IS THIS the last British election? No, I'm not suggesting that blackshirts will soon march down Whitehall and snuff out the mother of parliaments. I mean: is this the last British election? The last one, that is, in which we can really speak of the politics of a single, sovereign United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Conservatives suggest that two forces are causing the slow death of Britain: integration into the European Union and devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Like two giant leeches, attached respectively to head and stomach, Europe and devolution are supposedly sucking the lifeblood from the proud heart of Britishness. That proud heart is the Westminster parliament, with its central lobby still brooded over by giant Victorian images of the four saints of the British union: St George for England, St Andrew for Scotland, St David for Wales and St Patrick for Ireland.
The second fear is more justified than the first. True, large areas of sovereignty and law-making are now shared with other member states of the European Union, and with the EU as such. True, European reforms likely to happen in 2004, and Britain joining the eurozone would increase that sharing - and further decrease the sovereign powers of Westminster. Anyone who denies that is either naive or dishonest.
But Europe, as it is likely to develop over the next decade, will not threaten the survival of Britain as a nation-state. Don't believe all these scare stories about a German-led drive for a federal superstate. The proposals of Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's Social Democrats - comprehensively misreported in Britain as a "Schroder Plan" for a centralised Europe, with the European Commission as its government - actually call for the repatriation of important powers to national governments, and for the EU to be supervised by a chamber of member states. Even this was received coolly by the French, who want to make quite sure national governments stay in control. If the EU does eventually become some peculiar kind of federation, it will be, as the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer argues, a federation of nation-states.
Devolution is a more serious challenge to the continued existence of our supposedly United Kingdom. If you look at today's party map of Britain, there is already a quite different pattern in the four constituent parts. England is Conservative blue and Labour red, with patches of Liberal Democrat yellow. Scotland is red and yellow, with blobs of Scottish Nationalist Party orange. Wales is red and yellow, too, with its western extremities turned Welsh nationalist (Plaid Cymru) green. Northern Ireland has long sported entirely different colours: Unionists of various hues against Irish nationalists. The Conservatives - once proud to call themselves the Conservative and Unionist party - have no single seat outside of England. (In this sense, you might say that 1997 was already the last British election.)
Devolution has accentuated this pattern. In Scotland - much the most important case for the future of Britain - voters know that education, law and order, medical care and other everyday issues are decided by the Scottish parliament. Yes, they say, the general election still matters; but not half as much as the next Scottish one, in 2003.
Meanwhile, half-buried …