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Fractured Union. Politics, Sovereignty and the Fight to Save the UK: far-seeing and compelling

Insightful analysis of UK’s uncertain future under the pressures of devolution, inequality, regional dissatisfaction and Brexit

Fractured Union, Politics, Sovereignty and the Fight to Save the UK
Fractured Union, Politics, Sovereignty and the Fight to Save the UK
Author: Michael Kenny
ISBN-13: 978-1805260523
Publisher: Hurst
Guideline Price: £20

The puzzle animating this far-seeing and compelling study is why the future of the United Kingdom’s political union remains “a shadow question, hovering on the shoulders of political parties and politicians, but rarely viewed as one that needs sustained attention or strategic discussion”. This is so despite the plentiful evidence Michael Kenny marshals that the union’s actual future “is more uncertain than it has been for many decades”.

Devolution, Brexit and rising nationalisms in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, linked to declining public confidence in the performance and capacity of Britain’s public institutions, are the major features of this uncertainty. There is a conviction among the UK’s governing elites that its uncodified constitution and the statecraft used to rule its territorial politics are part of the natural order of things, and therefore bound to endure. That inhibits them from tackling the many issues needing attention at the heart of the political centre in London, rather than in the devolved capitals of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

Kenny detects hidden worries and unease among politicians and officials he interviewed over the failure to engage with these problems, notably over the habitual mentalities of centralism in British government and how to address growing dissatisfaction about that in England’s poorer regions. His interviewees are less able to offer a compelling narrative to answer the question “What is the UK for?” They are ill-prepared for the low-probability but high-impact events and crises which pose that question.

London’s economic dominance has been strongly boosted by the growth of services since the Thatcher years of de-industrialisation, accounting for half of all Britain’s exports of information, communications and professional and financial services. And since services now make up nearly 60 per cent of all British exports, that multiplies the income gap with the rest of England. This inequality is a key ingredient of uncertainty.


Kenny directs the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. He has specialised in changing English political identities and the Anglosphere in British politics and brings this expertise strongly to bear in this book. He approaches recent political events with an historical as well as an analytical eye. His treatment of devolution tracks its roots back to the Home Rule crises more than a hundred years ago, and then traces its development from the 1960s through to the establishment of devolved institutions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1997-1998.

These settlements were and remain variable, having differing powers, structures and relations with Westminster and Whitehall. That illustrates the Blair government’s anxiety about their effects on England and the union as a whole, concerns which continued in the political centre when the Conservatives came to power in 2010. Kenny argues that Labour’s failure to open up and resolve the resulting questions about democracy, national recognition and constitutional balance for public discussion came to hang over subsequent unionist politicians.

His treatment of how the constitutional temperature rose under the Conservatives from 2010 to the Brexit referendum in 2016 focuses especially on the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. The process followed by then British prime minister David Cameron in calling it and then leading the No campaign was dominated by considerations of political advantage for the Conservatives, when polling showed support for independence at about one-third of the electorate. The 54-46 per cent result of the referendum was uncomfortably close. Polling just before the vote showing the Yes side could win startled unionist parties into making a vow to reinforce devolution powers but failed to provoke a more long-lasting resolution of constitutional problems.

Here as elsewhere, Kenny skilfully compares and contrasts Northern Ireland’s distinctiveness as a polity within the UK union. He notes the question about the rules on calling a referendum left hanging from the Scottish vote and distinguishes the international treaty obligations applying to Northern Ireland. Devolution and partition there since the 1920s make it dissimilar to Scotland and Wales. Nonetheless, all experienced the abiding temptation for the London centre to use parliamentary or institutional devolution to forget such peripheral affairs. Kenny cautions that the mix of complacency, indifference and uncertainty feeding into the failure to agree referendum rules may also come back to haunt Britain’s political class. That was seen too in Cameron’s calling of the Brexit referendum, which he believed could be easily won to see off Tory Euroscepticism.

Before considering Brexit in detail, Kenny examines the emerging English question and its implications for the union. As he puts it, British politicians’ efforts to save the Anglo-Scottish union in 2014 posed the issue of whether the “careful balancing of geographical and economic interests that had been key to the habitual statecraft pursued by generations of British administrators and politicians is compatible with a model of continual, piecemeal devolution elsewhere in the UK? And what might happen, more generally, if the legendary tolerance of the English started to fray?”

It has frayed under the pressures of Brexit, passed by an English majority in protest against many recent disadvantages and inequalities. These include “the ever more disjoined and dysfunctional way in which England itself has been governed” after devolution elsewhere.

Labour’s efforts to regionalise governance in England stopped when defeated in a 2004 referendum for a northeastern authority. Both main parties have experimented with variants such as elected mayors in major cities, or distinct parliamentary procedures for English-only laws. Neither gives sufficient attention to the greatly weakened character of local government (a factor which the UK shares with Ireland).

Kenny is sceptical about sweeping generalisations on English nationalism as an established political force. He prefers to analyse the emergence of deep-seated feelings of collective neglect from growing regional inequalities and diverging economic fortunes. He traces the growing affirmation and consciousness of Englishness to the erosion of the Victorian idea that “England only finds political expression in entities larger than itself, like the British Empire, Greater Britain, or the idea of a coalition of English-speaking states”. That is linked to the erosion of trust and legitimacy in political institutions since the 1990s. There is a growing resentment about devolution and indifference to the union in England, including Northern Ireland’s role in it. British politics are now more fractured and more loosely connected.

Brexit and the Covid crises reinforced these resentments and anomalies in English and UK governance. The one was like a bomb put beneath them, while the other was a case study in the differentiated way devolution has developed.

Kenny masterfully sets out how both crises developed, and their effects on the union. Brexit strengthened the centralising trend in UK governance by returning powers to London from Brussels. It opened up an assertive unitary unionism in the [former British prime minister] Boris Johnson-led Conservatives, which contrasted with former British prime minister Theresa May’s greater concern for the union’s future. Northern Ireland’s distinctiveness and isolation within the union was also revealed, even when the DUP had voting leverage until 2019. Covid exposed the superior competence of Scottish and Welsh handling of health affairs compared to Johnson’s.

The book’s concluding two chapters evaluate whether the UK union can survive, how it compares to Spain, Canada and the former Czechoslovakia, and develop three medium-term scenarios about its likely futures. These stress the need for unionists to be more strategic and more prepared to react to shocks.

The first scenario would see the union dissolved through Sottish independence, Irish reunification and Welsh sovereignty. Each seems unlikely to Kenny, given current polling and the balance of political forces. But such events could be triggered unexpectedly; the key factor would be further sustained increase in support for a referendum in Scotland. Demographics suggest this is possible and it would be important for unionists to develop strategies for it.

Much would depend on the balance between Scottish expectations and UK government delivery of benefits. A Labour government could overlook or miscalculate that balance as it prioritised other issues. Unionist strategising should, Kenny argues, plan for possible confederal links on security, economics and foreign policy after independence. A similar case can be made for a united Ireland.

The second scenario is for a reconfigured union. Two options are counterposed: a more integrated and centralised union, as advocated by many Conservatives; and a more federalised union as advocated by many in Labour, notably George Brown. Both would retain absolute parliamentary sovereignty. The crucial issue here is how determinedly such plans are pursued in office.

Third, there is an evolutionary model, often described as muddling through. The trouble with this is its lack of strategy and diminishing appeal.

Kenny says medium-term choices will extend over 20-30 years, a much longer period than the decade or so foreseen by most Irish and Scottish analysts. Much depends on how political parties handle these issues in office. If the UK’s constitutional future remains a shadow question rather than a first-order one, unionist ill-preparedness for high-impact shocks will prove their undoing.

Dr Paul Gillespie directs the Constitutional Futures after Brexit project in the School of Politics and International Relations at UCD

Further reading

The Two Unions: Ireland Scotland and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707-2007 (Oxford University Press, 2011) by Alvin Jackson

Provides a pioneering comparative history of Ireland’s and Scotland’s role in the UK, from its origins to its 300th anniversary. Jackon’s treatment ranges over politics, economics, military and parliamentary affairs, accompanied by an appealing overview of relevant historiographies. Major personalities, movements and political parties are drawn into the narrative.

State and Nation in the United Kingdom: the Fractured Union (Oxford University Press, 2021) by Michael Keating

Analyses the UK’s constitutional status as a union-state rather than a unitary one. Keating argues that the UK is a pluri-national union, with differing understandings of its status in each of its constituent parts. From that perspective, its previous membership of the European Union was a better fit for its unionism than the sovereigntism that accompanied its departure with Brexit.

Ties that Bind? Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Union (Irish Academic Press, 2023) by Graham Walker and James Greer

A stimulating study of relations between Northern Ireland and Scotland, written from a liberal unionist perspective. The close historical, political and cultural links are examined in the light of Brexit, aimed at filling a gap in public knowledge about how close they are and should remain in a reconfigured union.

Paul Gillespie

Paul Gillespie

Dr Paul Gillespie is a columnist with and former foreign-policy editor of The Irish Times