Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the final surrender of the last German forces at Stalingrad, the battle which militarily and psychologically dealt an irreversible blow to Hitler’s plans for world domination.
Last week I was in Rome on holiday and went to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the Anglo-American landings at Anzio, just south of the capital. Its efforts were fullfilled a year and a half after Stalingrad.
In the week of Cameron’s big European intervention, I was on the European continent and I experienced feeling the UK move further away from Europe in the sense of moving geo-politically away from the European project.
Many years ago Jonathan Raban had a similar experience when he decided to sail round the coast of Britain when the Falklands War erupted. As he reflected in his subsequent book, ‘Coasting’, he felt that the UK had slipped its moorings and set sail as a nation for the South Atlantic.
Britain has been slipping from its moorings ever since and it was a strange experience to watch Cameron’s speech live in Rome, and then to try to explain Britain’s continual Euro equivocations to incredulous Europeans.
I had taken the one hour ten minute train journey to the coastal town of Anzio the day before, on the exact anniversary of the invasion. It is a small, respectable fishing port, and each year, like numerous places across the continent, it marks its accidental part in the history of the Second World War. If this year is a guide, it does so, quietly, respectfully and with little pomp or pageantry.
My personal connection with Anzio is that my 88-year-old father in law Cyril Ilett, was part of the British invasion forces, and was badly injured that day.
I have known Cyril for 23 years and a more charming, understated and generous man it would be impossible to imagine. Despite his disability, Cyril worked all his life, brought up three children, follows politics and popular culture, and still has a curiosity about life and people, as well as an abiding passion in football (and an enduring faith in Brentford FC).
Cyril’s story is part of a wider and popular one of Britain; that we as a nation state stood up to Hitler, Nazism and its evil, and contributed to its defeat. And from the lessons of that ‘people’s war’, we vowed to create a decent, fairer society, which turned its back on the poverty and injustices of the past.
Now for all the sound and fury of Scotland’s debate, what it and Cameron’s European maneuverings illustrate is that the popular account of Britain which was anchored in that wartime experience is no more. It is broken, over and showing no realistic sign of being revived.
Just recap what has happened in recent times. We have had multiple crises of the British establishment, from its political classes to media elites, senior police, and banking and financial institutions.
There were promises of reform and lessons learned from Labour and Conservatives and the respective sectors. Yet all we have seen is watered down proposals, delay and procrastination when it comes to the vested interests, and more seriously restoration and the entrenchment of the self-regulation state. This week former Times editor Harold Evans in his Cudlipp lecture explored the obfuscation of parts of the media post-Leveson in stopping any meaningful reform.
Elsewhere the Conservative-Lib Dem government has acted decisively against the poor, vulnerable and disabled; 660,000 social tenants are being singled out by a bedroom tax; while the philosophy of the poll tax has been resurrected with unemployed people in England being forced to pay up to 20% of the council tax. At the same time, the British armed forces' moral compass in Iraq has been visibly tarnished and weakened by allegations of systemic torture of Iraqis.
The UK as a body politic is in moral crisis and decline, and Scots need to decide whether it can be realistically reformed or whether we should morally reconstitute ourselves as a self-governing political community.
Whatever we choose to do central to our considerations is recognising the nature of the UK. It has always been as ‘The Economist’ recently observed a ‘warrior state’. Since 1945 the number of years British armed forces have not been deployed in active combat has been a mere one, 1968, in between the Aden military adventure and the onset of the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’.
Britain promised men like Cyril Ilett a better Britain than this, and we have let him and countless others like him badly down, as well as subsequent generations. Now we face a Westminster Government under Cameron and company tearing down the last vestiges of the social contract and common bonds which mark us out as a civilised society.
Some say in response to this that we cannot make a Scottish decision solely based on detesting the current incumbents, and that a more realistic answer is to elect a Labour Westminster Government. What this deliberately misses is the cumulative impact of Thatcher and her heirs, Blair and Brown, in building this grotesque political state of affairs. And that is not some swivel-eyed raving left-wing argument, but one shared across the political spectrum, including voices such as Peter Oborne and Simon Jenkins on the right.
We cannot trust the Westminster system, its political classes and culture to remake the United Kingdom, tackle the huge corporate elites and insiders, and begin any programme of meaningful, substantial reform.
That throws a bigger responsibility on to the unfolding Scottish debate. It has to rise above the catcalls of Unionist versus Nationalist, Labour versus SNP, almost everybody against the Tories, and other bitter divisions. Instead, Scots political opinion has to recognise the moral impasse and decrepitude that Britain is in, and for all its capacity to still engage in statecraft and cultural and sporting achievements. The popular account of Britain is exhausted.
It is time that Scots had the confidence to believe in ourselves and realise that this is a moment for change beyond politics and politicians which is about our long-term maturing and changing our collective psychology, challenging ourselves to do better, be bolder and braver.
This will entail a debate that must transcend the safety-first continuity independence of the SNP, and the damaging dependency culture of ex-Chancellor Alistair Darling now leading the ‘No’ campaign, Gordon Brown and other Wesrminster Scots who want us to cling to the wreckage of Britannia. A radically different and better course is possible. It is up to us, here in Scotland, to lead the way for the whole of Britain by taking it. Then we can say to our fellow Britons, like Cyrill – for they will very much remain our fellow Britons after we have our independence – that they did not land in Anzio and fight Nazism in vain.