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There’s an easy way to tell that the powerful don’t want you to talk about something: it’s made to sound boring. The obvious example is economics. But there’s another: the systems used to govern us. Just as we’re encouraged to talk about the economy as though it had nothing to do with poverty, we talk about constitutions as though they are legalistic documents for wonks and constitutional issues as though they are divorced from injustice. The truth is that if economics is about how you share wealth, the constitution is about how you distribute power. And nothing is more important than that.
Because we never talk about it, let me start with a few basic facts about the set up of our government. The British state stretches its wings over 18 legislatures and is responsible for more land in the southern hemisphere than the northern. It protects a web of overseas territories and crown protectorates that includes a small military (our military) dictatorship in the Mediterranean (Akrotiri and Dhekelia, a British overseas territory in Cyprus) and what the Tax Justice Network calls ‘by far the most important part of the global offshore system of tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions’. Our state is one of the most centralised governments in the developed world; it sits with New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and Israel as one of only four on earth not to have a codified constitution. It is one of only two to give automatic seats in its legislature to clerics, the other being Iran.
Of course, on top of these, there are numerous things about the way Britain’s system of governance is arranged that are discussed more often – the monarchy, the electoral system, the House of Lords and the patronage that comes with it, and the huge power of the executive over the legislature. The basics of this system emerged over hundreds of years, bending gradually with the times to ensure it hasn’t ever broken, allowing effectively the same cluster of class interests to remain in charge for most of the past few centuries.
This isn’t normal. Of course, capitalism causes poverty the world over. Neoliberalism teaches people everywhere to put profit ahead of all else – but Britain isn’t being led down this road, it is leading the way. Britain is the most unequal country in Europe and a bastion for the powerful of the planet. Along with a few friends across the world, we are the belly of the beast. This is, of course, because of our history of pillage and murder and empire, and it is by these forces that the British state was forged. It is a specific, unique kind of a state, a system designed for imperial governance that was turned seamlessly into a protector of corporate power across the world and guarantor of the wealthy at home.
The referendum in Scotland has put this system in focus in a way it hasn’t been, properly, for a long time. And in that context, I went on a tour of the seven nations of these geological isles to feel the ripples of the debate. My first stop was Cornwall, the second poorest region of the UK, and the second poorest in northern Europe – a shocking nine of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe are in the UK. While there I interviewed Dick Cole, the leader of Mebyon Kernow (the Party of Cornwall), who sits on a 78 per cent vote in his council division and who told me that Cornwall is so poor because ‘we live in one of the most over‑centralised countries in the world, and the two areas with the lowest economic performance are the areas furthest away from the centre. That’s not a coincidence, it’s not a fluke, it just shows . . . the over-centralised nature of the UK. Economics is not actually about the economy, it’s about politics, about power.’
More than a decade ago, after the foundation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, Cole led a movement that secured a pledge from one in ten Cornish people calling for a national assembly there too. They were ignored by Westminster, but, as he battles the British state’s attempts to rip away the few remaining powers from local government, the vision of a Cornish Assembly has been rekindled. His party launched a document outlining its vision for an assembly earlier this year.
In Wales, I spoke to Leanne Wood, a working-class socialist, republican and leader of Plaid Cymru. She called for a devolution of power from the centre not just to the Welsh Assembly, but continuing down to ‘a very strong network of community-based councils where there’s maximum participation through street level organisation’. I asked her if the problem was the UK or the British state. She was unequivocal in her answer – the latter. It’s not the imagined community that she objects to, but the way it is governed.
She pointed too to one of the greatest quirks of the British constitution. In theory, Westminster is sovereign. But in practice, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement and the Edinburgh Agreement have ended this centuries-old principle. In two of the home nations, the people have secured some form of sovereignty. Not so the Welsh, not so the English, not so the Cornish. She argued not for independence first, but for the right of people to decide. On a visit to Scotland, she had been ‘very encouraged by the way in which the grassroots campaign has really managed to engage with people’ and yearns for a similar unleashing of energy in Wales.
I asked Wood if it was time for her, as leader of the radical UK party with the most MPs, to step into the breach and provide some leadership to those across the UK who yearn for a different kind of politics. She replied that ‘people should be empowered to arrive at their own conclusions and make politics happen for themselves’ and that the British left (‘I’m calling it the British left deliberately’) needs to get to grips with devolution.
Mann is a quasi-independent tax haven, under the protection of the British Crown. There, I found, in a land outside the UK and with the oldest parliament on earth, the most British place I’ve ever seen: a Victorian English seaside town surrounded by Scottish place names; cream teas and Irn Bru. Everything in Douglas, the capital, is named after something royal and the only sign I saw of organised party politics was a poster in the tourist office for a meeting with Nigel Farage.
People I spoke to in the former seaside resort live in the shadow of cheap flights and offshore banks. A builder I met down the local spent his time constructing mansions for millionaires, yet struggled for a home of his own. Some of the capital laundered through the island is skimmed off to pay for public services, but this outpost of Britain’s imperial past in the present is, as local man Jock Mackenzie said to me, ‘only geared up for rich people’.
When I asked people there about Scottish independence, almost all sniffed. It might be perfectly normal that this island of 80,000 runs its own affairs, but Scotland leaving the British state that protects them would, as one barman put it, ‘be cutting off its nose to spite its face’.
But it’s from Ireland that I got perhaps the best perspective on Britain. As I stood in the museum in Cork, a small boy ran in. ‘Where’s Michael Collins?’ he excitedly asked his mum. I’m ashamed to write this, but I didn’t know who Michael Collins was. When I found out that he was a key figure in securing independence, I was shocked by my ignorance. Asking around friends active on the left, it isn’t just me. While many could do a bit better, almost all confessed to a shameful lack of knowledge of Irish history. And of course, the main players in Irish history other than the Irish are the British. So it’s really our own history.
The mass ignorance of Ireland in the UK tells us something crucial about ourselves: we rarely talk about our imperial past, even that which is closest to us. We have never come to terms with the brutality of our empire. Future historians, looking back on contemporary Britain, will surely call our age something like ‘the post-imperial era’. We live in the shadow of our former empire, and we’re happy there. Because it keeps us in the dark about what our ancestors did, how we secured our current relative wealth. And if you don’t confront the past, you don’t have to confront the present created by it.
For an outsider, Irish politics is still clearly defined by the politics of the early 20th century – the main parties are delineated by their position in the civil war. Up close, it’s hard to see that British politics too is a prisoner of the structures built for us by history. From a bit of a distance, this becomes more obvious.
Across the Republic, it seemed obvious to most that Scotland should vote yes. ‘Better to be run by your own fools,’ as one old man said to me in a pub in Cork. ‘London’s a long way away from Scotland.’ ‘They just want your gas,’ a younger, drunker man shouted into my ear as we sat at the noisy bar. ‘They will lie to you to try to scare you into voting no. Don’t believe them for a second.’ The idea that Britain is still at core an imperial state set up to extract natural resources and enrich the wealthy was entirely obvious to him, and in an afternoon interviewing people sunbathing in Galway harbour, I only found one who said they’d vote no if they were Scots. ‘Why?’ I asked. A cheeky glint flashed in his ageing eye. ‘Oh, sectarianism,’ he smiled.
He turned out to be from the North, where attitudes were the polar opposite of the Republic. Of the 50 or so people I spoke to in the streets of Belfast, only one said he would vote yes if he were Scottish, and he’d recently returned after living in Dundee for years. ‘It’s funny, because I’m a republican here,’ said a young man called Chris. ‘But I think it’s in their benefit to stay in the United Kingdom, for currency, and the economy and things like that.’ His view was absolutely typical.
There is a habit in Scotland at the moment of seeing England as an intrinsically right-wing country from which we must unshackle ourselves. This, I think, is to miss the point. The UK is a cluster of reasonably normal northern European nations trapped inside an anachronistic imperial state that has switched easily from a tool of the powerful in the age of empires to a tool for the powerful in the age of corporations. It is from the fringes of the UK, and from outside it, that people get the best perspective on this state and from which the movement to pull it apart will come.
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