Fear not, England

English supporters of a No vote often cling to Britishness as a remedy for England's alleged ills: intolerance, ethnic nationalism, and so on. Yet we lose none of our tolerance in a Yes vote. We are the same England, and we should embrace this opportunity for constitutional renewal.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
17 September 2014

As an Englishman who would like to see a Scottish Yes vote and who believes that we English will also be losers should Scotland bend in subordination to the British political class, I want to write about the emotional impact on my fellow countrymen: the bafflement, pain, grief even, and mourning for a lost love, felt by many faced with the prospect of the Scots choosing to leave the UK.

In these last days of the referendum campaign there is a realisation that something profound has happened, whatever the result. Perhaps the most important sentence that I have read up here in Scotland is this from the Edinburgh Evening News. In a full page editorial it set out its position for its readers. Beating Rupert Murdoch’s Sun by a day, it decided that it readers knew best how to vote on Thursday and could trust their own judgement. It said this, caps included: “The majority of us clearly WANT to be independent. But are we prepared to gamble? For it is a gamble.”

The emotional tie of union has been severed. A historic, moral victory has already been won by the Yes campaign, whatever the actual outcome. We English now have to make an internal reckoning as to why.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the potential, although apparently unlikely, independence of Scotland. This will mean above all a new relationship with England. After independence, should this happen, we will still be joined at the hip. Were a majority of Scots to vote Yes on Thursday, moves would immediately be set afoot to create on-going arrangements to resolve common matters. There would be an impulse to punish the Scots for their unruly behaviour and ingratitude, but there is business to be done. The UK’s fundamentals are weak and need to be secured. Business wants certainty. England will be humiliated enough without wanting to appear before the world as a cry-baby. Scotland will want reconciliation and cooperation. London will get on with it as that is what London does. Independence for Scotland means renewing its relationship with England.

A ‘yes’ vote that asserts formal sovereignty, therefore, will mean not severance but a form of partition that will rapidly become a new way of sharing. Scotland will take responsibility for governing itself internally (in accordance, of course, with the international agreements that it is bound by) while acting in its own interests in so far as it is able within the external fields of international affairs and the global market place. But at the same time both its internal affairs and its external interests will be shaped above all by the immense pull of relationships with its historic and geographic neighbour, enjoying ten times its economic weight and with whom it has shared sovereignty in a unique bi-national arrangement for over 300 years: England.

Critics of the ‘Yes’ campaign may say that this means sharing sovereignty isn’t independence at all, but this is because they have had their brains addled by the notion of ‘absolute sovereignty’ that bedevils what passes as constitutional thinking in the UK (absolute power being an imperial experience that is thankfully not appropriate either for our time or for our continent). It’s a positive thing that what England thinks and does will have a considerable impact on the prospects of Scottish independence. Yes voters, indeed all Scottish voters, understand this. This is not a screaming ‘nationalist’ campaign of enmity.

But England is not thinking like this. Instead a great cry of pain arises from the Brits, including from the hearts and souls of many of my friends and compatriots south of the border. For them, the idea of Scotland ‘leaving’, never before taken seriously, is enraging. The mere thought of it—let alone the thought of becoming English—fills them not with the thrill of self-determination but with despair.

Why is this? What is going on? I’m not referring to the orchestrated proclamations of banks and retailers acting on the government’s say so. (As Simon Johnson, the Telegraph’s Scottish Business Editor, reports, Sir Ian Cheshire of the Kingfisher Group admitted that “it is ‘well known’ that the Prime Minister had asked businesses to speak out”. Denying it is a “conspiracy”, Sir Ian explained, “It’s not a Number 10 drafting exercise. We all felt this was the chance to say something”; a useful distinction.) The British state prefers its subjects to be grateful for its protection. But if the Scots show themselves to be ungrateful then they must be press-ganged into staying on board the Union, for their own good of course. Amusingly, in the midst of pages and double-pages of his media groups’ virulent bluster, it was wonderful to see Peter Hitchens in the Mail of Sunday writing:

The poor Scots are threatened with currency collapse, bankruptcy, irrelevance and isolation. There’ll even be a frontier, doubtless with barking dogs, searchlights and minefields planted with exploding haggises.

Actually if I were Scottish, I would be voting ‘Yes’ just to spite all the people who are trying to frighten and browbeat me into voting ‘No’. Anyone with any spirit must surely feel this way.

There is, however, another much more important and human sound quite different from the bullying and browbeating: a genuine expression of hurt, disbelief and disorientation. What is striking about this is that it does not seek to communicate with or to the Scots. Rather it addresses itself. Tom Holland, a popular historian of the ancient world, expressed the sentiment in a frank and moving way on Scottish Newsnight in April 2014,

I have to say that I am surprised at myself at how passionately I have come to feel about this issue. I would go so far as to say that I have never been as upset about anything as the prospect of Scotland leaving… it goes back to something visceral and fundamental...  A feeling [that Scotland] is both alien and it is a part of me…

Martin Wolf shared a similar experience. Writing in May in the Financial Times,

the Scottish referendum will decide whether the country in which I was born will continue to exist. I will have no vote. But this does not mean it does not matter to me. On the contrary, it matters a great deal. My parents came as refugees to Britain. When they took citizenship, they were proud to think of themselves as British. To me, “English” is an ethnic identity and “British” a civic one. I am a citizen of the world’s most successful multinational state. If Scotland were to depart, I would lose an important part of myself.

There is no doubting the sincerity of this lucidly expressed feeling. But it is very strange. Why would Wolf lose part of himself? Why should he and Tom Holland and many, many others in England suffer such a dramatic amputation, all the more painful for being internal, as a consequence of less than ten per cent of the UK peacefully choosing to govern themselves in so far as they can? They would not feel the same way if Northern Ireland voted to leave, as the Good Friday Agreement explicitly permits. So it is not about part of the UK deciding its own fate.

A clue shouts out from Wolf’s description of Englishness as “ethnic” (meaning a racial identity that excludes him) whilst contemporary Britishness is “civic”. For him and many others to become English is experienced as a threat, even though it is their actual nationality, for Britishness is multi-national and you cannot be ‘just’ British. The strain in Wolf’s observation can be seen more clearly if you start from the fact that Scottishness is civic: the Scottish parliament represents a multi-faith, multi-ethnic, open society, whether the vote is Yes or No. The Yes campaign invites everyone to join it. If the Scottishness is civic and also part of being British how come  Englishness is ethnic? Why is it racial  while Scottishness and Welshness are not?

I am British and have embraced the fact of my Englishness, and found that England too is a civic, tolerant, anti-fascist country that I am proud to call my own. I came to this realisation thanks to the Scottish experience, which I have been following closely over two decades. For me it is an emancipation: not a loss but a gain. However, there is no doubting that Holland and Wolf express the majority experience. It is not just an opinion or even a profound sentimental attachment to Britishness that they fear to lose, it is an internal part of themselves that feels threatened.

The pain of this is not going to be healed by a ‘No’ vote, however relieved they may be. They can see perfectly well that Scotland would vote ‘Yes’ if the English offered to help diminish the risks, not threaten to increase them. This week’s pre-referendum editorial in the Economist bewailing the prospect of a Yes vote included this extraordinary sentence: “The rump of Britain would be diminished in every international forum: why should anyone heed a country whose own people shun it?”

Rump?  Is this how to describe nearly ninety percent of the population and an exceptionally green and pleasant land, including one of the greatest cities in the world whose megalopolis of 21 million is the only rival to New York. We are no mere off-cut of Scotland! In this ridiculous description one can feel the unbalanced self-loathing that follows rejection by a loved-one. Much more important, we already know that morally its own people have shunned Great Britain. They may be brought back into line at the prospect of the costs, given how London has threatened them. But in spirit, which is the all-important thing when it comes to the energy of identity, a majority have told the pollsters they would like to vote ‘Yes’. Nor is this a whipped up, contrived, media view, for the instruments that forge opinion are all against it.

Whatever the vote, we English-British must now come to a reckoning with ourselves. What kind of people would in effect offer independence in bad faith to a sister nation, on the assumption that this is bound to be refused, and then react with such hurt at the discovery that it is wanted? How have we come to be like this, to be so fundamentally indifferent to the difference between us and then so upset and not at all indifferent to discover it exists?

Here, I would like to propose a part of the answer. I want to try and explain the particular nature and allure of English-British nationalism, which is an authentic passion not an ‘irrationality’ to be patronised or scorned. In another article I hope to report on the poisonous legacy of New Labour’s constitutional changes (in which I played a minor role) and their failure to seize the opportunity they created for a new settlement, which then started the UK on this, perhaps final, round of its journey.

A singular form of nationalism

While in Scotland a Yes vote means creating a new relationship with England, in England the independence of Scotland does not in the first place mean a new relationship with Scotland, about which most English think and care little. A Scottish ‘Yes’ vote for independence is going to be a challenge alright, but of a different kind: odd as it may seem, it will force the English to work through a new relationship with Britain with which we identify internally.

Back in 1982 I wrote an instant book on why Parliament went to war over the Falklands, Iron Britannia, now recently re-issued. Although Welsh and Scottish regiments were deployed it struck me as an English adventure. Material on nationhood within Britain was limited at the time and for my chapter on ‘Falklands Pastoralism’ I questioned people about how they rank their national identities. Those who were Scottish or Welsh had no problem with this, saying if they felt Welsh first and British second, or Scottish second and British first. They experienced two distinct over-lapping allegiances and were able to compare and contrast their relative importance for them personally with ease. “I have always been British first and foremost but Welsh as well”, “I think of myself as a Scot who is also British, but it comes second”. Such answers came without any strain. Just now, for example, in an article for the Telegraph calling for a No vote, Tony Blair’s one-time press officer, Alistair Campbell, whose parents were Scottish, writes, “I feel British first, Scottish second, Yorkshire—where I was born—third and English a long way behind”. He adds, “I cannot imagine feeling British if Britain does not include Scotland”, to which one can ask ‘Why not, Norwegians can feel European without being part of the EU?’ But my point is that his ranking of identities is clearly unproblematic for him as an exercise.

But when I ask English people the same question—‘Which comes first for you, being English or being British?’—many simply cannot understand the question. They feel equally they are both, at one and the same time, in a way that is inseparable. To ask them to rank their allegiance to Englishness and Britain as if these are distinct identities that overlap does not make sense to them. As awareness of Englishness has grown this phenomenon has diminished. But this must not lead us to deny the authenticity of the experience, the fusion of Britishness and English into a particular nationalism of its own.

It goes back to May 1940. Britain entered the Second World War as an empire but emerged as a country. It was a keystone in a victorious alliance with the USA and the USSR. While they, arguably, became new types of empire in the process, the United Kingdom found itself stripped of its world primacy while retaining the institutions and loyalties that had created and led the globe’s largest imperium. A singular form of nationalism resulted.

In 1982 I reached for a simple metaphor to communicate the reality of this experience. Britishness is a projection of Englishness to the world while Englishness is the more personal, inner capability. It was the British Empire but an English sense of humour. It is the British, never the English, navy but it is the English, and never the British, countryside. A recent exhibition at Tate Britain of British Folk Art confirmed this. A country’s folk are the internal, common people of a land or place. And there is no such thing as ‘British Folk’. There isn’t a British peasantry, or British primitivism. There is folk dancing in Britain but not ‘British folk dancing’. The nearest the exhibition came to a genuinely British folk tradition was, significantly, the carving of figureheads on ships.

To explain this more graphically I imagined a coin. The head, or obverse, is British, the tails or reverse is English. So when I asked my fellow countrymen to rank their Britishness as against their Englishness, it was like asking a currency, were it to be conscious, to separate its two sides and give them an order of priority. Such a request is senseless: there have to be two sides to what is one coin. Its oneness, its solidity, its existence even, depends on its having two faces.

The currency of English-Britishness was similarly two-faced but singular, and well-forged. Britishness is not for many, especially well-educated English, a separate, additional identity, whether secondary or primary, as it is for those who live in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is integral to their sense of being English and also the way they deny being ‘just’ English.

For the Scots and Welsh this means that the English can be infuriatingly oblivious of the domineering consequence of their presumption that they ‘speak for Britain’. The fused nature of English nationalism with British identity elides Englishness and Britishness. This then appears to be a claim over Scotland and Wales. Thoughtlessness, however, means overlooking something you know but have mislaid or forgotten. Instead, for the English being British is an authentic description of themselves in the wider world that has nothing to do with the Scots and the Welsh (until we are reminded of them).

I state this at some length because viewed from Scotland such indifference appears to be an arrogant, misconceived and unsustainable assumption of mastery. It is therefore often mistaken as a perfidious claim to rule, as if the object of English desire was to lord it over Scotland and Wales. Instead, it really is, I’m afraid, profound indifference. There is an attachment to the special beauty of the Scottish landscape for many, yet this if anything confirms a philistine disinterest in Scottish society. The vibe of California is far more important to the average English person; San Francisco and Los Angeles a far more vital part of their concerns, than those of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

To many proud, civic and intelligent Scots this means that the English have a mixed up, regressive, irrational nationalism. Such disparagement fails to understand its strengths. Yes, there are traces of attachment to Empire (especially in the political class) and other anachronisms and an unresolved nostalgia haunts the political class. Yes, it is not a logical nationalism for it cloaks itself in a multi-national identity. But, what if this illogical and obtuse irrationality works? Many ideologies and religions are deeply flawed, to put it mildly. But the unlikelihood of their claim can drive them to fervour; Christianity hardly grinds to a halt when presented with the incoherence of the Trinity. The question that matters about national as much as religious ideologies is whether—and how—they draw on the energy to renew themselves. Like grit in an oyster, a flaw can become a source of transformation and growth. The archaic ‘irrationality’ of an Englishness that pretends also to be British may be functional, opening up avenues of renewal, as, indeed, we witnessed in the Olympic opening ceremony.

When it comes to England and its Anglo-British nationalism there is a deep vein of energy and confidence for it to draw upon. As Liah Greenfeld has shown in an analysis Tom Nairn has developed, English presumption is rooted in its being the ‘first born’ nation in the sixteenth century and then the pioneer of the industrial revolution. England did not need to react to others to initiate its own nationalistic modernisation: others had to respond to it, most notably across the Atlantic. The result is a nationalism that does not ‘need’ to be defiantly self-conscious and therefore can ‘get away’ with shape-shifting far more than most.

Moreover, the state that oversaw the country that enjoyed pole position was created in 1688 not as a restoration, as Burkean mythology pretends, but rather, as Steve Pincus demonstrates, after the ‘first modern revolution’. This was the outcome of a conflict between two alternative modernising projects, that of absolutism and commercialism, with the second becoming ascendant.

So that from its beginning, the constitutional or state culture that emerged in England has been a modernising one, seeking to preserve its first-born presumption with its open, commercial cult of flexibility. What has now become a crippling strategic weakness for the British state, an uncodified entity struggling to retain legitimacy in the much larger, codifying multinational entity of the the European Union, was once an immense strength for its ruling Establishment, permitting the generation of a unique imperial ethos that at the same time permitted electoral democracy for the lower chamber of its parliament.

This system was tested to breaking point by the Second World War and it survived. The resulting national ethos can be described as Churchillism, fusing Tory, Liberal and Labour traditions, business and unions, media and military, into a cross-class welfare patriotism quite distinct from the values of the great man himself, as Britain ceased to be an empire and became a united kingdom. This then became the nationalism of the post-war English.

As a nationalism it is more than capable of working through its imperial legacy for it is intrinsically anti-fascist and consciously fair-minded. Indeed it turned its imperial roots into a commitment to global consciousness and an ease with the larger world that draws on the inheritance of being ‘first born’. This internationalism is symbolised by ‘Britishness’, the world-facing aspect of being English.

It is fear of losing this exceptionally generous and tolerant legacy that induces intense anxiety about a Scottish Yes. In the interview I quoted from at the start, Tom Holland added that “I am not convinced that the UK is a failure: we have a stable, broadly tolerant, broadly peaceable society which is a great success”.  Jason Cowley, the Editor of the New Statesman, has expressed this well and consistently. Alone of the official British media, he has taken the Scottish process seriously seeing that it has huge implications for what it means for the whole of the UK, and has engaged with it with energy and flair (declaration of interest, he published an essay of mine, Can Miliband speak for England.) In this week’s issues (not yet online) Cowley writes:

"What attracts me about Britishness is its very plurality and ambiguity; it’s an inclusive, civic, non-racial identity as welcoming now (though it once wasn’t so) to a black Londoner as it is to a Glaswegian Muslim Asian. Indeed, part of what it is to be modern and British is to have and be relaxed about compound identities, to share sovereignties in supranational institutions (the UK, the EU) and to pool resources… Scotland has experienced nothing comparable to the levels of immigration of England—one sees few black or mixed-race faces there, though you hear many eastern European accents—and so many Scots do not quite understand why Britishness means so much to so many people from minority backgrounds and why they fear it being ripped away from them. Britishness is a wide umbrella under which so many of us can shelter happily in spite of our differences. We would be bereft without it, drenched in uncertainty and confusion."

But why will it be without our tolerance if ten-per cent of the population want to be self-governing? Why can’t the same relaxed spirit extend to wishing them good luck? Why, if suddenly we are left to ourselves, will we cease to be what we are? In a Newsnight defence of staying British, Ekow Eshun made the same case: nations can reinvent themselves, he rightly pointed out. Britishness was about empire but is no more, and need not be so - the same applies to Englishness.

The true danger here is not a loss of a wider British political culture that Includes many Irish voices and which will remain on Friday should there be a ‘Yes’ vote. The danger is the refusal of Englishness implicit in the desire to create a pure, progressive British identity, drawing on a London cosmopolitanism and untouched by the suburbs and soil of England. But it is in this soil that the tolerance and inventiveness of this, my country, is rooted, just as much as in the media industries of the global city. A refusal of England bodes ill and will help lace it with intolerance.

It is a civic Scotland that is on the move, a national politics rather than a nationalism, as Tom Nairn put it, a democratic refusal of the dark tunes of nationalist exceptionalism, as Billy Bragg observes in an outstanding, sober argument with the English left. The promise of Scotland is not descent into intolerance and atavism but the birth of democratic constitutionalism across the British Isles, that can inspire us here in England to protect the qualities that Cowley, Holland and Eshun rightly praise.  

In his widely read article in openDemocracy, Adam Ramsay argues,

In order to be a significantly nicer place to live, all that Scotland needs is to be normal. Compared to being in broken Britain, living in a bog-standard, average Western country may seem like an impossible, utopian fairy-land, to which only naïve children conned by lying politicians would aspire. But for most of the Western world, the sort of Scotland that the SNP talk about, that most yes campaigners say we can expect, isn't exceptional, it's not even better than average.

The movement taking place in Scotland is not one of destruction and exclusion, it is part of what I call the revolution of the normal. This is the opportunity it offers England. It is not a prospect we should fear.

PS on the day Scotland votes: Over in the Telegraph Peter Oborne has written a column addressed to his Grandfather, a pioneering Scottish nationalist, appealing to him to change his mind from the grave. His argument exactly reflects the peculiar syndrome I am trying to address. He denounces the slanted media coverage and salutes the energy of the Yes campaign and concludes,

Ultimately, though, the case for independence is democratic, not economic. Here is a paradox: Scotland’s magnificent history and profound sense of identity made my grandfather and many of his fellow Scots nationalists. Exactly the same things make me a unionist. Some people have said that losing Scotland would be like losing a limb. It would be worse than that. If Great Britain loses Scotland, we lose our heart.

But what kind of heartless body keeps its ticker in place by distortion and intimidation? Clearly, Scotland would not lose it's heart. The extreme and dramatic claim is not rooted in the case set out, unusually for a brilliant columnist. Oborne continues,

If Alan Brown [his granddad] were alive today, I would try to change his mind. I would remind him that his military family served for centuries in British imperial armies.... I would challenge my grandfather to explain how England could have stood alone against Hitler in the Second World War without the Scots. I would highlight the economic problems but I would also make the selfish case that, without Scotland, England risks falling prey to a mutant nationalism of its own.

This exactly expresses the heedless fear. Don't leave us to be ourselves! What if we turn out to be monstors without a heart prey to the cunning manipulation of broadcasters. So I say, "Don't you see, Peter, it is thanks especially to the myths of Britishness and the apparatus of the British state that the political class weilds its anti-democratic influence. They want us to go on fighting the Second World War, but while we do so we are lost, trapped in the past from which most Scots rightly wish to be released however they may vote today. 

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