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The start of a pan-British debate on the union?

Is a serious, pan-British debate starting on the future of the union and the rise of the SNP in Scotland? Yesterday's BBC Newsnight finally showed that the Westminster media bubble is capable of engaging with the national question
Gerry Hassan
5 July 2011
OurKingdom's debate on The Scottish Spring

Is the London-centric media finally starting a serious, open-minded debate on the future of the union and the forces at work behind the rise of the SNP in Scotland? Yesterday’s BBC Newsnight  broke ground by tackling the national question in the UK as a difficulty worth understanding, rather than reducing the debate to the usual series of stereotypical caricatures. Up for discussion was how we all get on with each other, Scottish nationalism, the English dimension, the four nations, the meaning of the union, and issue of Europe.

The BBC had conducted a poll of English respondents with Com Res which found that 36% thought Scotland should be independent with 48% disagreeing. There was a general feeling of ambiguity about the consequences of this. 19% thought England would be better off as a result of Scots independence, 21% worse off, with 51% saying it would make no difference. And 45% thought there should be a UK wide vote before Scotland became independent, with 47% disagreeing. There was no attempt to weight the importance English people feel about such issues, or to gauge their opinions on England.

There then followed two short films, one by Allan Little on Scotland, one by Fergus Keane on England, with studio discussions after each with a panel and audience. Little’s film talked of the Scotland of fifty years ago when ‘the British state was a concrete reality’, owning mines, shipyards, other industries and most homes. There was a collective British story, and in particular a British working class story, which saw work, industry and trade unionism reinforce Britishness.

Little felt all this had altered, and that while most Scots were still unsure of independence, there was now a growing recognition it was not synonymous with ‘separatism and a repudiation of all things British’. Fergus Keane’s film explored Englishness from Norman times through ‘Passage to Pimlico’ to the uncertainties of today concluding with a call to ‘reimagine England’.

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The studio discussion had Rory Stewart, Conservative MP see Scots independence as being a loss for all of us of ‘something bigger’ and ‘losing the idea of union’. Joan McAlpine, SNP MSP thought that it could aid ‘the emergence of English identity’, while Peter Davies, of the English Democrats, stated that ‘devolution was a total mistake’ based on Labour ‘shoring up Scotland and Wales’ to appease its heartlands.

Davies argued that England had lost out and ‘the cradle of democracy had lost its democracy’. The answer was English independence and withdrawal from the European Union. McAlpine, when asked ‘why have the English been discriminated against?’, answered the question narrowly stating that ‘England is not discriminated against’ talking only about the financial balance between the nations.

The discussion then moved onto wider terrain. Owen Jones, author of ‘Chavs’ stressed the importance of the decline of class and collective identities. Don Letts, DJ and filmmaker, having being asked to choose between Britishness and Englishness, ruminated that ‘I have never heard this discussion in more prosperous times’.

Michael Portillo posed that Britishness throughout history had come to be defined by ‘anti-fanaticism’, something to be proud of whether standing against Napoleon, the Kaiser or Fascism. This wound up Joan McAlpine who cited the Empire and British rule in India along with a ‘pogrom in the Highlands’ conducted by ‘the British state’.

The discussion, whether with panel participants or studio audience, struggled to define Britishness. One audience member clearly looked on with incomprehension as Jeremy Paxman raised the prospect of the Scots deciding themselves to declare independence and asked him ‘to repeat the question’; another talked in a relaxed way of all the nations in the world which had become independent of British rule and which still had harmonious, close relationships with the UK.

Michael Portillo mentioned that needing too or feeling you wanted to reject Britishness was not what was motivating people in Scotland or elsewhere. Don Letts, in the final comments to the programme, said that he felt all of this interest in Englishness was ‘looking for someone to blame’ and he felt taking ‘a step backward’.

The tone, style and content of this Newsnight seems a mark of something significant happening: a recognition that these are big issues calling for reflection, thinking and discussion beyond party politics. Even Jeremy Paxman’s tone throughout the programme was in marked contrast to his usual Rottweiler style. 

There were thoughtful voices, ambiguity, a searching for language, acknowledgement and challenge to the more unhelpful and black and white tribal voices. Michael Portillo struggled to answer what was the sense of Britishness today, Joan McAlpine was vague talking about what modern Scottish nationalism was, and Don Letts, an influential alternative cultural voice in the last few decades, seemed to hanker back to a golden era pre-devolution. In this he seemed to make common ground with Peter Davies of the English Democrats.

Rory Stewart posed perhaps the most interesting and thoughtful tone of the whole programme, constantly asking us to look at ‘the bigger picture’ without being partisan. Perhaps there still is a Tory unionist statecraft which could speak for a different kind of union. Rather interestingly this Newsnight special was prefaced by the latest scandal of Rupert Murdoch’s News International and the phone hacking scandal: something which has debased British democracy and touches on our political classes’ collusion with Murdoch. Strangely none of the panellists made the connection between the corrupting of British democracy and the rise of Murdoch.

This is the beginning of realising that we need to create spaces to have a pan-British conversation. And, yes, support the awakening of an English Spring as well.

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