Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Unintended Consequences to the End of the United Kingdom

A little while ago I wrote a post lamenting the end of the United Kingdom. One of the arguments was an appeal to the conservative fear of unintended consequences

"If conservativism can be defined at all then it is the view that human reason is limited and that faced with tasks as complicated as building a state we would do better to rely on the accumulated knowledge of ages.


In the United Kingdom we have the state that played a serious part in defeating Napoleon, the Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler and Stalin, built the world's largest empire, abolished slavery, set up the international economy through an early push for free trade, spread institutions and infrastructure around the world in the biggest overseas investment ever and provided a unique environment which incubated the first Industrial Revolution and modern economic growth. Now, it may be that we don't think this was dependent upon the United Kingdom so much as it was on England, luck, coal or some other quality. However, it seems far more plausible that the geographical security and cultural variety of the United Kingdom were a serious asset which there might be unintended consequences to losing."

Trevor Phillips' article for the Telegraph yesterday argues that one of unintended consequences of fracturing the United Kingdom would be that the new nations would be ethnically defined and, hence, more difficult for new immigrants to become a part of. Certainly, most immigrants now tend to adopt the prefix British even if those the census describes as White British call themselves English or Scottish. However, I'm not sure the situation is as simple as Phillips is describing. There would seem to be two possible conclusions to a two or three state solution for the United Kingdom.

The first is the one that Phillips describes: nations defined as English, Scottish or Welsh, understood by the indigenous population to be the property of those of their ethnicity and less accepting of newcomers. In such a scenario immigrants might only be able to associate with their new national identity to the extent that they became more like the English, Scottish or Welsh and, therefore, feel the dilemma in choosing between their new and old cultures more acutely. The other, also plausible, possibility is that nations with a better sense of themselves would be easier to integrate into as immigrants might be more attracted to a better loved national identity and understand more easily what they need to do to integrate.

I don't think that any sufficently humble thinker can really claim to have a convincing case that either of these outcomes is much more likely than the other in the particular case of the 21st century UK fracturing. However, if you look at the rest of world it is hard to argue that Britain actually does a bad job of integrating newcomers and our various ethnic tribes get on relatively peacefully. The question we should be asking ourselves is clear; do we think we are wise enough to found a new state which would do better than the United Kingdom?

One thing I should finally mention is that the description Phillips offers for Britishness, that it asks you "to treat fellow citizens with respect and fairness, to share basic rules of conduct and to contribute to our common good", is desperately weak. I doubt that many civilised nations would say any different. A shared national identity has to be about something that people agree makes our national project special rather than a selection of close to universal homilies. In one of the very first posts on this blog I set out my vision of what that identity might be.

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