The Untied Kingdom

Highways England recently announced a plan to rename itself National Highways. Apart from the fact that it is going to cost £7 million, only a few years after spending millions on the previous re-branding, it sets me (and many in the rest of the UK other than England) wondering which nation the new name refers to. This is of course not a new problem. For example in Wales you have the National Gallery of Wales, in Scotland you have the National Gallery of Scotland. In England, it’s called the National Gallery.

If it was just a question of names, it would be merely annoying. But its symptomatic of a problem with deeper roots; all too often the terms England, Britain, and the United Kingdom are used interchangeably. It must be even more confusing for foreigners, (I expect some people in the Netherlands also get upset when we refer to their country as ‘Holland’)

A brief refresher course

The UK is made up of four ‘nations’: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Note that NI is not the same as Ulster; when Ireland was partitioned, 3 counties (Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan) of the historic province of Ulster were excluded from NI.

Wales was legally part of England until the mid twentieth century (the Welsh Office was created in 1965 and gradually acquired more powers until devolution in 1999). For some purposes the entity known as England and Wales still exists – for example the Office for National Statistics (!) collects the census for England and Wales, and some of the COVID data they produce gives figures on that basis.

Britain, or Great Britain, is a geographical entity with little or no legal or constitutional identity. On a strict definition, it just refers to the main island, but it is more usual to include the adjoining islands from the Scillies to Shetland (but not the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands; they are not part of the UK; they are self-governing Crown Dependencies). There was at one time a Kingdom of Great Britain, formed in 1706 by the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England (which included Wales!), but that became obsolete in 1801 with the union with Ireland.

Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain, despite the UK Olympic team being referred to as TeamGB. Presumably they thought calling it ‘TeamUK’ might be unfortunate (‘Tea Muck’?). NI and the Republic of Ireland have separate soccer teams, but a joint rugby team. People in NI can get an Irish passport.

There is no totally acceptable term for the whole archipelago. ‘British Isles’ is often used, but many in Ireland object to the colonial implications, and some use ‘these islands’ instead. ‘Britain and Ireland’ is clumsy.

An added difficulty is the absence of an adjective derived from UK, and hence no simple term for a citizen of that country – since NI is not part of Britain, ‘British’ is not strictly accurate. I can’t go around saying I am a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (which is what my passport says). Are there any other countries that don’t have a simple, accurate title for their citizens? The USA of course is even worse, as they are only the United States of part of America; Canadians, for example, could also claim to be ‘American’ (although I guess they wouldn’t want to!).

Confused? You may well be. Add devolution into the mess  – three of the four ‘nations’ have their own elected parliament/assembly, with different levels of devolved power. One of the ‘nations’ does not. England is run by the UK Government. The fault lines in this system are exposed by the COVID crisis, on an almost daily basis. Each of the devolved administrations makes decisions affecting their part, while the UK Government makes decisions sometimes on behalf of England and sometimes for the whole UK, and it is often not clear which.

One significant ‘fault line’ was exposed by the refusal of the UK/English Government to prohibit movement of people out of high risk areas of England, although Wales had already banned movement between parts of Wales; this created the paradoxical situation where someone could be fined for travelling between adjacent parts of Wales but someone from a high risk area of England could go where they liked. So the Welsh Government acted to ban such movement; although they denied that they were creating a border, it represents a step in that direction.

This comes on top of the Brexit debacle. Although Wales voted narrowly (52-48%) in favour, Scotland and NI voted heavily for Remain (62%, 56% respectively). Scottish resentment at being dragged out of the EU by England still rankles, and in NI the problem of what will become a land border with the EU is still unresolved.

So both COVID and Brexit are potentially driving the UK in the direction of either more complete devolution or complete disintegration of the UK. If the latter is to be avoided, it would be as well to consider what shape might hold the UK together.

The first task is to tackle the lopsided nature of devolution, by establishing an English government, separate from the UK one. This implies some form of federal structure. It is often argued that this is not possible for the UK because of the highly unequal size of the constituent nations – so England would still dominate everything (although the existing situation didn’t give Scotland any protection in the Brexit vote). But look at the USA. Compare the sizes of New York state, or California, with Rhode Island, for example. The structure of the Senate gives the smaller states greater influence. That’s not to say we should blindly follow that example in detail, but it shows that it is possible.

However, there is a further problem with England. Many people feel that London has too great an influence at present, and we should take the opportunity to address that as well. My suggestion is that London should be separated from the rest of England, to form a fifth ‘state’. Actually that’s not such a radical idea. In the USA, Washington is separate (as the District of Columbia) and in Australia, Canberra forms the Australian Capital Territory.

Doing that would necessitate an English ‘capital’ located somewhere other than London (say Manchester or Leeds), which would automatically tend to make the English government more responsive to the interests of the other parts of the nation.

An alternative, often canvassed. way of tackling the ‘English problem’ is regionalisation. But this always runs into the intractable problem of how you define the regions. Few, if any, parts of England form clear unambiguous regions, and the current regions are full of anomalies. Glossop is only 10 miles out of Manchester, but is part of the East Midlands region, with its ‘capital’ in Leicester. Yorkshire? Looks neat on a map, until you look more closely. Drawing the northern boundary along the Tees separates Middlesbrough from Stockton.

It would be better to abandon the regions, and devolve more power to local authorities at a lower level.

So, let’s say we have 5 ‘states’ – London, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – in a federal structure. To do the job properly, we need to consider the electoral system as well. The existing devolved nations each have some form of quasi-proportional representation, and the same should apply to the devolved ‘English’ government (leaving open exactly what form that should be). As for the UK government, this would be the time to get rid of the House of Lords completely, and replace it by a second chamber that would be elected on a balanced basis by each of the five ‘states’, again using some form of proportional representation.

Just some food for thought – it makes a change from posts about COVID-19 anyway.

Jeremy Dale


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