In the aftermath of the last UK elections, an article commenting on its results and implications stated that it could well “mean the end of Britain”. Of course, Britain cannot “end” by Scotland “leaving” the UK just as the United Kingdom cannot “leave” Europe. What is happening, however, is that we have taken another step in a radical shift of how we engage in contests within our political system. For over two hundred years, the field of battle has been that of “redistribution”, between parties spanning the left-right spectrum across the country and all its constituent nations. What this election means is that a new, equally important axis of confrontation is being added at the heart of our system of government, that of “recognition”.
The politics of national and cultural identity, never far away from the surface of British politics, yes always neglected in favour of the clash between Tories and Liberals or Tories and Labour, has taken equal hold of our central institutions of government, in Westminster. Scots have simply said “Enough!” to a party that has dominated its politics for over thirty years yet is perceived as having utterly failed to represent the wishes, interests, and dreams of its voters in London. Instead, the Scottish Labour Party came to be despised as a nothing more than a “Red Tory” party in effect implementing the hated real Tories’ agenda north of the border.
So Scotland decided to follow the example of the province of Québec, who since the 1990s and until the last elections has consistently elected to the federal Canadian Parliament a majority of MPs belonging to the Bloc Québecois, a political party seeking Québec’s independence and closely associated with the provincial Parti Québecois who, whilst in power in this province, has twice organized referendums on the issue of independence, the last of which, in 1995, failed by only a whisker. It has decided that since none of the parties on the redistribution axis was capable of standing up for the Scottish people, it would seek to redress the balance by entrusting its votes to a party operating on the recognition axis: the Scottish National Party. And so, far from signifying “the end of Britain”, what we are witnessing is a remarkable transformation of our politics in a manner that transcends both unidimensional models of the classical left-right redistribution divide and of the communitarian – cosmopolitan recognition divide, forcing us to adopt a “…two-dimensional conception of justice that encompasses claims of both types without reducing either type to the other… [O]nly a framework that integrates the two analytically distinct perspectives of distribution and recognition can grasp the imbrication of class inequality and status hierarchy in contemporary society” .
Of course, this is not a phenomenon unique to the United Kingdom. We can see it taking place throughout the European Union. Unless we understand these recent developments in British politics within the wider context of how Europe as a whole is evolving as a system of governance, we will fail to see both the root causes of these events, and the various ways in which they can be addressed in a coherent and comprehensive manner. Simply put, most European nation-states have emerged and coalesced around the identity of a dominant nation that has attempted to assimilate, or at the very least marginalise, all other national and regional identities inhabiting that state's territory, in order to ensure greater cohesion of its population and facilitate the ability of their leaders to control them for both internal and foreign policy purposes. Today, with democratic, human rights, and cultural recognition principles in the ascendant, what Friedrich Engles once contemptuously called "unhistorical nations" are waking up from their political slumber, and demanding a voice, a vote, and autonomy as actors within national and international arenas. This is seen as an existential threat by traditional nation-states, who try by all means possible to block their emergence and political empowerment.
This problem cannot be solved by each European nation in part, as each possesses a dominant nation against which historical resentments emanating from other national and regional communities remain to this day extremely high. However, within a European context, where no dominant national group exist, and where a wide variety of national and regional groupings can interact, enter into dialogue, learn from each other and engage in joint problem-solving exercises, this demand for voice, vote, and autonomy on equal footing with similar other nations can readily be fulfilled without endangering the very existence of traditional nation-states. Only within the EU can all British nations be truly unshackled and acquire the knowledge, presence, and access to become influential players within the UK, the EU, and even globally. Leaving the EU would inevitably result in the continuing dominance of England in general and the London/South east region in particular over all other regional and national communities of the UK. It could even result in the actual break-up of the United Kingdom, as Scotland - and potentially Northern Ireland would refuse to be dragged out of the EU by English votes and decide to hold their own independence referendums, that would then allow them to re-join the EU as full members endowed with all the rights of full Member States.
In a recent piece entitled “The West’s Malaise”, Economist Editor John Micklethwait made two key points: “First, the levels of unpopularity and disengagement in the West have now risen to staggering levels…. Second, no matter how much moderate politicians might scorn populists like Ms. LePen and Mr. Farage, the democratic establishment has proved unequal to the challenges of the day…So the West’s malaise is dangerous. The failure of democracies to get things done will lead to questions about other features of an open society, such as freedom of the press, free markets and relatively open borders. Populists will keep on demanding easy answers to complicated questions. On the right, immigrants will be the scapegoats and politicians will play with nationalism. For the left, the redistribution of wealth will be a big theme”.
The underlying reasons for these current developments lie in the breakdown of the post-Second World War political and economic consensus, centered around national models of the welfare state and institutionalized, alternating political parties distributed along the Left-Right spectrum. The dramatic decline in popularity and trust of these traditional parties on both sides of the Atlantic indicates that the classical forms of representative democracy are no longer capable of endowing national legal orders with the performative legitimacy required to maintain the social compact between citizens and their elected élites. As Owen Jones recently stated when commenting on the just-concluded leadership race for the British Labour Party, "[t]he Corbyn surge is part of a general trend of political discontent bubbling across the Western world, manifesting itself in progressive ways but also reactionary ways, too: Podemos, Syriza, Bernie Sanders, the SNP, UKIP, the National Front, the True Finns, and so on." In the USA, Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ challenges to the dominance of the Bush and Clinton political dynasties are part of the same trend. Not since the early 1930s conflicts between Europe’s radical right and left have Yates’ lines in "The Second Coming" sounded more true:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere /The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
This collapse of the bonds of trust connecting the Governing and the Governed, resulting in increasing social unrest and political alienation, has simultaneously plaid a significant part in the strategic delegitimation of national legal orders by amplifying the reawakening of political consciousness within what were thought to be – to paraphrase Friedrich Engels – the assimilated and disappearing ‘unhistoric’ and ‘lesser’ nations of Europe: such as the Basques, Catalans, Scots, Welsh, Bretons, Waloons, Flemish and others. Yet such centripetal forces destabilizing from the inside established western European nation-states are not limited to sub-state feelings of belonging defined primarily through ethnic, cultural, or linguistic differences; they are also particularly evident in an emerging strong sense of regional solidarity based on historical traditions of autonomy, and on political and economic factors differentiating the inhabitants of such regions from their fellow nationals.
These factors are further compounded by the disturbing evidence, referred to by Micklethwait, of growing racism and xenophobia within Britain and the European Union towards the large ‘immigrant communities’ now living within its various Member States. The members of these communities, composed both of recent and of second-and third-generation immigrants, whilst ready to assume the civic duties required of them, are increasingly unwilling to abandon the defining characteristics of their families’ cultures and faiths and become assimilated within the dominant ethnic nation of their states.
Their demands of equal-status recognition as residents and as citizens, as well as of their right to maintain their cultural and religious specificities on European soil, as Europeans, are creating severe social tensions within ‘national’ legal orders conflating the universalist and egalitarian concepts inherent in the notion of citizenship and ‘civic nationalism’ with the particularist and exclusionary connotations embedded in the ‘ethnic nationalism’ characteristic of the historical western European Nation-States. This analysis leads us to two key conclusions: the traditional institutions of government and of political aggregation of the United Kingdom no longer represent the wishes and aspirations of large sections of the British electorate and can no longer solve the fundamental political challenges we now face; and this phenomenon is not happening just in our country, but across the European Union.