4 out of 5 stars
A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.
There is a meme on the internet that showing which parts of the country comprise the alternative names for these islands; Great Britain, The British Isles, The United Kingdom. It was meant as a humorous guide for those trying to work out how this little part of the globe could have so many names depending on how you wanted to understand it. But in that humour is a serious question as to the makeup of our country and the fundamental laws that have held us together and the possible futures we have with the rise of English nationalism.
To answer the question; where are we going and how are we going to get there, is pretty complicated. The lack of a written constitution means that where other countries have clear and unequivocal limits and can work within them, we have a jumble of partly submerged laws and precedents that define who we are. In this murky definition of our country, there are very few people who actually know their way around it and the implications of any form of splintering following Brexit.
One man who is attempting to answer this question is Gavin Esler. He has lived in all the capital cities of the nations that make up our country and in his role as a journalist, he is well placed to ask the probing questions about the state of the state. To learn about how we got to where we are at the moment, first you need to understand our particular and peculiar history. Since the Normans invaded almost 1000 years ago, we have had a strong feudal society, it has been eroded to a certain extent and there have been some power transfers from crown to other positions, but the fundamental principles that existed then still exist now if you know where to look in our state structures. We have seconded the other nations in our Isles to be part of the union and whilst there have always been some separation and nationalistic elements in each of the individual countries, we have managed to stay and for the past 400 years have (mostly) acted as one country.
That started to change in 2014 though with the Scottish Independence Referendum and it was won narrowly by those wishing to remain a part of the Union. Part of what helped that was the promise that the UK would remain part of the EU. Two years later, partly as a response to the rise of UKIP in local elections and to placate a section of the Conservative party that had lurched to the right, the Prime Minister of the time called a Referendum about our place in the EU. We voted to leave by the narrow margin of 52% versus 48% and from that moment on the union was under threat. In Esler’s eyes, this was the point where the rise of English nationalism became a real threat to the union rather than just a low-level concern.
In this book, he lays out the reason behind why he thinks English nationalism has more of a chance of breaking up the UK than previous attempts by Welsh, Irish and Scottish nationalists. He looks at how the Conservative have moved further to the right and to a greater extent have tried to absorb the votes that previously went to UKIP and have co-opted nationalism as well as taking deep draughts from the poisoned well that is nostalgia. They are not huge fans of devolved power to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, and they have been seeking ways that they are trying to recover some of the powers that have been lost. The concentration of power in Westminster is quite acute, and what happens there feels remote and irrelevant to most people outside of the London bubble, where being able to make decisions that are relevant at a local level are important to a lot of people. It feels like a democratic deficit and it isn’t going away.
He has some sensible suggestion on how we can avoid what is feeling inevitable at the moment, including repairing some of the damage done by Brexit, reforms and more devolution of power to the individual nations. It all seems sensible and rational stuff coming from a guy who has no political axe to grind too.
This is not an easy book to like, it is not an easy subject after all, but I thought that the way that Esler has laid out the book and sought to find a deep understanding as to how and why we have reached this point in our collective nation’s history has been well written and thought through. Might not be the most comfortable of reads for some people, but that seems a good reason to read it.