The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

The UK and the Ukraine: On the point of splitting?

24th February 2014

Matthew Groves highlights the differences in separation proceedings of the United Kingdom and the Ukraine

Presently, the United Kingdom and the Ukraine seem to be on the brink of separation, and what is noteworthy is the different ways these break-ups appear to be playing out.

There are already dead people on the streets in the Ukraine, while Scottish Nationalists remain unharmed by the forces of the State. If the Ukraine splits, it could well be a bloody division, whereas if the United Kingdom splits we will probably see an orderly and legal division, where the most violent acts are the abusive language used by Nationalist politicians.

No doubt many liberal Ukrainians would point to the meddling of Russia as a reason for the violence and civil disorder. They will also point to Western Ukraine’s stronger European links through Poland that cause an underlying tension. However, is there not another reason Great Britain’s demise, if it takes place, will be more orderly? That reason is surely that our history has not been revolutionary, but based upon the evolution of institutions. As much as some Scots seem to have lost faith in a future within the United Kingdom, they are still rightly confident that the outcome of the referendum will be dealt with in a legal and procedural manner. No one is expecting fighting on the streets.

The irony is that a Scottish secession could throw a question mark over the very institutional identity of Great Britain. This Kingdom owes its stability and its tolerant political system to the very institutions so disparaged by the Left. We are all subjects of the Monarchy, whether white or black, indigenous or immigrant. We all go about our business under the rule of law, rather than arbitrary government. Sovereignty lies with the Queen in Parliament, rather than with a despot or the mob. And therefore our differences and our disputes are addressed according to commonly accepted procedures, which base their legitimacy on the very fact that they are established.

All the countries of the former Soviet Union, however, have emerged from a political system established by political violence. The binding institutions (in need of evolution yes, but not revolution) were cast aside and there is a sort of ontological violence at the root of Slavic politics. Rather like a broken home, once the precious social organism given to us is cast aside, there is a profound trauma that plays itself out repeatedly through history.

Meanwhile, on our own island, we are for the first time confronted by a nationalist ideology that states, institutions and shared tradition do not define a country, but nationality does. If Great Britain owes its stability and even potentially its stable break-up to its institutional framework, then that break-up could still have major repercussions.

The ever-tolerant English have contentedly seen their identity dissolved into a Great Britain that exists according to Burkean principles of institutions and rule of law, but they may now see a new identity thrust upon them. If once it was the institution of monarchy that defined your Britishness, so that Commonwealth subjects could come here with relative ease, Scottish secession would begin to define the nation state by nationality, not shared institutions and our geographical island status. The English would no longer be British, but simply English, with all the implications for a racial identity that would bring.

Meanwhile in the Ukraine, sympathetic as we may well be to the protesters, there is rightly a concern that when political power resides on the street, rather than with legitimate institutions, there is always the risk of revolutionary mob rule. As per Lord Acton, power corrupts, and when the forces of law and order have fallen away, we are faced with a situation more akin to William Golding’s vision than Thomas More’s. The terrible dilemma for the Ukraine is that, because of historical violence and revolution, there is no longer a political authority that commands legitimacy or acts in a traditional way, following a custom of how to govern. Some fear that the original violent act of the Bolshevik Revolution will mean that a narrative of violence continues to be followed.

Back on these shores, it remains to be seen just how the English would respond to Scottish independence and we may never need to put it to the test. However, if our identity is no longer about institutions and shared traditions, something will have to fill the vacuum. Great Britain’s success was built upon an idea of nationhood that adapted the institutions of the ancient regime to the modern world, while the rest of Europe disintegrated into revolutionary nationalism. While the Continent, through its act of violence against its own institutions, saw its history seem to follow some repeating curse of violence, culminating in Stalinism in the East and the Holocaust in the West, Britain remained stable. History is not a pattern, but we should regret national disintegration, whether violent, as could be the case in the Ukraine, or orderly as could be the case here.

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