England, do not be afraid

A yes vote in Scotland would barely impact on UK general elections, but it would blow a hole in the British constitution and the ubiquitous nationalism which protects it.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
28 August 2014

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Whilst researching for my new e-book, 42 reasons to support Scottish independence, I spent some time looking at historic election results.  The answer to my question was three: Since the 1832 Reform Act, I can only find three Prime Ministers who depended on Scottish MPs: Asquith, Wilson and Callaghan.  In the latter two cases, this was only for a total of a few months.  This isn't, as some have suggested, because Scottish votes have only diverged from those south of the border recently. 

I say this because all too often I hear people in England express the fear that a yes vote in the Scottish referendum would mean endless Tory governments for the remainder of the UK.  It's a fear I can understand; worrying about Conservatives having any power over you is rational.  But Scotland is so small compared to England that even minor changes south of the border impact much more on who wins at Westminster than would the potential absence of Scottish MPs.

The more important question is not how Scottish independence would impact on the political arithmetic in England, but how it would change the politics.  The most obvious difference would be within the Labour Party.  All too often Scottish Labour MPs (Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown, Tom Harris, to name a few) are framed as the saviours of the English left, coming south to rescue England from itself.  The truth is quite the opposite.  Scottish Labour, because it is the party of the establishment in Scotland, has long been on the right of the party.

Since devolution this has got worse.  It's no coincidence that disproportionate numbers of Scots were in both Blair and Brown's final cabinets; Scottish MPs were loyal to New Labour.   And it's no surprise that tuition fees and foundation hospitals only got through on the back of Scottish Labour MPs: people they represent weren't attacked by these unpopular policies.  On most domestic issues Scottish MPs are voting on things which don't impact on their constituents.  This means that they aren't weighed down by the inconvenience of democratic accountability in their attempts to climb the greasy pole.  Scottish Labour MPs don't prevent endless Conservative government, but they have helped ensure permanent right wing rule.  Being rid of them will be a very good thing for England. 

There's a bigger frustration with arguments that Scotland must stay to save England from permanent Conservative rule, though.  They totally fail to engage with the fundamental question of why is England more likely to vote Tory.  Because the solution to this is not to override English democracy, but to understand and deal with the problem. 

How has Britain ended up as one as of the most neoliberal countries in Europe?  The question, of course, is huge, and the answer complex.  I wouldn't for a moment pretend to know all of it, and wouldn't have space to deal with it here if I did.  But part of it, surely, is to do with the construction of Britain.   The imperialism intrinsic to Britishness is a contributor to both English Toryism and Labour’s Atlanticism.  Looked at as part of the long arc of history, modern Britain lives in the shadow of its recently defunct empire.  The existential crisis caused by its collapse is barely ever considered, but it is perhaps best summed up by the term ‘little England’ or ‘little Englanders’ often contrasted with ‘Great Britain’.  ‘Where would you rather live,’ asked Nick Clegg, ‘Great Britain, or Little England?’ The absurd thing about this statement is that it is usually meant to imply that ‘little England’ is inward looking, whilst ‘Great Britain’ is outward looking, when, largely Tory, Europhobia is a product not of the belief that we're a small, relatively powerless country which needs friends, but that we are still a global power all on our own.  Britain is only outward looking in the manner of a sniper, only ‘inclusive’ because of imperialism.  It wasn't the ‘English empire’.  It was the ‘British’ empire.  It’s ‘Great Britain’ which encourages UKIPery and the ideology of isolationism, not ‘Little England’.  Likewise, it's ‘Great Britain’, not ‘little England’ which demands that we must have a ‘special’ relationship with America, which largely consists of doing what we're told. 

The problem, though, is that there is a hegemonic ideology which whispers in people’s ears, telling them that they should be afraid of England, that England is racist, and so they must cling to an imperial identity in order to be free of it.  That ideology has a name: British nationalism.  It doesn't need a flag and it doesn't have to jump up and down and shout about itself.  .  This often leads people to believe that it doesn't exist, but its invisibility is a reflection of its ubiquitousness.  It doesn't need to flutter its symbol from a pole because its code writes the rules of our society.  It doesn't need to assert itself because it is already dominant.  It doesn't need a political party because it has almost all of them: One Nation Labour, the Conservative and Unionist Party, even the Liberal Democrats.  It sits comfortably alongside neo-liberalism as the official ideology of the British state.

This nationalism, which exists across this island and beyond, is one of the many things put under a microscope by Scotland's independence referendum.  Labour and Lib Dem politicians are as quick to declare Britain ‘the greatest union in the history of humanity’ as they are to condemn all nationalism as divisive, inward looking.  George Galloway will talk movingly about the Battle of Britain and how it was our nation's finest hour in the same speech as he declares that he has always hated nationalists and so his beloved Britain must stay united.

At its minimum, nationalism is the belief that the borders of states ought to be coterminous with the boundaries of ‘imagined communities’ – of nations.  Every time that a politician or a celebrity expresses their love for Scotland whilst implying that it should continue to be governed by Westminster they are saying, ultimately, that their imagined community is Britain, and that they therefore want Britain to continue to be governed under one state.  The latter only follows from the former if you are a nationalist.  Of course, that doesn't mean you are a chauvinistic nationalist, but thankfully that sort has mostly been absent on either side of the referendum.

This doesn't mean though that the campaign hasn't been littered with problematic otherings.  Like most nationalisms, British nationalism is more than the minimum definition of coterminous borders.  It almost invariably comes with it its brother, a more problematic ideology: patriotism – the belief that you ought to have a particular loyalty to your imagined community.  It is this belief which leads Douglas Alexander to think it's OK to say ‘I don't look at English people and see foreigners’, or Alistair Darling to say, ‘We’ve got friends and relations north and south of the border and we don’t want to make each other foreigners’, and many in Scottish Labour to repeat similar lines. 

The interesting point is not that these statements are all xenophobic in that they imply there is something wrong with being a foreigner.  That’s obvious, and Labour being xenophobic is nothing new.  It is that when you point this out to Labour politicians, they don't understand what you are saying.  So blind are they to their British nationalism that they can't spot it even when you draw it to their attention.  It’s that ability to be so ubiquitous that it goes unnoticed which makes British post-imperial nationalism so dangerous, helping ensure Britain maintains an unwritten constitution and absurdly anachronistic political institutions which have led us to become the most unequal country in Europe. 

As I argue in my new e-book (which you can download here), a ‘yes’ vote in September would kill off that British nationalism as the hegemonic ideology of the state.  And that liberation would be a very good thing indeed.  It would help nudge England away from delusions of exceptionalism and imperial grandeur and towards a more normal position as an average sized wealthy country on the edge of Europe.  In doing so, it would open a space for movements for progressive political reforms, rebalance power across the country and securing more democracy in the centre of the British State.  And it’s about time too. 

The English left doesn’t need Scotland to send south a phalanx of Blairite MPs to save it from the villainous Tories.  It needs someone to blow a hole in the British constitution and the ubiquitous nationalism which protects it.  That is exactly what a 'yes' vote will do.

This piece first appeared at New Left Project.


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