The United Kingdom is going to the polls on Thursday. Elections electrify the countries in which they are held, but in most cases they make little difference. In this case, the election is a bit more important. Whether Labour or the Tories win makes some difference, but not all that much. What makes this election significant is that in Scotland, 45 percent of the public voted recently to leave the United Kingdom. This has been dismissed as an oddity by all well-grounded observers. However, for unsophisticated viewers like myself, the fact that 45 percent of Scotland was prepared to secede was an extraordinary event.
Moreover, this election matters because UKIP — formerly the United Kingdom Independence Party — is in it, and polls indicate that it will win about 12 percent of the vote, while winning a handful of seats in Parliament. This discrepancy is due to an attribute of the British electoral system, which favors seats won over total votes cast. UKIP's potential winnings don't seem very significant. However, the party represents a movement in Britain that is not unlike what is going on in the rest of Europe, and in addition, creates a new dimension to British strategic policy that might well be important. Most of the vote that UKIP is attracting comes from former Conservative voters. That means that Prime Minister David Cameron might lose the election. That does not change Britain's strategic position much. UKIP and the Scottish vote might.
The UKIP and Scottish Factors
UKIP is both anti-European and anti-immigration. It opposes British integration with the European Union, based both on practical matters and ideological matters. UKIP sees the European Union as undermining British economic well-being and British sovereignty, and it sees British sovereignty as a moral imperative. It also sees British culture as an essential characteristic of British sovereignty and, in that sense, regards immigrants as a threat to Britain.
The United Kingdom is a European nation. Its national identity emerges from a shared history, language and culture. You are born to a European nationality. It is not easy to become something whose essence is in birth. In this sense, European nationalism is profoundly different from American nationalism, whose identity is built around the accommodation with a dynamically changing culture.
European nationalism simultaneously binds and repels. It binds those with the common heritage together. It repels, purposefully and incidentally, those who are different. This is why the Scottish referendum is so significant. Even after 300 years, 45 percent of Scots were prepared to think of Scotland as an independent nation, based less on any specific issue than on the principle of divergent national identities.
The British elections represent the current state of Europe. There is the deep ambivalence about the European Union and the rise of the anti-European parties not yet ready to govern but still affecting the system (as shown by Cameron's promise to hold a referendum on Britain's EU membership). There is the anti-immigration sentiment, currently driven by fear of Islamist terrorism and the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe taking some of the lower-wage jobs, but actually having deeper and less tractable roots. Finally, there is the rise of nationalist movements within countries where it had been thought that the question of nationality had been settled centuries before, drawing its energy from the questions raised in the other movements and becoming unexpectedly powerful.
The United Kingdom, in its understated way, points to the fundamental trends in Europe. First, the mainstream parties, regardless of formal ideology, are more or less committed to the idea of the European Union. Second, there are emerging political parties that are committed to independence, both in the sense of not being answerable to Brussels and in the sense of preserving the foundation of national identity. Finally, that foundation is undermining Britain's unity, because an integral part of the United Kingdom has been toying with the idea of independence.
All of this has geopolitical consequences. This is not because Britain is going to lose or gain an empire. It has already lost one, and it is not about to gain another. But Britain is a strategic country, partly because of geography and partly because of power, and what happens to it matters more to the world than what happens to some other countries. Let's consider the British situation not in terms of domestic political parties but in terms of geopolitical position.
Britain's Geopolitical Imperatives
British strategy derives from English strategy. The primary English strategic imperative was to maintain the unity of the British Isles, or at least prevent foreign powers from developing a base for operations against England. This means the domination of an amalgamation of England with Scotland and Wales. The loss of either Scotland or Wales opens the door eventually to the development of a hostile power to the north or west.
The second imperative was to prevent hostile naval forces from finding safe harbor near England. This led to English domination of Ireland and of the southern English Channel coast, along with the Norwegian coast.
Its third imperative was to dominate the seas to the extent that it could construct an empire that would provide it security without becoming dependent on the European Peninsula for economic development.
Until World War II, Britain had achieved its imperatives. It has lost the third, of course, as well as the second. The threat of Scottish secession, however remote it actually is and however benign its consequences might be, creates a primordial danger to Britain.
Britain is an upper-middle-tier power. It is the fifth-largest economy in the world, has the 19th-highest per capita income in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund, and still has a substantial military that can and has deployed intercontinentally. I call it upper middle only because the United States towers over all countries, and the countries after the United States are all just upper-middle tier. The point is that it is a significant regional power, but not decisive by itself.
Historically, it has never been a power that could impose itself on the European mainland or even on many of its colonies. Britain's strategy has been subtler, based on two things. The first is command of the seas, which allowed it to control the global reach of other parties, and therefore blockade them at will, while transporting troops and products generally without interference. The second was a strategy of using its sea power and its limited influence on land to maintain the balance of power not just in Europe but also in India and other colonies.
Britain is no longer close to being the dominant sea power. The United States has taken that role. Nor can it influence the balance of power on the European continent. At the same time, it understands that protecting its sovereignty, maintaining its room for maneuver and avoiding being swallowed by greater entities is fundamental to its national interest, as is maintaining the territorial unity and integrity of at least the British Isles.
Britain can no longer force others to balance each other. However, it can adopt a posture that allows it to balance itself. In a certain limited sense, the United Kingdom maintains its historical balance-of-power strategy by finding equilibrium between the European Union and the United States. For Britain, subsuming its interests with either entity poses a fundamental danger — that its interests will be ignored or harmed. By refusing to simply subordinate itself to one or the other, it maintains its freedom of action.
There is, of course, a cost. The price of maintaining a relationship with the European Union is that it must, to some degree, participate in its institutions. The price of maintaining its relationship with the United States is that it must be prepared to align its politico-military posture to the United States. Britain must try to create a European dependence on Britain, even if it is only psychological. It must involve itself in the wars of the global power even if they are not in the United Kingdom's immediate interest because it helps create an American dependence on Britain — less for its military contribution than for the political legitimation Britain provides the United States in its actions. Where much of the European peninsula may oppose an American adventure, Britain's participation splits Europe and increases U.S. political room for maneuver.
In many ways, this is a simpler strategy than the complexity of British balance-of-power politics in Europe or India. It is simply Britain managing its own posture. As Europe weakens, the United Kingdom tilts closer to the United States. As the United States goes through its periodic inwardness, it tilts closer to Europe. It is not a matter of tilting one way or another, but a complex ballet where ideally no one is fully certain what the British are doing.
The Problems in London's Strategy
But there is a fundamental danger in this strategy. It is built around the unity of Britain and around a British national identity sharing a common interest. Two political forces inevitably emerged in this strategy. As Europe weakens, anti-European movements emerge that fail to understand the complexity of British strategy. UKIP wants independence from Europe without understanding that British independence can be maintained only by having multiple relationships that it can tilt toward and away from. Independence does not arise from locking out one of the poles of Britain's reality but by accommodating them all. UKIP is useful in managing relations with Europe, but the danger is always that the simplistic position will overwhelm the United Kingdom's ability to manage it. This is particularly true in that the mainstream parties in Britain, as throughout Europe, are unable to articulate the strategy they are following.
The other danger is related to national identity. For several centuries, a British national identity has developed. This unity made the British Empire possible. But the empire has been gone for some 50 years, and the underlying reality of Britain is emerging, as it is in other European countries. The United Kingdom consists of several nations, and the Scots in particular have maintained their national identity — perhaps not as vigorously and bitterly as the Irish, but they have maintained it nonetheless. The devolution that began in Europe in 1918 and the fall of the European imperial houses that continued through the Soviet collapse — not to mention their corrosive effects on European nation-states — is not over yet.
When Britain maneuvers for its national interest, it must address what it means by nation. And throughout Europe, the definition of nation has become less forgiving; every distinct group has the right to national self-determination. And as Britain maneuvers, the question arises as to whether the maneuvers are in the interest of all of Britain, or only England. The Scottish National Party does not have a clear platform on all matters. It does have a singular moral stance, which is that Scots ought to be interested in Scottish national interest and cooperate with England based on that rather than on a somewhat forced amalgamation.
The upcoming election features UKIP and the Scottish National Party, along with the mainstream British parties. The emerging question is precisely what Britain is and what its place is in the world. Both parties are seen as marginal because they do not take for granted the conventional wisdom so deeply embedded in the United Kingdom that it is not seen as merely one option among many, but as the natural order of things. UKIP has raised the question of whether a relationship with Europe and the United States maintains the national interest or undermines it. The Scottish have raised the question of whether there is a British nation at all, and whether unity supports Scottish self-interest.
Both of these parties profoundly affect Britain's ability to position itself between Europe and the United States — one by questioning Europe's worth, the other by questioning Britain itself. It is institutionally impossible for the mainstream parties to take UKIP and the Scottish National Party seriously. They are so outside the framework of British strategic culture that they seem mad. But they are challenging the assumption that provides the basis for British strategic culture. It cannot be assumed that in the long run they will not win; UKIP may be simplistic, but there is virtue in being simple. And the Scottish National Party, decades after the fall of the British Empire, is asking what it means to be British and why do the Scots care. It was hard for Rome to maintain its unity after it lost its empire. Britain has not yet fully played out the drama that began in 1945.