The Difficulties of a Pan-British Conversation on Independence: Michael Portillo’s Table Talk
Open Democracy, September 18th 2009
Michael Portillo, once arch-Thatcherite and now permanent member of the chattering classes and the world of TV luvvies, themed an episode of his ‘Dinner with Portillo’ series on ‘Why Should We Care About Scottish Independence?’ (1).
Drawing together seven middle-aged, middle class men like himself for some fine food and wine and the occasional conversation, the group hardly embodied ‘social inclusion’ – ranging from members of the British establishment such as Timothy Garton Ash and Vernon Bogdanor to media wannabees such as Rod Liddle and Hardeep Singh Kohli. Making up the numbers were Henry McLeish, briefly First Minister of Scotland, Michael Fry, historian and Tom Clougherty, of the Adam Smith Institute. With the exception of the last person, this was a world of aged, comfortable, arrogant men, undisturbed by the tiresome tirades of any opinionated women.
Portillo opened by proclaiming his ‘Scottish credentials’, his mother being from Kirkcaldy, the home of Adam Smith and adopted home of Gordon Brown. He declared himself unbothered and unphased by the whole idea of Scottish independence.
The discussion then staggered into a non-conversation which showed the problems and limitations of a pan-British discussion about Scottish independence. This then got stuck on misapprehensions of what the UK is. Garton Ash and Bogdanor, whatever their liberal establishment views, vainly tried to draw lessons from history, while Fry played his troublemaker role. Kohli and Liddle felt content to make playful, ignorant or inaccurate comments hoping to provoke, entertain or just earn their food and fee!
At the outset Michael Fry tried to ground the discussion in the centrality of the Union between Scotland and England and why 1707 was different from the 1801 ‘union’ with Ireland. This meant that Scots independence would be a very different event with much more wide-ranging consequences than Irish independence. Surprisingly he didn’t get very far!
Timothy Garton Ash addressed the discussion through the recent experience of twenty four independent nations emerging from the demise of the Soviet bloc. He cited the example of Czech independence as a warning to the English; the Czechs he believed had a certain arrogance on becoming independence, and cutting themselves off from the poor Slovaks, in the process ‘becoming a much more boring place’.
Faced with Tom Clougherty getting excited about getting rid of the Scots, and Rod Liddle claiming ‘the Scots weren’t a nation’, Vernon Bogdanor argued that ‘independence would be a disaster for England’, and one which would have a huge negative ‘effect on the English national psyche’. The remaining rump would ‘hardly have any primordial identity left to hold itself together’.
Portillo, ever the mixture of charmer and provocateur, claimed that Scotland was ‘the most socialist country in Europe’. Fry retorted that this was ‘state socialism based on English subsidy’ centred on ‘the last 50 years dominated by Labour who said through us the English give us money’ and that all this would stop on ‘independence day one’.
Kohli who never contributed anything cogent or original the whole night thought ‘complete independence’ a red herring, while it was not automatic that the Scots would say no to the nuclear weapons. Henry McLeish bemoaned ‘narrow nationalism’ and made a plea for being a ‘global citizen’. Clougherty claimed ‘nationalism and self-determination were old-fashioned and very 19th century’ to which Fry replied that ‘the English were a typical imperial nation’ like France, America and Russia, believing they could make the world in their own image.
Next Portillo provocation was the question, ‘does England lose anything with Scotland’ declaring independence? In Michael’s world an England without Scotland would still be a player, and be visited by Obama and Sarkosy, neither of whom would venture north of the border, apart perhaps to play golf – obviously the ultimate insult in Planet Portillo!
Clougherty claimed all that would be lost was a pile of ‘MPs with collectivist notions’. It took the calm and more generous perspective of Garton Ash to address the huge implications of the question and the issue of ‘English nationalism and the dog that hasn’t barked’ which he labelled ‘the nuclear weapon of the Tory Party’.
Liddle ever one for fine tuning his rebarbative asides commented that ‘more English people are becoming chippy’, something which may just be his perception as a prematurely aged grumpy old man, and little to do with the conversation in hand. To Liddle this was directly connected to English people claiming that ‘we are subsidising these bastards and they are running us’.
Portillo in his final intervention ruminated on the non-issue of the thorny subject to him of Gordon Brown as PM as a Scots MP legislating on issues that did not affect his constituents. The conversation drifted to a non-conclusion, a fitting end to a non-discussion which had shown the difficulties and problems of having a pan-British conversation about ‘Scotland’, ‘England’ and ‘the UK’.
In this the Portillo table talk inadvertently showed the gathering storm that is the crisis enveloping the UK. To navigate the impending stormy weather and assess what to do with the good ship ‘HMS Great Britain’ will require a shared set of conversations which agree some common starting points, understanding and memory. Given the UK has a ‘shared history’ and ‘culture’, surely this shouldn’t be beyond even the Ukanian classes?
1. ‘Dinner with Portillo: Why Should We Care About Scottish Independence?’, BBC Four, September 17th 2009,