Time to take Britain out of our greatness

Finally, the nature and future of England may become part of the national debate in the UK, as Scotland's First Minister appeals to the English who have not spoken yet and IPPR announces the discovery of England's emerging political community.

Alex Salmond’s Hugo Young lecture, delivered yesterday evening in King's Place, the Guardian's headquarters, was an enjoyable affair. It was also, thanks to Tory policy and IPPR’s research, a potentially important moment - a turning point, even, in what can legitimately be called ‘this island’s story’.

From what I could make out, most of the pro-Labour remnants of the Westminster political class present expressed disappointment as Salmond brushed aside their objections with his easygoing reasonableness. What did they want? Are they still longing for a rousing call for a “New Britain” like Blair's? Do they hunger for a Scot demanding freedom and a "New Scotland" whom they can admire and deride…? At least Liz Forgan, who heads the Guardian’s Scott Trust and chaired the event, recognised Salmond's approach as possibly historic.

It isn’t just because of what he said or – as always with Salmond – the way he said it. By accepting the invitation some time ago he had decided to bring his argument to England. However, in the New Year, Cameron and Osborne decided to play the Scottish card, ‘take’ the initiative and set the terms and timing of the independence referendum. This transformed yesterday’s London speech from being a sortie by an outsider pitching his case into a reply to the Prime Minister.

It therefore mattered what he said. It was a first round that Salmond won with embarrassing ease. So much so that the government will surely have to hurry on and pretend that it never tried to set the terms at all. With his perfectly calibrated matter-of-fact way, Salmond simply said that when and how the referendum would be conducted was for the Scottish people. His government would lead the consultation on it thank-you (it is being launched today). As for the timing, he was elected on a commitment that a referendum would be held in the second half of the current Scottish parliament’s term and this decision by the Scottish voters was “binding”.

It was said with such a lack of aggression or parliamentary bluster that an outsider who was unaware of the Prime Minister’s initiative could have missed the fact that the highest power in the land was being told to get lost.

However Salmond did not tell the English to get lost. On the contrary, he told us that he loved us and he wanted us to find ourselves together with the Scots, Welsh and Irish. What we all need, and what he, Salmond, wants, is “a social union” with all of the affiliations that bind us and none of the destructive politics, or querulous rows about money. If the Queen (or her speechwriters) can tell the Irish, as she did just last year in Dublin, that England’s ties with the Irish “make us so much more than just neighbours, they make us firm friends and equal partners” then surely this will apply to Scotland and England too – “firm friends and equal partners” – Salmond repeated the phrase as if it was a sweet in his mouth.

Salmond’s strategy and his entire independence politics is based on this simple insight. That it is “a normal and natural state” for a historic country with ample resources to be self-governing.

Independence is normal! Indeed, it does not need an exclamation mark. It is reasonable and healthy. The closest Salmond gets to boasting about its qualities is that independence might be glowing (as in a "beacon" - the only Blairite note of the evening). In the questions he emphasised that he has “never argued we are superior or better, just that we are capable of running our own affairs” and no disaster will follow from it if they do. It isn’t a threat. All the difficulties that people raise can be settled by reasonable people.

He opened his speech saying he is an optimist and making the optimistic case for what his government has achieved in Scotland. In the questions he told us that positive campaigns always beat negative campaigns (and that negative campaigns only won when they were up against other negative campaigns, in which case the most negative campaign won).

Watching and listening to him I think I understood the relationship he has to the Scottish public that helps explain why he is an exceptionally successful politician. He treats the Scots (and now the English) in a way that's akin to a coach. Not leading from the front like a Thatcher or a 'Braveheart' but rather encouraging folk to do the best they can. His government seeks to provide security, he told us, as this brings out people’s "confidence", hence their full capability, enabling the economy to grow through cooperation not competition. Whether this consensual,  progressive image of Scotland is true or not is beside the point. As is the fact that Alex Salmond remains a politician - not just a coach but also a manager who makes dirty deals behind the scenes (most notably with Murdoch who is always promiscuous when it comes to winners).

The point is this: he does not bang the table and demand independence while insisting that his own people rise to the occasion, in the 'Braveheart' style that the English want as it would provide the kind of fight they can win. Salmond leads from the side. I have my views, he says, I myself want independence but if the Scottish people want something less, I'm their leader too and I'll take them to where they are comfortable with being.

And at the moment most Scots seem to prefer, not independence, but 'devo-max', meaning complete financial self-government but within the Union. Therefore Salmond will offer them this option in the referendum. It may indeed muddy the waters and even make independence harder to argue for and win. But Salmond isn’t going to turn against his own people. He won't join the chorus saying that they must vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (unless that is what a clear majority of them prefer). For this way lies negativity. His approach is "If devo-max is the most you want, fine, but why not go further?’

Built into this strategy is the hope that Westminster Britain, feeling control slipping away, will start to bully and bluster, allowing Salmond to oppose the politics of “fear-mongering” while provoking Scots into a defiant embrace of independence. The Telegraph’s Deputy Editor Benedict Brogan sees the danger and is trying to squash any such tactics in advance. Cameron, he says, in an important column designed to influence Tory strategy, must not deploy the “brutal tactics” used to such good effect in the AV referendum. Instead he must show,

discretion, courtesy and a disciplined avoidance of any language that amounts to questioning Scotland’s capacity for self-government, its ability to prosper, or its willingness to reason. That Scotland could be a successful, moderately well-off independent nation is not in doubt and should not be misrepresented….  Mr Cameron must avoid being lured into any comment that will allow him to be portrayed as an evidently English prime minister.

His reticence is required not because it will deprive Mr Salmond of something to complain about, but because he must reserve himself for the consequences of the vote. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there will have to be a renegotiation of the terms between Scotland and the rest of the Union. Whether Scotland chooses independence or opts to remain, there must follow a detailed re-balancing of the political and financial relationship. Be it the “devo-max” Mr Salmond speaks of, or some other arrangement, Mr Cameron must be in a position to negotiate as a respected equal after Scotland has decided.

This is so wise and far-sighted as to be implausible. If everyone agrees that the potential of Scottish self-government is not in doubt, neither is England’s. In which case Alex Salmond’s “social union” beckons just as much to the English. 

The hard, commanding thrust of the Telegraph’s long-range editorial intelligence can be felt in the words I’ve highlighted. The British Prime Minister must not just win the referendum, he must win it in such a way that, “he must reserve himself for the consequences of the vote”. Why? Because this won’t be like the AV referendum. (Indeed, a point Brogan didn't make but I reflected on at the time, the AV campaign was defeated on the same day in May 2010 that the SNP won its astounding majority.) A referendum won't mean Scotland goes away. On the contrary it will still be here, with its history and voice and no Tory MPs in Westminster… the cost of winning narrowly after a “brutal” campaign of fear-mongering and with the younger generation in Scotland (who mostly favour independence) feeling their birthright has been refused them by their elders, is not going to put an end to the matter. Brogan has identified an enormously important point.

Yet the strategy he advocates will almost certainly self-destruct. If the opposition by the British government takes the form of saying calmly that of course Scotland can be a well-off independent nation and of course it can keep the Queen like Canada, then the same applies to England too. In which case the campaign for Britain and Britishness has to be a campaign for… Britain and Britishness as such.

This is the line that Peter Oborne explores in a brave column also in the Telegraph. What were the English and Scots before we became Britain? His answer, “piffling little places on the edge of the world”.  Hmm, was the brilliantly educated, cosmopolitan Elizabeth Ist, who inspired the defeat of an Armada sent by the greatest Empire of the time, piffle? Or Shakespeare?

Peter also does not want to defend the Union if the price is a descent into mean squabbles and brutal negativity. There has to be an attractive political case, he argues, for a shared 'Britain' above all the piffling nations. Together we are greater than the sum of our parts - and surely that added greater-ness is Britain. The United Kingdom, he argues, “richly deserves to survive – but only if it can conjure up its own poetry and romance, and embrace the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish on equal terms”.(my italics)

This implies there is a British culture and poetry separate from the constituent nations. But there isn’t, is there? Before the lecture I discussed with Ian McEwan whether there are any 'British poets', poetry being especially important as the expression of the inner voice and spirit. He agrees that there are not, in part because Scottish poets have such a distinctive and powerful voice. He made a further spiritual comparison: "There aren't any 'British' poets. Football and poetry here are one". 

Doubtless this literary argument has been debated elsewhere. In a sentence, the point I am trying to make is that Britishness does not exist on its own or as a separate nationality. Appealing to it as such, to 'save the Union' in fact releases the English genie which is the main threat to the Union.

For Britishness is the creation of English expansion and the English recruited into their British project other nations to make it genuinely a multi-national and imperial identity. While for the Scots, Welsh and Irish there was always a dual identity within it, for the English who are so much the more numerous it was a ‘fused identity’. It is a point I first made in Iron Britannia thirty years ago. Back them if you asked the English-British as I did, whether they were British first and English second they could not understand the question. The two identities were simply two sides of the same coin. The British side faced outwards: The British navy, the British Empire. The English side faced inwards, the English Countryside and English literature (it is never the British countryside). Heads I win, tails you lose: two identity impressions on one currency.

This is why, if you have followed me this far, the political project of defending Britain as a political entity fails if Englishness is separated from it. But once those who want the British Union concede that Scotland can indeed enjoy self-government, as Brogan argues, how can England also be denied the possibility of its distinct independence? But once this is granted, even in abstract, the fusion of England with Britain starts to come apart.

Then Britain and Britishness have to stand on their own - politically. Can they withstand scrutiny today? What is the politics of Britishness? It is the sandpit of the Westminster political class. Why should we, the peoples, want this? Far from expressing a popular self-government or even 'sovereignty', our Britishness ensures that we are ruled by a political class who are not like us, don't feel for our interests and prefer those of the City and the global market.

It is not Salmond’s political dexterity that puts official Westminster politics in this bind. The fashionable trope is to praise his canniness as if what he has achieved is nothing but mere personal skill. Though he has this in full, the reason it works so well is that there is a well-judged analysis behind his charm. He has seen that if his enemies bully Scotland they will be rebuffed but if they grant Scotland’s right and capacity to govern itself they lose the capacity to deprive England of the same right. Hence his decision to appeal directly to the people of England, “who have not spoken yet”. It is making him one of the most popular politicians in England! (Which must be galling to British-Scots like Gordon Brown).

And his judgement is good also in seeing that of course there is a "social union" He wants a Britain of "firm friends and equal partners".

This is where IPPR’s report, The dog that finally barked: England as an emerging political community written and researched by Richard Wyn Jones, Guy Lodge, Ailsa Henderson and Daniel Wincott, has helped transform the political landscape. Its sweeping research and perfect timing along with the range of responses to it across the media is bringing fresh English politics into the stale marketplace of official British discourse. What once was marginalised as maverick opinion (Billy Bragg, websites like OurKingdom, or Powellite longings for a white country) has become, at last, a mainstream political issue.

Labour can’t be re-elected if it ignores the English question - but what should it call for once it does stop ignoring it?   

Thirty years ago, Thatcher claimed that with her Falkland’s victory she “Put the great back into Britain”. I argued at the time that we should on the contrary "Take the great out of Britain". Returning to this argument after thirty years, as the Falklands anniversary looms, it is no longer plausible to argue for a different kind of British state, one that could offer a  framework for a shared, generous, multinational constitutional democracy.  What we need now - and by 'we' I mean all the different peoples of the different nations of the UK - is take Britain out of our greatness.

Long PS(28 Jan):  Dominic Sandbrook has just published an anguished essay in the Daily Mail in response to the IPPR evidence. He warns that Britain is slipping away and calls for its preservation. His argument illustrates my own about what happens when the fusion of England-Britain is abandoned and you set out to defend Britain-as-such. Sandbrook concedes that there has to be a political England,

it should not be beyond the wit of our politicians to devise a system that preserves the best features of the British Parliament while giving English voters — as well as their Scottish and Welsh counterparts — the sense that they can decide their own destiny.

Note the give away word "sense" - he is not proposing that we can actually decide our own destinies, only that politicians should be able to dream up a system that gives us the feeling we are. He continues,

What worries me, though, is that the three pro-Union parties — the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats — seem so inept at making the case for Britain. The nightmare scenario is that, as voters slowly get used to the prospect of Scottish independence, support for Britain will slowly leech away. And if the worst happened and the Union broke up, I believe it would be the biggest disaster in our history.

At this point the weakness of the case for Britain-as-such, which I have tried to analyse above, kicks in. Sandbrook says,

The fact is that we would all be much better off in a confident, outward-looking, culturally diverse and economically powerful Britain than in a narrow, squabbling, inward-looking assortment of petty statelets.

But this blatently loaded. It could just as equally be said:

The fact is that we would all be much better off in a confident, outward-looking, culturally diverse and economically powerful association of self-governing British states than in a narrow, squabbling, inward-looking so-called United Kingdom.

Perhaps sensing the weakness of his case Sandbrook reaches for something more tangible to defend Britain as a real interest. And again the only way he can achieve this is by painitng a caricature of what would happen without it.

In place of the strongest national union the world has ever seen, we would find ourselves in the middle of the messiest divorce case in history.

Such an outcome would not merely be a deadly threat to our economic prosperity in an age of deep international anxiety. It would be a tragic waste, throwing away our heritage of tolerance, collaboration and brotherhood in the name of a blinkered, parochial and xenophobic nationalism.

As men and women of Great Britain, we have achieved great things. From the enterprise and ingenuity of the Industrial Revolution to the shared sacrifice of the Somme; from the Victorian railways to the D-Day beaches; from religious toleration to the rule of law, we Britons changed the world. To lose all that, to sacrifice our shared history and common interests, would be utterly unconscionable, leaving us all culturally and economically weaker, smaller, sadder and poorer.

And again one can simply reverse the clichés:

Refusing the opportunity of joint self-determination would be a tragic waste throwing away our heritage of tolerance, collaboration and brotherhood in the name of a blinkered, parochial and xenophobic Great British nationalism... to sacrifice our shared history and common interests in this way would be utterly unconscionable when a social and economic union of the sovereign states of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland would make us all stronger, larger, happier and wealthier.

I should emphasise that I am not myself making the case in these terms! (We don't know what will happen when we grow up and become normal countries, it is better to find out than not.) Sandbrook is intelligent, well read and capable of good judgement. If this is the best arument that he can make for Britishness-as-such we can see how desperate the argument is.

 

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy