, to clean up the British Parliament, replace the unelected House of Lords with an elected second chamber of “nations and regions,” and devolve more power to local governments in what Brown calls “the biggest transfer of power out of Westminster . . . that our country has seen.” If Starmer does achieve power, he may not be quite so enthusiastic about giving it away. And even these reforms may not be enough to save the United Kingdom. The case for the creation of a fully federal state seems strong. It has worked well for the former British dominions of Canada and Australia. If Quebec, which came very close to voting for independence in 1995, has settled down as a distinct society within a larger union, might not the same be possible for Scotland and Wales? But the English habit of muddling through—what Winston Churchill called KBO, for “keep buggering on”—is a powerful force for inertia.
The United Kingdom created a beta version of democracy in the eighteenth century: innovative and progressive in its day but long since surpassed by newer models. The country has, however, been extremely reluctant to abandon even the most egregious anachronisms. The biggest transformation in its governance was joining the European Union, and that has been reversed. It now has to make a momentous and existential choice—between a radically reimagined United Kingdom and a stubborn adherence to KBO. If it chooses the latter, it will muddle on toward its own extinction.
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