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England needs an independence conversation

The English no longer know who they are. The Scottish do. Labour must learn from the Scots in rediscovering an optimistic Englishness that embraces the future with confidence
Anthony Painter
2 June 2011

This article is part of OurKingdom's debate on The Scottish Spring.

We no longer know who we are. That is, the English no longer know who they are. The Scottish do. The unforeseen consequence of Scottish devolution was the transmission of Scottishness from emotional sense to political force. This flowering of Scotland has shone an even greater light on stunted and weed-like Englishness.

There are two basic forms of nationalism - optimistic and antagonistic. The latter is about the rejection of others. It is self-identity through difference. It assigns others negative traits, historical crimes, sinister characteristics. It becomes purely defensive and aggressive. Trainspotting’s Renton gives a good commentary on this type of nationalism:

"Some hate the English. I don't. They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are COLONISED by wankers. Can't even find a decent culture to be colonized BY. We're ruled by effete assholes."

Scotland rejected this brand of nationalism for something altogether more powerful - optimistic nationalism. Understanding the corrosive force of antagonistic nationalism (hatred can be tiring), Alex Salmond went for something altogether more brilliant. He implored Scotland to ‘be part of better.’ In this he rejected both antagonistic nationalism and the nihilism of Renton. Scottishness is no longer simply a hazy emotion of belonging; it’s primed and ready to build a political community in its own image. In fact, it already has done but it’s not finished yet. It is a force that will be very difficult to resist.

Independence was unthinkable a decade ago; devolution seemed to have lanced that boil. Actually, independence seemed unthinkable a month ago. It still seems unlikely but by no means unthinkable at all. Quebecois nationalists almost succeeded in separating Quebec from Canadian union. The first referendum was held in 1980 and was lost comprehensively 60% to 40%. A second referendum was held in 1995 and fell only 1.16% short. That was a choice of staying with Canada or going alone. For the Scots it’s a choice of within the UK or independence within the EU. They will not be alone. Across the North Channel - for all its current travails - there is Ireland, independent and proud. It can work.

As of now, there is absolutely no way of saying with any certainty whether the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will become the United Kingdom of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland within a decade or so. A real possibility has to be that the Great Britain stays intact but that Scotland assumes some near independence, i.e. it assumes full control over its own fiscal affairs. Either way, profound questions are raised for England - both as a national and a political community.

Jonathan Rutherford implores Labour to respond with it’s own vision of Englishness. He’s right but I’d go even further. There must a broader national discussion about England and Englishness also. This discussion will be ferocious at times. It will oscillate between antagonism and optimism. No political or economic community exists without cultural affinities and underpinnings. If England is to become a political community again then it will be responding to a common cultural sense. This can be thin, in which case the political community will be weak. Or it could be thick, in which case the capacity for common action will be strong. Social justice always and everywhere relies on thick bonds of shared identity. Labour, as a consequence, can ill-afford to be a bystander in what will be a national debate.

In a sense, this then implies an English independence conversation. Independence, in this sense, is about culture, identity, and meaning rather than the break up of the UK per se. That decision is not in the hands of the English. However, a deeper understanding of its own identities, commitments, and allegiances is in the hands of the English. Part of this is understanding the relationship of the English to the other nationalities on these islands - in or out of political union.

It is in this interrelationship that a defence of the UK can be located. Peoples with their own proud identities who nonetheless share both a deep common history and an optimistic present unite. The expression of that unity could be a reborn United Kingdom based on a renewed British awareness and solidarity. If it makes little sense, if the case isn’t remade, then commitment falters and it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain. One thing is clear though, it won’t be fear or the fleeting trade of interests that bind the UK together. It has to be hope, belief and trust.

While everyone but the English continue to have their rich national conversations, it would be perverse for the English not to do so. Just as the Scottish have chosen an optimistic nationalism; so must the English. The status quo is a resurgent attachment to Englishness but it is an attachment that is thin, symbolic, flag-waving and too often - the likes of the English Defence League are a case in point - threatening and antagonistic. This is not what we can allow Englishness to become. That’s not what England is. So let’s not let it be what England becomes. We have much to be positive, open, and optimistic about.

Just wait for London 2012 to see what Englishness is really about. What people will see is a self-confident nation, utterly positive (even if it rains), diverse and accepting. This diverse Englishness (though, of course, the athletes will compete under the UK banner) will inform any constitutional discussion that rises out of a new English conversation.

Should Scotland ever opt for fiscal independence then the clamour for an English Parliament becomes irresistible. An optimistic and pluralistic nationalism cannot be accommodated by a majoritarian political system on the current Westminster model. Just as constitutional reformers thought they were out of the game with the defeat of AV, the success of Scottish nationalism brought them right back to the table. This can’t simply be a conversation about constitutional reform though. It is a conversation about Englishness with constitutional consequences.

At the core of this conversation is a choice: antagonistic or optimistic Englishness? Labour’s historic role could be to make it an optimistic Englishness that embraces the future with confidence. Let the Tories own antagonism. Labour must learn from the Scots in re-discovering who the English are as a people. England’s independence is not about releasing colonial shackles. It is about freeing our minds. What could be more English than freedom?

This piece was originally published on LabourList.org.

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