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Is Britishness a generous thing, or has it damaged England?

The Daily Telegraph's Peter Oborne and Scottish writer Neal Ascherson discuss national identity in light of the approaching referendum on Scottish independence.
Peter Oborne
Neal Ascherson Peter Oborne
17 January 2012

The following is a transcript from this morning's Today programme, presented by Jim Naughtie. The Daily Telegraph's Peter Oborne and Scottish writer Neal Ascherson discuss national identity in light of the approaching referendum on Scottish independence.  

Jim Naughtie: What do you think England should think about the current imbroglio?

Neal Ascherson: They should welcome the end of a unified British state (not entirely unified anymore) because I think England has been in the long-term damaged by Britishness, and I think the departure of Scotland (as a lot of English people seem to see in a dim way) would be a liberation for England.  

JN: When you say departure, do you mean some kind of full independence rather than greater autonomy within a UK framework (known as devo max)?

NA: I think either. But the fact that fiscal autonomy for Scotland, that Scotland would no longer appear to be a burden on English finances (it's a bit of a myth but nonetheless its widely believed), that would liberate the English to look at their own political structures and economic and social structures, in a new way.

JN: Peter Oborne do you agree with that?

Peter Oborne: I think it's terribly sad what Neal Ascherson is saying. I don't think there's a conflict between Englishness and Britishness. But I do think the British identity elevates us, makes us more generous, more tolerant - and that doesn't just imply to England, where the English identity can often be rather selfish, inward-looking, you listen to these Tory voices, 'We can be in power forever if Scotland becomes independent', there's something very mean-minded about that, and all the economic voices, you know, we're spending money on Scotland: actually Britishness is a fantastically generous thing, it's a big thing. 

JN: Neal?

NA: I don't believe this thing about a one-party-state eventuating if Scotland left the Union. I think the idea that England by itself would be Tory for all time to come is not the case. I think that would be a huge challenge to ordinary English people to say that being a bit nationalistic about England and seeing our nation for what it is, is not something that should be left to football hooligans and people with the St George's Cross painted on their faces. It's something which middle-class, intellectual, intelligent, energetic, politically-minded people in England should get stuck into and start having an English idea about what the nation should be.  

JN: Do you think, Peter, that this is a process, whether it ends in Scottish independence, or in what we call devo max, one way of another, that is now inexorable?

PO: Not at all, and I think one of the problems is that nobody yet has tried to defend the British idea: its about tolerance, decency, defence of the underdog. We came together against the - I can see you looking quizzically -

JN: ...no I'm intrigued..

PO: You're looking quizzically at that. The idea that Britishness is about defending the underdog. We fought Hitler, we abolished slavery, we did this together. Scotland and England were both impoverished places before the Act of Union, as you a Scotsman who has a big British presence should be aware, should have the generosity to acknowledge.

JN: I'm not taking a line on this, I'm interested, I'm intrigued by what you're saying.  

PO: If you look at Scotland or England before the Act of Union we were narrow, on the margins of the world. Look what happened after the Act of Union, Edinburgh suddenly became a bit like Wittgenstein's Vienna - an absolute haven of talent and brilliance. 

JN: Voltaire said it was the most civilized city in Europe.

PO: I think that if we England, if you Scotland, if Wales, Ireland, go our separate ways we'll diminish ourselves and we'll narrow our identities. 

JN: Neal?

NA: The difficulty about Britishness and British values, which Gordon Brown had a long crack at saying 'let's define what British values are', and he and some of his acolytes came up with a long list and they were all English values, and none the worse for that. If you say that tolerance...

?: (indistinct)

NA: ...Who invented political tolerance? The English invented it, it's something which has taken roots with some difficulty in Scottish politics. 

PO: Hume was a Scottish philosopher, a British philosopher I would say. 

ENDS

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The British state's management of the COVID crisis has widely been seen as disastrous. Will the pandemic accelerate the break-up of the United Kingdom?

Join us on Thursday 6 August at 5pm UK time/6pm CET for a live discussion.

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Allison Morris Security correspondent and columnist with the Irish News, and an analyst of politics in Northern Ireland.

Harriet Protheroe-Soltani Trade union organiser for Wales and the south-west, vice chair of the campaign group Momentum, and has written about rising support for Welsh independence on the Left.

Chair: Adam Ramsay Editor at openDemocracy and frequent writer about Scottish independence, most recently in The Guardian.

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