No Union, please, we’re English

The UK's Cabinet Secretary has warned of the break up of the union if the Scottish vote for independence, making the issue mainstream.
John Lloyd
31 December 2011

In France, it is les Anglais. In Germany, die Engländer. In Italy, gli Inglesi. In Russia, Anglichane.

The peoples of the United Kingdom, for most other peoples, are habitually “English.”

Not unnaturally. The English part of the UK accounts for close to 90 per cent of the country’s population; the language is English; the capital is London, long the English capital; the accents heard are overwhelmingly English; the long-held stereotype of the country is an upper-class English gent, snobbish, prudish and insular.  

This suits at least some of the English, who often do the same as foreigners when referring to their nation state.  Frequently, without any malice, they have assumed that Britain is co-terminus with England (until recently, England supporters waved the Union Jack—which represents all of the British nations–at international football matches). Once, years ago, when speaking to a former senior Royal courtier, I mildly corrected his use of “England” to “Britain.” He wagged a humorous finger at me (a Scot) and said: “Now now, none of that Scots nationalism!” – which is, when you think of it as an answer to my objection, incomprehensible, except in terms of a certain English mindset. Yet, though illogical, it was also thoughtlessly generous: the English nation had dissolved itself into the state, and by waving the Union Jack, gave an implicit invitation to the other nations of the British state to do likewise – though only the Northern Irish did.

Ironically, had I held the views he ascribed to me, I would not have corrected him. From the point of view of  the nationalists of the UK – Scots and Welsh nationalists, Irish Republicans – the more that people at home and abroad think Britain is England and vice versa, the better they like it. It underscores their belief that the Union is an artificial thing–England with a few possessions historically acquired by conquest, trickery or both.

That view – that the United Kingdom really is England, and that any self-respecting people who would not call themselves English had best get out of it – is now acquiring deeper roots. The outgoing head of the Civil Service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, has expressed his worry about the possible breakup of the United Kingdom: he regards it as the most poisoned of the chalices he passes to his successor. What had been, for much of my life, the preserve of misty eccentrics (except in Ireland), has now entered the political arteries of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy, and may cause a seizure.

The differences between the three varieties of British – or anti-British – nationalism are sharp, and important to understand (most English have not taken the trouble: but trouble will come all the same).

The Welsh variant is weakest: nationalism is not a passionate creed here. That version proposed by the nationalist party, Plaid Cymru (“the Party of Wales”) is mild and strongly culturally based – the Welsh language is still widely spoken. The integration of the nation with England has been centuries long; Wales had few of the elements of a state before it lost what nascent independence it had. Whatever happens to the United Kingdom, Wales would be the least likely among the British nations to seek an independence its people mostly do not seem to want.

Ireland is a much more modern, much more savage story. The revolution against British rule, which consumed much of  the first two decades of last century, produced a republic in most of the island – excepting the northern province of Ulster, the most industrialized, where a largely Protestant- Unionist population refused to join the largely Catholic-Nationalist south and insisted – on the threat of armed revolt – on continuing the link with the UK. The IRA’s long terrorist war, from the late sixties to the late nineties, tried and failed to frighten them into changing their minds. It ended with an uneasy agreement to share power between the republican and unionist communities – now led by the Democratic Unionists and the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein – with the Unionists retaining a slim lead. The agreement has held, in spite of sporadic terrorism on the part of the hard line IRA warriors, who refused to accept the peace, and in spite of periodic suspensions of the devolved assembly. The Unionists fear that, sooner or later, they will lose their majority; the present relative peace, welcome as it is, is precarious.

But it is Scotland which lies at the heart of the gathering crisis. The Union which created the UK is that between Scotland and England; when they came together under one government three hundred years ago, both renounced their own form of statehood to form a new one. The Union survived the Highland-based rebellion, led by Charles Edward Stuart (who had a good claim to the British throne), with the Scots in the more productive and populous Lowland belt preferring “English” rule to one led by clan chieftains. The smaller nation retained a separate Church, a separate legal system and to a large extent a different culture; but the two shared in the vast expansion of both the economy and empire which the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought to the UK. And a history of warfare and border raiding receded into the past.

But something other than peace, wealth and empire came too – unbidden and unforeseen. Again with Ireland as the exception, a nation state came into being which rested on a civil, not an ethnic, base. A British citizen could be English, (Northern) Irish, Scots or Welsh; and as greater social equality and fuller civil rights were achieved, the divisions within the new nation became more those of class, less of nation. The United Kingdom, as it ceased to be an empire ruling over half the globe, could emerge as a state which was better placed than most to adapt to a world where many cultures, by choice or of necessity, live together. It could do so because it had a citizenship which was already rooted in a union of diverse nations – and which had, with difficulty and toil, learned something of the art of cultural compromise.

The success of the Scottish National Party, more than any other single fact, puts the Union, and that achievement, at risk. An object of more derision (by Scots) than support for most of its life, it broke through in the late sixties and has, bit by bit, taken over more of a country which had been, after the war, largely Conservative, then largely Labour.

The trick seems to have been to marry economic advantage – the nationalists claim the oil off Scotland’s coasts, in the North Sea, as the country’s property – with the contemporary desire to portray oneself or one’s cause as a victim. Since Scotland has done well out of three centuries of Union, it has been necessary to look further back: nothing has succeeded so well in this as the Mel Gibson film Braveheart, which showed the mediaeval chief William Wallace take on the English, lose, then be tried, tortured and executed. Sparing neither in sentimentality nor distortion, the film became wildly popular, was adopted by the nationalists, watched by Scottish teams before international matches and provoked a rash of anti-English rhetoric, and a few scuffles. It was a huge boost to the cause, courtesy of Hollywood.

Nationalism found in its leader, Alex Salmond, one of the subtlest politicians in the UK, one who has coaxed a population in which a majority consistently oppose independence into support for a party which was created to win it. In the last election for the Scots parliament, he won an absolute majority; and he holds out, as both a promise to the Scots and a threat to the English, the prospect of a referendum on independence whenever the sentiment of the nation favors it.

He has done something still more effective. He has nursed into existence a resurgent English nationalism – nursed it, by insisting, with as much publicity as possible, that Scotland has no use for the English any longer, and would be better on its own. The English, aware that Scotland receives a higher proportion of public spending than do the regions of England, have increasingly said: So go!  More than one poll has shown that where a majority of Scots oppose independence, a majority of the English would welcome it.

The Union Jack isn’t waved by England supporters any longer; instead, it is the cross of St. George, red on a white background. The unhappy premiership of the Scots-born Gordon Brown – who tried, in his ponderous and increasingly ill-attended way, to create a new sense of pride in the Union – instead boosted a growing distaste for Scotland among the English. The old ties – of war against a common enemy; of class solidarity across national boundaries; of a shared religion; of family links – have either weakened or seem irrelevant.

Salmond retains control of the process. As England becomes more Euroskeptic and supports Prime Minister Cameron’s lone refusal to accept the new plan to save the Euro, he emphasizes that an independent Scotland would be Euro-friendly, with a place at the top tables of the Continent. It would have nothing to do with foreign wars, in which Scots soldiers have died. It would renounce nuclear weapons. And it would lay claim to the oil which, though dwindling, will still gush up from the bed of the North Sea, off Scotland, for some years yet.

In the end, a decision to form – or re-form – a nation depends on a common view that it will be a better place to be for its people, because it will in its institutions and in its customs, in its actions and in the place it makes for itself in the world, more resemble them and how they would like to be seen. For four centuries the crowns of the two nations have been united; for three centuries, the Parliaments have been too. Now, Sir Gus O’Donnell, head of the British civil service  – no English gent: lower class born, Catholic raised, with an Irish surname – looks beyond his term of office and wonders if his successors will have a British bureaucracy to supervise. Or will a refurbished, modernized, comforting and self-flattering nationalism can be draped over enough Scots shoulders to warm them to the prospect of a separate state. And “England for the English”, until these last few years the motto of right-wing extremists, becomes an inevitability.

Cross-posted with thanks from the author's Reuters blog (hat tip Gerry Hassan)

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