Be Clear Who Britain is Great For
The Scotsman, January 18th 2014
The independence debate is about many things – politics, practicalities, personalities.
More than this it is about emotions – ranging from hope and fear, to anger, indignation and even incomprehension.
We have heard enough about the supposedly ‘Braveheart’ idea of Scottish independence, but what of the emotional case for Britain and the union?
There is still a powerful, resonant argument for the UK in its present form which has appeal and a rationale, albeit a declining one. This week Chris Deerin in ‘The Guardian’ (in a piece republished from the Scottish Daily Mail) attempted upon his return to Scotland to lay out such a case, and was backed up the redoubtable Alex Massie a day later.
Deerin puts fully into words the magical, mystical, mythical case for Britain – which is taken as assumed by some of Scotland’s supposedly progressive voices – but never in such explicit, unconditional terms.
Deerin’s Britain and Massie’s too is a land of exceptionalism. It is a place which stands for morality, modernity and progress; a land which is a beacon on the hill (with shades of Camelot here) for those fighting for freedom and justice the world over.
In this world the innovations of 1603 (one kingdom, two states) and 1707 (retention of Scots autonomy; dual identities) are still supposedly to be marvelled at today. These were brilliant compromises of the feudal age, but to pose, as Deerin does, part of his present day case for the union on them, well, isn’t that a bit, dare I suggest, romantic nationalist? For that increasingly is the terrain of much of the pro-union case.
The problem with the ‘isn’t Britain the greatest nation/union/partnership in human history’ argument is this sentimentalised, romantic, backward Ladybird book mythologising of the past. And it begs the question: great for whom and in what way?
For a factual point, it is not the greatest union or partnership by longevity. The founding of the UK in name dates back to 1801; and on its present borders 1922 (leaving aside the beginning of decolonisation from 1947 onwards). This means on the first date the UK is pre-dated by the US which would have a better claim in the game of ‘greatest union’, and in the second is actually still a very young state.
Of course Britain’s elites have never let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of presenting the UK as the land of continuity, preservation and seamless change. In this, traditions are suddenly invented and then claimed as timeless, whether it is all the flummery around the Royals or the pretence they are not political (when until 1963 they directly appointed Tory Prime Ministers).
The forward march of British democracy is a story many of us have been told at school and by our parents. It emphasises the non-violent way that Britain, unlike most of Europe, became a parliamentary democracy, embraced the rule of law, and became a land which cherishes freedom and individual rights.
The problem is it isn’t completely true. Britain never became a fully-fledged democracy. So as Michael Gove tries to whip up a patriotic storm to celebrate one of the most pointless imperial wars in human history, claiming it was about British democracy against the Kaiser’s aggression, the only trouble with this, as historian Richard J. Evans pointed out is that Britain wasn’t a democracy in 1914. In fact, 40% of adult men did not have the vote, and many of those sent to die for ‘King and Country’ were yet to be enfranchised.
Britain never fully democratised politically. One of our tragedies is the failure of the Labour Party to embark on a programme of challenging the institutions of ‘the conservative nation’ of privilege – the Lords, public schools, Oxbridge and the City.
Britain remains a land with only one part of the constitution elected: the Commons, and the whole apparatus of the Lords and monarchy having the effect of infantilising the people.
Numerous feudal relics litter the land. These include the Royals being consulted and having a potential veto on legislation before it goes to Royal Assent, to Prince Charles in his role as the Duchy of Cornwall pocketing each individual’s will in the region if they die intestate. And some people actually think there is no difference between being a citizen and subject.
Progressives have had their chance to democratise and modernise. There have been four distinct periods of post-war Labour Government over 30 years which is a long enough timescale to conclusively judge the capacity for reform.
And while they achieved many notable gains many of us are proud of, they failed to bring Britain into the modern age. Britain is a pre-democratic state in an age of post-democracy: and that limited state of affairs has allowed the old and new elites to collude at the destruction of what many used to hold dear about Britain.
We have to stop pretending that a fantasyland Britain where everything is all right and mythical stories can be told to enchant the children is enough. A good example of this was Gordon Brown’s recent intervention calling for a new constitutional settlement to make the purpose of the UK a legally binding commitment to ‘social justice’. What parallel universe did that come from given New Labour’s record in office or the longer 30 year story of missed opportunities under Labour?
Britain has consistently and deliberately failed the majority of the people of these isles – Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish. The progressive clarion call of Britain is not completely dead, but exhausted, hollowed out and humiliated.
This isn’t to excuse some of the obvious limitations in Scottish public life – our belief in our own comforting stories, or our readiness to accept conservative elites telling their own self-serving myths, as somehow progressive, but those making the emotional case for the union have to do better than invoke some Monty Python like version of Camelot.
Progressive Britain is in terminal crisis, and the Scots collectively have a chance to do something about it, namely, to stake out a different direction and future. That is a great opportunity but to fully take it we have to break free of our own myths as well.