How We Help Our Friends in the South
The Scotsman, May 28th 2011
Scotland may have changed and by so doing shifted the UK. And all of this has consequences for the English and England.
Listening to the voices of some of England’s so called liberal commentators post-election has been illuminating. David Mitchell said that ‘If Scotland ever goes it alone … the British will have lost their country’. Madeleine Bunting stated that ‘If Scotland goes, all we’ll have left is the Englishness we so despise.’
There is amongst some a tangible anger about Scotland. Tim Lott, another ‘liberal’ voice, railed against the Scots. And even nearly twenty years after ‘Trainspotting’ missed the rather obvious fact that the ‘we were colonised by wankers’ soliquoy was a satire of such views. Our ‘passionate nationalism’ is according to Lott, ‘fed on the national myth of historical exploitation – built on the reality of North Sea oil appropriation, the Highland Clearances, the evils of empire and so on’.
Quentin Letts trundled out his entertaining pantomime villain impersonation. He bellowed ‘Good Riddance’ to us Scots, and then made clear his annoyance at us. ‘We English’, he wrote, ‘have grown tired of being hated, of being blamed for everything, of being forever the indulgent paymaster and scorned cousin’.
The polemic and rhetoric of Lott and Letts is almost worthy of an English equivalent of that ‘Trainspotting’ outburst, of satire and sending up. Sadly it is more serious than that; they are hurting, angry and want to lash out.
England is being forced by events to begin considering its position as a nation and to start a long-overdue contemplation. England is the last part of the UK to be ruled undemocratically. It is governed by direct rule from Westminster, a victim of ‘the democratic deficit’ we used to rail against.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have had two votes and Wales three about constitutional change, whereas England hasn’t even had one. Then there are things like the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian Question which fuel anger. One English blogger dismissed the entire Scottish elections as ‘the Barnett blackmail vote’, while the sight and sound of Scottish MPs continuing to vote on English matters and impose foundation hospitals and tuition fees on England is an affront to democracy.
There is an English lament for a progressive Britain which has been fading for decades. Some of these ask the age-old question: when will Labour ever be able to govern the UK without Scotland? This seems to be what Scotland is reduced to: a once reliable voting block which helps save the English from themselves!
What is revealing is that there has always been a degree of ambiguity and unease about Englishness. The Tories used to be able to carefully manage the balance between Englishness and Britishness with skill, aplomb and statecraft. This was part of the strength and effortlessness hard wired into the Tory account of Britain.
Labour despite its Scottish and Welsh roots had a sense of subsuming Englishness in its Britishness project of a people’s story about progress, the welfare state and NHS. The latter Britishness initiative of Gordon Brown was a pathetically late attempt at squaring a set of circles which had long grown impossible too. One constant though was the continued silence on Englishness.
Madeleine Bunting for example talks of the need for a ‘liberal, cosmopolitan and multicultural’ England. She notes that it is possible to celebrate the English language, culture, music and the beauty of the English landscape. Yet it still has huge hang-ups about national identity, nationalism and England as a nation.
England needs to begin reimagining itself. It needs to engage in a long creative set of activities before it considers the idea of a single English democratic voice and the notion of an English Parliament.
First, England needs to name and become conscious of itself, taking back its public spaces and institutions from the grip of the British central state. That will begin to create an England as a deliberative space and term of reference which will begin to shape democratic debate. Second, there has to be an encouragement of artists, cultural figures and imagineers to develop an aesthetic and practice of ‘England’s dreaming’, mirroring the Scottish experience post-1979 when political change was blocked.
This is not about England as a Billy Bragg song. ‘I’m not trying to change the world, I’m not looking for a New England’ as the Bragg tune goes. He has long ploughed the furrow of ruminating about a progressive English identity , nationalism and radicalism. However, it won’t help this noble cause by articulating a rose-tinted view of the Scots as having their identity ‘sorted out’ and seeing their nationalism as entirely progressive and benign. Scotland is a land as filled with contradictions as anywhere in the world, but Bragg and others have an identity envy of the Scots.
This is complex and careful territory. There is a palpable sense of loss at the long-term decline of unionist Britain and its related unionist Scotland. This can be seen all over the UK, in the anger in parts of right-wing Britain, the confusion in England, and some opinion north of the border.
Then there is the death of ‘posh’ playground Scotland. This is what we could call ‘Eton Scotland’, the land of ‘The Spectator’ and Charles Moore, of grouse moors, hunting, shooting, fishing and country estates.
It is rumoured that George Orwell wrote ‘1984’ on the Isle of Jura as a redemption about this version of Scotland, as a far-off place of the English upper middle classes of Eton which he constantly heard about as a child. That Scotland has slowly declined, replaced in English fantasies by the South of France and Tuscany, and with it the old establishment version of Britain is passing away.
These leaves England having to confront its own doubts and fears, its post-imperial illusions and its place in the UK and wider world. It may seem a rather lonely, insecure existence, but then the world is a rather insecure, anxious place.
In a deeper sense, we owe it our friends in the south to help them through these tough and unpredictable times. Abandoning England to the Rupert Murdoch-City of London right wing fantasists won’t help any of us on these isles, and as the Scots, along with the Welsh and Northern Irish, increasingly develop their own distinct political spaces, they should encourage the English to begin their own journey.
It would be even more helpful if the English voices which emerged weren’t as irate and bad-tempered as Lott and Letts, but came from the best of England, the land of liberty, dissent and radicalism, which we know still exists.