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Brexit is an old people’s home

... And it's English, not British.

Breaking-Up Britain

Introduction by Mark Perryman , editor of Breaking up Britain : Four Nations after a Union

Breaking up Britain is a book-length conversation between individuals, parties and social movements who with or without borders nevertheless rarely talk to one another. Each contributor presents their own national context for the collection's four themes; post-devolution national identity, models of civic nationalism, formations of exclusion and states of independence. Yet each account, whether based on an English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish perspective seeks to be universal too. In essence this is what a politics of the progressive nation would look like. A civic nationalist politics now exists in Scotland and Wales prepared to push the devolution settlement to it limits, its breaking point. In Northern Ireland Irish Republicanism is now the majority party representing the nationalist community. In England a growing body of opinion and ideas demands that England must find a part to play in this process too. Ten years ago Scots and Welsh voters went to the polls to elect a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Northern Irish votes have elected their Assembly too. Breaking Up Britain seeks to chart the past, present and future of this course . A direction towards states of independence in which we will surely witness a reformation of four nations after a Union that has run out of time.

Our Kingdom today features edited extracts from contributions to Breaking up Britain from Arthur Aughey, Mark Perryman and Charlotte Williams. Together with critical responses by Gerry Hassan and Paul Kingsnorth:

Breaking Up Britain

Breaking Up Britain is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available from lw books 

A FREE download of Mark Perryman's opening chapter ‘A Jigsaw State' in Breaking Up Britain is available here

Review: Breaking up Britain

"The contrast [over the last 25 years] has been between a determined (if stricken) agent of history and a mere sleep-walker. In 1977 the Cold War political palsy still prevailed, a profound inertia favouring all the tropes of states, parties and intellectuals I have described. By 2000 most instinctive allegiance to ‘establishments' had drained away, leaving hollow routines and vacant symbols behind. A combination of official servility with violent socio-economic changes led to universal ‘apathy'; but such withdrawal is also a still voiceless wish for better political things - for democratic nations that peoples can more honourably call their own."

Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain, 2003 on the difference between the context of the first and latest edition

Breaking Up Britain summons in its introduction The Break-up of Britain, Tom Nairn's powerful and controversial thesis, written over the course of a series of inter-lapping domestic and global crises in the 1970s and originally published in the year of the Queen's Jubilee.

Here in part lies the problem for the outset. Nairn's thesis was not just a blast from a northern outpost about Scottish nationalism, but a counterblast about the whole edifice. Nairn examined and took apart the English, Welsh and Northern Irish dimensions, while addressing the problematic nature of the British state and irrevocable way in which the European project challenged this and the small nation, little islander British left..

From the Thatcher economy to the Cameron society

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Next week's Tory conference in Birmingham will no doubt have the special buzz associated with what many see as a party on the path back to power. The new e-book Is the Future Conservative? (pdf) edited by Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford provides some timely insights into where the party might take the country.

Alan Finlayson's interview with Oliver Letwin, From economic revolution to social revolution, highlights an interesting difference of emphasis with the Thatcher era.

The democratic republican moment

Tom Griffin (London, OK): One of Britain's leading political thinkers offered a fresh new analysis of the history of British democracy yesterday, one which may explain the country's current fin de siècle political mood, and offer a way beyond it.

In a speech to the IPPR, David Marquand delivered a precis of the argument of his new book, Britain after 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy, which interprets the history of the past 90 years as the product of four main strands of political tradition, each of them distinctive, but all of them deeply interwoven with each other.

The east Atlantic empire

Can the study of supposedly peripheral regions provide insights that are not visible from the centre?

Arthur Aughey finds a fresh perspective on Britain's past in Christopher Harvey's  A Floating Commonwealth: Politics, Culture and Technology on Britain's Atlantic Coast, 1860-1930.  Writing 'British history with London left out', has enabled Harvie to uncover the wider significance of great Atlantic cities like Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool and Bristol.

Aughey sees in the diversity highlighted by Harvie an underlying unity which illuminates a key question for the future. What is to be the fate of the political union which once dominated this Atlantic world, and does change mean disntegration or simply transformation?


A Message in a Bottle from West Britain

Arthur Aughey reviews A Floating Commonwealth: Politics, Culture and Technology on Britain’s Atlantic Coast, 1860-1930 by Christopher Harvie.

(Oxford 2008, 319pp +xii)

G M Trevelyan once described social history as ‘history with the politics left out’. Christopher Harvie’s A Floating Commonwealth could be described as British history with England left out. Or to put that more accurately, British history with London left out, for Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester get their proper due in this story of the industrial, commercial but above all, intellectual, intercourse across the Irish Sea and its Atlantic connections through the North and St George’s Channels. In the ecumenical spirit in which Harvie writes, where the British Isles has become (p31) ‘These Islands’ (which would probably mean, as Terence Brown observed, that when Harvie is in Tuebingen he should properly call them ‘Those Islands’) the possessive ‘Irish’ should become, I suppose, ‘Our’. His extra-metropolitan focus does a great service and helps us to see the country as others, outside London, saw it. This sensitivity to the historical texture, vibrancy, energy, creativity and significance of the provincial world is Harvie’s great contribution to historical study.

Team UK: A Political Football

Tom Griffin (London, OK): It seems the Westminster/Holyrood faultine inside the Scottish Labour Party extends to the question of whether there should be a UK football team at the 2012 Olympics.

Gordon Brown held out that prospect during his visit to Beijing at the weekend:

'I think when people are looking at the Olympics in 2012 - Britain, home of football, where football was invented, which we gave to the world - I think people would be very surprised if there is an Olympic tournament in football and we are not part of it.'

Scottish Labour leadership candidate Cathy Jamieson has proposed an alternative plan:

"One option could be a home nations football tournament with the winners representing the UK at the Olympics."

Jamieson added: "Team GB should include a football team but not at the expense of Scotland's football team. It would be wrong to gamble with the identity of Scotland's team."

A Beijing Boost for Britishness

Tom Griffin (London, OK): 'One World, One Dream' is the official slogan of the Beijing Olympics, reflecting "the common wishes of people all over the world, inspired by the Olympic ideals, to strive for a bright future of Mankind. In spite of the differences in colors, languages and races, we share the charm and joy of the Olympic Games, and together we seek for the ideal of Mankind for peace."

It has long been argued, (classically by George Orwell), that such lofty ideals only serve to conceal the close relationship between nationalism and the sporting spirit.

Giving only Scotland a say on independence negates the existence of Britain

David (Cambridge, Britology Watch): What is the Union from which Scotland would separate if it voted for independence? Is it the United Kingdom (that is, of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: the continuation of the 1801 Union between Great Britain and the whole of Ireland); or is it merely Great Britain (the Kingdom that resulted from the 1707 Union between England & Wales and Scotland)?

If it is the former, then I would concede the point that only those living in Scotland should have the automatic right to vote for Scottish independence in a referendum: irrespective of questions of national sovereignty, it satisfies the demands of natural justice that it is the people living in a particular country or region who should decide whether to separate from a larger national or supra-national entity of which that country or region has hitherto been a part. The analogy here would be with the 1995 referendum on independence for Quebec. It was right that only those living in Quebec were entitled to vote; and even if independence had been carried, the rest of Canada would have remained Canada without Quebec. Similarly, the United Kingdom would still be the United Kingdom without Scotland, albeit a continuation of the 1801 Union in which the absence of the southern part of Ireland would now be paralleled by the absence of the northern part of Great Britain. I hope we could then sensibly call it the ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland' rather than what could well be regarded as a ‘logical' alternative in view of this ironic ‘symmetry' of Irish and Scottish independence: the ‘United Kingdom of Southern Britain and Northern Ireland'! Let's at least include England in the name of the state now that Great Britain was no more - even if England did continue to be governed, as it is now, as if it were the UK.

To club or not to club, Sir Simon

Anthony Barnett (London,OK): There was a very odd column by Simon Jenkins in Wednesday's Guardian. He says that we don't have democracy, we still have rule by clubland. Especially when it comes to choosing leaders. He is very much in the club in his own way, but writes as if he is quite untouched by this. He ends with these words:

But then all the constitutional reformers in the world will never persuade me that British politics is not stuck irredeemably in the 18th century.

Well hold on a second! He takes a knighthood but the blade has not touched him? Is he saying that "constitutional reformers" are just fiddling because the whole thing needs to be changed? In which case why did he patronise Charter 88 with his silence when its argument was precisely that the UK was stuck in the 18th century and should not be? Or is he saying that we are so "irredeemably" 18th century that there is no point at all in anyone calling for constitutional reforms? In which case why has he been such a consistent and eloqent advocate of localism, local democracy and the need for more elected officials, which is certainly a much needed constitutional reform.

Recapturing liberal Britain

David Marquand (Oxford, oD author): I notice some respondents to my comment on Glasgow East have queried my statement that the UK was the first modern state. On reflection, I think I was wrong. The Netherlands was the first, I now believe.

As to when the UK achieved that status, I think you can make a good case for saying England and Scotland both became modern states in 1688/9 when they drove the Stuart dynasty from the throne. But I still think the United Kingdom as such, rather than Scotland and England separately, really became modern at the time of the Hanoverian succession - a succession determined by Parliament, remember, not by descent. Perhaps the best date would be 1715, when the first Jacobite rebellion was defeated. Or perhaps you might prefer 1746 when Bonnie Prince Charlie was finally routed. Of course another possible line of argument is that the UK is still not a modern state, since sovereignty is still not firmly located in the people.

This is not Brown's crisis but Britain's

David Marquand (Oxford, oD author): From 600 miles away, British politics seem more than usually dismal, and more than usually petty. The sight of Labour MPs running around complaining about Brown's faults only a year after they gave him the leadership on a plate is deeply unedifying, to put it at its lowest. Nothing new has happened to his character or style since he became leader. He is still the person he has been for the last 20 years and more. If his MPs have now changed their minds about him that tells us more about their gutlessness than about his inadequacies. If he's unfit for the job now, he was unfit a year ago. If he was fit then, he's fit now.

But Brown's personality is not the real issue in any case. The first and most obvious point to make about Glasgow East is that it happened in Scotland, and that the Scottish National Party won! I don't think it was a vote against the Union, but I do think it was a vote against the way in which the devolution legislation was framed. New Labour was trying to have its cake and eat it - to appease the manifest Scottish demand for Home Rule, while maintaining the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament and the inequitable absurdities of the Barnett formula on finance. It was always likely that this would blow up in Labour's face sooner or later; and in Glasgow East it did so with an almighty bang.

R.I.P the Acre c1300-2008

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Have we seen the last of the "British" acre? The 700-year old land measurement has apparently been banned by the EU following a meeting in Brussels last week.

The Sun (as you may have guessed) is not best pleased, informing its readers that "Britain" (don't they mean England?) has used the acre to measure land since " the late 13th century under Edward I’s reign." The word acre is apparently derived from the Old English for "open field" and was considered the amount of land tillable by a man behind an ox in one day. The measurement was eventually defined by law under Queen Victoria in the Weights and Measures Act of 1878 as being 4,840 square yards or 43,560 square feet.

This history was brought to an end last week when a "lowly Whitehall official" nodded through the EU orders that sealed the acre's fate. What do OK readers think? Surely the humble acre deserved better than this.

The Great British public lend us your ears?

Fair Deal (Belfast, Slugger O’Toole): Sinn Fein is trying to engage mainland opinion in favour of Irish unity but what are Ulster’s Unionists going to do?

Throughout the Troubles, Unionism failed to engender significant public or establishment support in Great Britain.  Equally, Unionism failed to engage in the battle of ideas.  Northern Ireland was presented primarily as a security problem with a security solution.

Will a Tory landslide solve the English question?

Tom Griffin (London: The Green Ribbon) Some of the proceedings from last week's Inside Devolution 2008 conference at the Constitution Unit are now available online.

They included a fascinating roundtable discussion on the performance of the devolved governments over the past year: Iain MacWhirter, Martin Shipton, and Robin Wilson provided insightful analyses of the political situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, respectively. (Audio here)

Cameron's Tories: 'A straightforward party of the union'

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): The Crewe and Nantwich by-election will be concentrating many minds on the prospect of a Conservative government, not least in Scotland , where the Tories have only one MP.

That position has led some to suggest that the Conservatives would be better off conceding the SNP's case and hiving off Scotland altogether. In a speech to the party's Scottish Conference, Cameron set his face against that approach:

"England After Britain"

Mark Perryman (London, Editor Imagined Nation: England after Britain): On the eve of Labour's near meltdown in London, English and Welsh local elections last Thursday Gareth Young posed an interesting challenge for those of us on the political left who are interested in The English Question.

Ruling the waves...or waiving the rules?

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): The handy security update sent out daily by terrorism.oD informs me that the MoD has now confirmed that the fifteen UK sailors taken captive by Iran in March of last year were not seized in Iraqi waters.

Change is in your pocket

Felix Cohen (London, oD): Change is afoot, both here and across the Pond. Except more literally here. The Royal Mint has announced the introduction of new coins designed by Welsh designer Matthew Dent (more on his Welshness shortly).

Terminal UK

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I’m working on my delayed response to Iain Dale down in the mean streets of Britain. When I lift up my head there is a very strong sense of fin de regime. The start of what may be a persistent double-digit poll lead for the Tories is a mere signal, with an election perhaps two years away. It’s the whole damn political class: politicians desperate for derisory expenses in comparison with speculators (sorry, our financial services sector) whose hopes for more are nonetheless collapsing in vast losses aided and abetted by global cheapskates such as BA unable to train its staff with the disaster of T5 a lead story around the world, topped off by a slobbering domestic media whose coverage of Mrs Sarkozy was the definitive end of sang-froid.

Reform or retrenchment? Wendy Alexander on the constitution

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander made a bold bid to take back the Scottish constitutional agenda on Sunday with the launch of her policy document, Change is What We Do:

Words matter

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): There is a lot of discussion about Obama's magnificent speech on race and America. In openDemocracy Kanishk Tharoor has a fine assessment and links through to it HERE. Elsewhere in UK blogland from NHS Doctor to Sunny Hundal to Gracchi, to an understated gloat that the speech 'won't work' on harry's place, there is genuine interest on the left. The British right seems less plussed despite efforts to project Cameron as the UK's Obama when his rhetoric seemed like a game, a sort of knights move that traditional Tories could play. Indeed they seem at a loss for words. Especially interesting as Obama explicitly highlights the point that his faith embraces a politically conservative self-help  tradition. There are two things to note, one tactical in US terms and a larger one that relates to the poverty of politics in this country.

Enoch Powell's Island Story

Jon Bright (London, OK): Jonathan Rutherford has a fascinating article (opens pdf) in Soundings about Enoch Powell's life and philosophy, extending his story backwards and forwards from his "rivers of blood" proclamation. The following passage, describing the fallout, struck me:

The law of rules

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Anyone concerned about the rule of law, justice and what is going on in the UK should read this story in the Times by Camilla Cavendish. I know a family with a young child driven to live abroad by this kind of beastly bureaucratic behaviour.

Why are we angry?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK):  In an entertaining article in yesterday's FT, Maurice Saatchi reports on a new Ambassador just appointed to Britain who was last posted here ten years ago. He is shocked to find that the English are much more angry. Grrrr. Who IS this ****ing guy? Bring him on and we'll give him some real anger!! Seriously, though, it's interesting because Saatchi asks 'Why?' His answer is a bit pompous. He parades a theory of Freud's that we have become structurally "ambivalent", driven to this near clinical state by devolution, globalisation and immigration. Like we have not been made angry for having been ruled by a liar and a spiv for ten years and now the leader of the opposition  wants to emulate him and attacks the current PM for not been as good a liar and a spiv as his predecessor, and we shouldn't be angry? However, to get back to Saatchi's up-side, he has a point. The big forces for change present a kind of double-bind to England/Britain, punished either way. He is especially good on devolution,

We should be debating Britain's place in Europe, not Lisbon's

Jonathan Church (London, The Federal Trust): "Everyone but a fool (or a minister) knows that the new treaty is the rejected 2005 constitution in all but name" wrote Simon Jenkins in Wednesday's Guardian, referring to well-publicised comments made by Valerie Giscard d'Estaing and Angela Merkel to support this assertion. Brown's case is ignored, presumably on the grounds that somebody like Mr Brown would not be an objective judge of the two treaties. But Jenkins is happy to gloss over the fact that d'Estaing and Merkel also have their pre-existing interests in the debate: one being the Constitution's proud "architect", the other heading a country thoroughly at ease with the original document. The ruling of the Dutch government's independent legal panel, the Council of State, that the two Treaties were "substantially different" is, a cynic might say, no less a product of national political pressures.

Irish republicanism must embrace British identity

Jon Bright (London, OK): In a wide ranging and provocative article for OurKingdom, Conn Corrigan takes a look at how far Irish republicans are from uniting Ireland, what the 'principle of consent' means for them, and what they need to do if their task is to succeed. Read the article in full here.

The shambles, England's or Britain's?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): The Daily Mail's editorial today contained two interesting aspects, one original and one, well, not unusual. It says that in the verbiage of most new year accounts "Britain's three greatest problems have been all but ignored". These are: "the effects on Britain of mass immigration; the demolition of our constitution; and the absence of any serious energy policy to secure the nation's future prosperity. It is no exaggeration to say that the implications of these three problems are awesome". And it is true that none of the serious papers except perhaps the Independent, feel able to identify the crash of the UK constitution with the force and authority of the Mail. In this section of the editorial argues,

Brown's New Year Message

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): There is good stuff in Brown's New Year calling card on education especially and the environment, along with a sensible warning about the economy and a ridiculous silence on Europe, as if the ratification of the EU Treaty was a non-event not to be looked forward to. But I was very struck by the overall tone. Here are some extracts, see what you think (with interruptions that I can't resist). It opens with the Prime Minister's promise of:

Ho hum

Amthony Barnett (London, OK):  I confidently assumed (see below) that Cameron's speech on the Union, his change of direction on the English question, his going head-to-head on the Prime Minister's chosen terrain of Britishness and his new tone - declaring that we need to "scrub out" the "the ugly stain of separatism seeping through the Union flag" - as well as the obvious importance of the issue, would give it some "headline" prominence. Woops, not a peep on the BBC news this evening. I forgot, it is the London Broadcasting Corporation.

The "Stain" of separatism, Cameron picks up Gordon's gauntlet

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): An important day in our immediate history. The Prime Minister touches down in Basra to announce the end of combat duties in Iraq, his key strategic separation from Blair, and then goes on to back the long haul in Afghanistan. At home Ed Balls prepares the roll out of his education strategy designed to show the Blairites how to deliver change. But this double advance of the government's distinction has the headlines stolen from them by a dramatic speech in Edinburgh from the leader of the opposition. Cameron takes up Brown's challenge on Britishness. Already, at Conservative Home there is important coverage of the direction being taken and those interested must also look at comments on it which honestly reveal the waterfront of Tory tension on this issue of issues. A relieved Tory MSP is quoted as saying that the prospect of real power had finally inspired the party's leader into grasping what it means to be the representative of British power:

Not in my name (and it's not at my game)

Mike Small (Fife, freelancer): News that "British" troops are to make a lap of honour at Wembley stadium before England play a crucial Euro 2008 qualifying match leaves me incredulous.The service men and women have all recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and will parade before the game against Croatia next Wednesday. The event has been organised by the British Forces Foundation, who say it will allow the crowds to publicly thank the Army, Navy and Airforce personnel for their efforts in the Midde East. Apparently, images from the parade will be relayed to troops serving in foreign countries.

British Scots debate how to kill English nationalism

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I have been trying to find the link to Saturday evening's 'Straight Talk' between  Andrew Neil and Malcolm Rifkind discussing Rifkind's proposal  for an English Grand Committee to decide on English laws. At one point the two Scots debate how best to "kill English nationalism stone dead". Any help appreciated.

Progressive politics and the State... and Sunny Hundal

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Sunny Hundal has run an article on the Liberal Conspiracy in todays Guardian and blogged it in LibCon as well. A key passage towards the end reads,

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