When I first entered UK politics we discussed mainstream subjects like living standards, taxes, the level of public spending, the balance of payments, criminal justice, planning and transport. We thought little about identity. We had inherited a United Kingdom which was self governing, proud of its history, and on the side of freedom and democracy.
We English did not usually distinguish between our Englishness and our Britishness. We thought of the Union flag as our flag and the national anthem as our anthem, even when we were supporting English rather than Union teams. The Irish debates about Home Rule and separation of the Republic were too distant
to be even memories for most.
Welsh and Scottish nationalism attracted little support, and debates about them were largely confined to Wales and Scotland. Too few MPs were elected for these nationalist parties to make it much of a UK debate. In the 1970s Labour in a state of panic, with more representation in Scotland and Wales, embarked on its first devolution proposals to “head off” incipient nationalism. They failed to secure the requisite majority in either country for devolved assemblies, against a voter backdrop of limited interest. They had misread the “threat” and the politics.
The long period of Conservative government from 1979 to 1997 saw modest progress by nationalist parties, but still it was a minority issue which did not engage Westminster very much and England not at all. It was Labour’s arrival in power in 1997, determined to drive devolution through which transformed the level of interest in the politics of identity in the UK and led to the current strength of the SNP.
Labour’s enthusiasm for a devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly contained base motives. Some of them wanted these bodies so they could always govern a wide range of issues in these parts of the UK, even when the Conservatives had won a majority in the country as a whole. Labour just assumed they would always have a majority in these regional Parliaments. Instead, the SNP used the platform and the opportunity of the Scottish Parliament to grow in support. Eventually the impossible happened and Labour lost control to the SNP of its creature Parliament.
Once you have a nationalist party within a Union which can command a majority in its part of the wider Union, politics has to change. The parties of the Union cannot retreat to the comfort of their majority at Union level and pretend that the nationalist majority does not exist. I will be returning to this set of issues in future posts, to develop what might happen next.