It has been Scotland’s week in the news with British and world media flocking north to cover the story of one year to the referendum.
Such coverage paints a particular Scottish story by necessity and tends to leave the wider picture of what has changed and what needs to change at a British level.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a strange land; not technically a nation but a state. It is a unique hybrid, neither the unitary country often cited, but far removed from confederation or federalism.
It is a country which invokes the past but has a very shaky grasp of its own history: 1,000 years of lineage often being referenced by its mostly English politicians (and the occasional Scots and Welsh one). Its character and date of formation are obscure, held together by a series of unions and landmark changes: 1603, 1707, 1801, and its current borders dating from as recently as 1921 (when Ireland seceded).
Where does Britain see itself at this moment of flux and instability? The answer is that there is a degree of unsureness: of the UK’s global position post-Syria vote and its gradual but seemingly irreversible repositioning in relation to Europe. Domestically, there are huge dilemmas about the balance between immigration and how this can be squared with a welfare state under attack from demographic pressures and an increasingly outspoken xenophobic right in UKIP and the Tories.
David Cameron’s recent St. Petersburg declaration where he recited a long list of what he believes made Britain the sceptred isle was illuminating. This Hugh Grant moment showed how our domestic ruling class sees themselves and the rest of us.
It was the usual list of pomp and circumstance, but its length and detail was fascinating. It was part tactically defensive because of disparaging Russian comments post-Syria vote of the UK as ‘a little island no one cares about’, and part the effortless arrogance of a ruling elite who feel their time has come again. If this isn’t quite ‘Brideshead Revisited The Sequel’, maybe it is more a privileged version of Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’!
What if anything is the alternative Britain to this? There is the Danny Boyle phantasmagorical version of Britain showcased in the Olympic opening ceremony. This is the account of a land which outlawed child labour and slavery, invented the NHS and wooed the world with rock and pop music, fashion and style in the 1960s and 1970s from the Beatles to Bowie.
Both of these are frankly now fantasyland Britains – one the preserve of the ruling elite, the other the progressive and popular culture articulation of Britishness which is as far removed from reality.
Neither directly confront that Britain has degenerated into a playground for the rich and privileged. Britain is at least the seventh richest country in the world. It is more than four times richer in real terms compared to 1950. Yet the free health, education, social provision and universal benefits, all things we could afford sixty years ago, we are now continually informed are not financially sustainable.
Britain is awash with wealth with the state alone owning £337.1 billion in assets according to a Channel Four News estimate, while the powers that be claim the UK is burgeoned with decades of debt. For example, the UK Government’s wine cellar contains 39,000 bottles, while it owns a £800,000 freehold in Middlesbrough FC’s stadium.
Britain’s atrophied democracy and political culture, with three mainstream parties committed to the same basic orthodoxies reinforces a sense of exclusion and powerlessness. Most people listening into most political class discussions feel they might as well be from another planet.
What these don’t address are the fundamentals of how Britain addresses its seismic and long term democratic, economic and social problems which transcend the challenges of the Blair-Brown boom and bankers’ bust.
Some think the solution to all this beyond grandiose costly totems such as the Olympics and HS2 is to remake the political architecture of Britain. Some even call for a federal Britain.
Lord Foulkes offered this as a solution this week and revealed that he hopes to persuade a Labour Lords working group of the merits of this. Lib Dems are notionally in support but the Conservatives and Labour are resolutely against such ideas.
A federal Britain isn’t going to happen anytime soon. If it did it could answer some of the underlying issues around the independence debate: entrenching Scottish rights, codifying relationships, creating a new kind of political centre, and representing a new start and beginning which would break with the past.
Given that the dreams of a federal Britain aren’t going to come about, how then do reformers address the problems of centralisation, concentrations of power and wealth, and how do the North and other regions of England gain political voice?
It is fine to talk about the ideal UK you aspire to live in and this great partnership of sharing risk and opportunity but reality has turned out a bit different.
The audacity of David Cameron’s St. Petersburg statement is part of the rise of the new class of the wealthy, affluent and plutocrats. It isn’t an accident that Westminster politics has increasingly become a pastime for posh boys and girls with free school advocate and ‘Spectator’ columnist Toby Young now considering standing in the next UK election for the Tories.
All of this tells us something is profoundly and deeply wrong in the state of Britain and how politics is currently done. As does the poignancy some people felt for the Danny Boyle fantasy of the good Britain.
Next year isn’t just a Scottish story. It is a British one. Win or lose, pro-progressive union forces have to tell the public how the Britain they evoke and would like to live in is going to come about.
Britain is broken – politically, economically and socially. How is it realistically going to be fixed? Eventually this has to be answered. A large part of Scotland and indeed British opinion is waiting to hear.
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