George Osborne appeared to be the ultimate British Conservative politician – wealthy parents, posh school, Oxford University, six years as the second most powerful figure in David Cameron’s British government and Chancellor of the Exchequer (2010-16). But in a newspaper article last week Mr Osborne asked an extraordinary question: “How can Boris Johnson avoid this disaster – and ignoble title of the worst prime minister ever?”
By "this disaster" Mr Osborne was talking of the break up of the UK. It came as I was signing orders for the first copies of my new book How Britain Ends, which takes up the same theme. I was stunned that Mr Osborne, a leading thinker in "the Conservative and Unionist party" agreed that prime minister Boris Johnson has put the union of the UK at risk. In the book I argue that the UK has survived Scottish, Welsh and even violent Irish nationalism, but cannot survive resurgent English nationalism plus the incompetence of the Johnson government. Mr Osborne wrote: "By unleashing English nationalism, Brexit has made the future of the UK the central political issue of the coming decade. Northern Ireland is already heading for the exit door."
I agree. Scotland voted overwhelmingly against leaving the EU. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon insists Mr Johnson may have a mandate to take England out of the EU but has no mandate for Scotland to Leave. Ms Sturgeon wants another independence referendum. Northern Ireland also voted Remain.
Now thanks to Mr Johnson’s incompetence, there is a customs border in the sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. That has meant empty supermarket shelves in Belfast and furious exporters and importers who cannot get their goods in and out.
What caught my eye was that Mr Osborne is an Englishman who recognises the phenomenon of English – not British – nationalism. Many don't, even though the academic research is clear. The Institute for Public Policy Research carried out a study in 2012 revealing "more people in England continue to identify more strongly as English than British." Even a Royal wedding and the London Olympics that year failed to produce what the IPPR called a 'British bounce'. Those who see themselves as English rather than British tend to be more unhappy with the EU and also unhappy with England's "other unions" – with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. In my research for How Britain Ends I looked back at hundreds of years of English writing about Englishness, rather than Britishness. It was very revealing. The imperialist Cecil Rhodes, for example, claimed: "Ask any man what nationality he would prefer to be, and 91 out of a 100 will tell you that they would prefer to be Englishmen" – not British.
More recently the English Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg talked of “the benefits of Brexit,” and added, “this is so important in the history of our country…. It’s Crecy! It’s Agincourt! We win all these things!” Crecy and Agincourt were battles fought by England alone against France long before the UK was created in 1603. Scotland and Ireland for centuries took the side of France against England.
The UK has reinvented itself every century since 1603 – in 1707 with the Union of English and Scottish Parliaments, in 1801 when Ireland joined the UK, and in 1922 when Ireland left after years of violence. Another reinvention is long overdue. But to pick up Mr Osborne’s point, Mr Johnson is incapable of creative reinvention of the UK. He calls himself a “One Nation Conservative” but his one nation is England, not Britain. When he offers supposed “leadership” on Covid-19, for example, devolved governments in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff go at a different pace and in different ways. When he claims he will make Brexit work for all the UK, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales many folk don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The former UK prime minister Gordon Brown appears to agree with much of Mr Osborne’s argument. He said that rows over the handling of Covid-19 showed the UK risked becoming a “failed state,” because the pandemic has "brought to the surface tensions and grievances that have been simmering for years" between Downing Street and the various parts of the UK.
There are three possible outcomes. First, Mr Johnson tries to keep things as they are. He can’t. Passions, conflicting interests and competing nationalisms are now too strong. Second, he could offer a federal solution.
That would mean more powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and also creating stronger local governments with real powers in England outside London. This imaginative solution could work, but Mr Johnson’s intellectual laziness – something even Conservative MPs privately complain about – means he is unlikely to do anything until it is too late.
The third possibility is most likely – doing nothing, while refusing to allow Scotland another independence vote. That will backfire. It will be a repeat of the same mixture of arrogance and incompetence in the 1770s that led King George III and his prime minister Lord North to ignore the genuine grievances of British citizens in North America. The result was the American revolution. George Osborne himself makes the Johnson-North comparison. He suggests Lord North’s reputation as the worst British prime minister in history is in jeopardy, and that the “worst ever” title could be claimed by Boris Johnson himself. Carelessness, incompetence and English nationalism may be how Britain ends.
Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National