The Great Unravelling

The United Kingdom is unlikely to survive in its current form. Now is the time for socialists to imagine what comes next.

Illustration by Lucy Jones

At the end of a long decade of convulsion, collapse, and insurgency, there is little sign of how the next phase of geopolitical history might pan out. Against an ominous backdrop of Brexit, recession, trade war and far-right demagoguery, even the more sanguine among us must dig deep to recover Gramsci’s ‘optimism of the will’ as we prepare to enter the 2020s. But whatever the outcome of the present crisis, one thing seems fairly certain: the United Kingdom is approaching a long overdue climacteric, and seems unlikely to survive in the long-term.

In fact it is surely no hyperbole to suggest that the ‘Break-Up of Britain’ prophesied by Tom Nairn some forty years ago may now finally be upon us. A united Ireland is looking increasingly imminent (or at least tentatively possible). Similarly, Scottish independence seems probable in the next quarter century, even if the more complex case of Wales means that a wholesale Four Nations rupture is far from a foregone conclusion.

Many socialists will feel a degree of ambivalence about this nationalist narrative. On the one hand, the tradition of leftist sympathy with Scottish, Irish and Welsh national causes is long running and honourable. It has frequently centred on areas of genuine common cause (think of Irish socialist James Connolly’s heroic struggle against British Imperialism, or, more recently, the 2014 Yes campaign for Scottish independence, which indirectly prefigured the grassroots radicalism of Labour’s renewal under Jeremy Corbyn).

But there are obvious pitfalls to a socialist strategy that is guided by a desire to break-up Britain by merely exhuming the corpses of the four medieval nations, not least that this will also entail the resurrection of English nationalism — by far the most dangerous and rotten cadaver of them all. Without dismissing the claims of small-nation independence completely, and without succumbing to forms of Anglo-British unionism that will probably always tend towards reaction and imperialism, might there be other, more daring ways of conceptualising the so-called British Isles, beyond resuscitating the imagined national communities of the past?

Fortress London

A good place to start is by remembering that the basic geo-economic pattern of the islands is not especially national in emphasis. Rather than thinking of a monarchical, conservative ‘United Kingdom’, or alternatively of a triad of small nations arrayed in opposition to quasi-imperial ‘England’, we would do well to grasp that the main structural feature of the archipelago — even allowing for partial Irish autonomy post 1922 — is the towering economic and cultural dominance of London and the south-east of England over all other areas.

Because of the inordinate power and wealth of the capital and its surrounding campagna, England is itself subject to the same sort of centre-margins dynamic currently driving separatist sentiment in the peripheral nations. Around two thirds of England’s vast population of 55 million lives outside of the south-east, much of it in some of the most impoverished regions in northern Europe (according to most calculations, by contrast, London is the richest metropolitan area in the continent as a whole).

The hierarchical pattern which places London at the heart of a radically concentric polity has existed since at least as far back as the rise of a centralised English state in the late Anglo-Saxon period. But during the neoliberal period it has become decidedly more pronounced, as deregulated, super-rich London has sucked jobs, investment and economic migrants away from the north and west of the country, and into the financialised vortex of the English south-east.

As such, instead of viewing the islands through an outmoded Four Nations paradigm, we might think of them as being divided by a more meaningful ‘border’, which cuts off the prosperous megalopolis of the south-east from the remainder of the archipelago.

Grasping this basic structural truth is profoundly depressing in some ways. It underlines how the peculiar combination of feudal mythopoeia and capitalist functionality that sustains the Anglo-British state hinges on a kind of fortress mentality, whereby its establishment is materially and psychologically barricaded behind the walls of a monolithic, imperial mega-city.

Yet it is also empowering to think of ways of upending the south-by-southeast orientation of the islands. While the London-centric unionist establishment propounds the difference-denying fiction of ‘Britishness’, and nationalists counter this by avowing various postmodern dreams of nationhood (from Scottish Independence to more dubious calls to reawaken ‘English identity’), socialist energies would be far better directed at envisioning a completely new civic architecture, one that would emphatically shift the balance of power away from the hypertrophied south-east corner of the islands.

Meta-Regionalism

Devolution of government to the English regions — all of which have a population equivalent to or greater than that of Scotland (5 million), Wales (3 million) and the island of Ireland (7 million) — is one obvious way of achieving this. The campaign for regional devolution, which has gathered in strength in successive waves since the social democratic post-war years, is now a fairly mainstream tendency, with advocates even among the latter-day Conservative elite. George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ scheme was an ill-fated recent example of this tendency.

But while regional devolution should certainly play a key role in any future Labour administration, implementing even a radical form of regionalism will not in itself be enough to defeat the supremacy of the London-centric capitalist state. In order to truly equalise the islands, and bring about a multi-vocal polity with something resembling an egalitarian relationship between their component parts, we need to think creatively about how to build up a second major centre of gravity, in order to counterbalance the quasi-imperial centre that is London and the Home Counties.

Cultivating a ‘second city’ — Manchester or Birmingham are the most likely contenders in the English context — is often suggested as a means of reorienting the map of the islands (and of course twentieth-century nationalist movements produced actual capital cities of varying statuses in Dublin, Cardiff and Edinburgh). But as we see in the case of latter-day Manchester and its requisition by a culture of corporate boosterism, building up a second-tier urban centre in the image of the capital is likely merely to replace a concentric with a bicentric form of hegemony — giving rise to two corrupt capitalist metropolises rather than just one.

Rather than settling on a plan to empower one or two chosen cities somewhere in the English middle, we should devise a way in which the northern and western parts of the islands combine together to realise their shared potential, and even their common identity. Instead of a break-up of Britain along archaic nationalist lines, we should break apart England itself and reposition its fringes in close alliance with Welsh, Scottish and Irish nation-regions, in order to ensure that the centre-margins dynamic of the archipelago is radically and permanently overturned.

Dream Archipelago

At this point we must cross over a little way into the realms of sci-fi conjecture. Any geographical levelling would do well to proceed from the underlying truth that islands as a whole are comprised of two large ‘meta-regions’. On the one hand, we might think of a ‘South-East Corner’ oriented around London and the south-east, on the other, a ‘North-West Triangle’, in which the non-English nations are joined by the peripheral English regions.

There are several possible ways of building up a north-west mega-region as a second geopolitical centre of gravity to stand in counterweight to the South-East Corner of the islands. One would be the setting up of an interlinked urban zone incorporating the major cities of the Triangle — the northern English cities, in addition to Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin. A high speed rail link, somewhat on the model of the ‘Northern Powerhouse network’ or ‘HS3’ proposal, could be the structural glue that holds such a network together.

To provide a focal point for this alternative sphere, the northern portion of the zone could be oriented around a new administrative centre somewhere near the Anglo-Scottish border — a hub of the network which could act as a ‘soft capital’ for whatever new arrangement is devised for the islands as a whole after the demise of the UK (for example, a federal union along the lines of the EU, with no customs barriers, full freedom of movement, close diplomatic ties, and so on).

Whatever the practicalities, the basic principle of building up a transnational network of cities organised around a new administrative hub represents a far better postscript to the United Kingdom than both brute nationalism, and the various trickle-down schemes like the Northern Powerhouse phantasm proposed by neoliberals like George Osborne.

The geographical pattern of inequality in England is so ancient and so deep-seated that nothing other than a complete breaking apart of its outlines can ever succeed in evening out its jagged inequalities. Any prospective socialist government that is serious about reform must realise this, and start planning for a future which transcends nationalism rather than retreating into the kingdoms of the past.

Alex Niven’s New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England is out now from  Repeater Books.

About the Author

Alex Niven is a writer, editor, and lecturer in English at Newcastle University. His books include  Folk Opposition, Definitely Maybe 33 1/3, and the forthcoming New Model Island.