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The United Kingdom: Love Don’t Live Here Anymore

January 14, 2012

Cameron and Miliband have united in calling for the Scots to reject independence. So, that’s the Union fucked then.

Let me declare my hand I’m neither a Nationalist nor a Unionist (the capitals are deliberate). But I will confess to being a unionist (lower case, this time) in the sense that I think collectivism is a good thing and relationships of warm horizontal comradeship and political communion are infinitely preferable to myopic separatism.

Alas the United Kingdom has never been a union of equals and as a consequence has long encouraged separatism and nationalism. It has been dominated by England, and more specifically the interests of London, while its constitution is archaic and undemocratic, with its Protestant monarchy, unelected second chamber, and vile class system.

There is absolutely nothing to indicate that this lamentable state of affairs will end any time soon, so it seems to me entirely understandable that there is a sizeable portion of the Scottish electorate looking to escape what Tom Nairn refers to as Ukania.

The election of a Conservative government has probably hastened the process of breaking up, and Cameron’s pronouncements this week will have accelerated the further disintegration of the very thing he says that he wants to preserve. When you can boast only one MP in Scotland, it’s bloody presumptuous to start dictating the terms of a future Scottish referendum.

Can the Union be saved? Maybe. Because this strikes me as a strange break up. I’m not sure that most Scots are conviction nationalists (I know many of them are deeply suspicious of the SNP or ‘tartan Tories’). Their proposed secession strikes me as motivated by the feeling that they are put-upon, unappreciated and unloved by the English. It’s a marriage that has little real animosity, just the growing mutual disinterest of the two parties. So, I wonder, as the dominant partner in the relationship, what would England do to preserve the Union? Cameron has resorted to bullying and hectoring. But what about the English electorate? They seem largely indifferent, if anything a more assertive Scotland has antagonised some of them.

Now, I’m sorry to employ the marriage metaphor to describe Anglo-Scottish relations. I appreciate that it is over-used but seems entirely appropriate at this time. Also this week’s events have reminded me of similar metaphor that comments on another set of UK relations that I’m more familiar with. In Pat Murphy and John Davies’s experimental film Maeve, there is moment when a British soldier and a young Belfast women are pictured engaged in a loveless embrace; he humping her in a rather mechanical manner while she stares impassively over his shoulder. The scene has always struck me as a comment on the curiously loveless relationship that Ulster Protestants endure with the rest of the UK. And Davies and Murphy seem to be asking: why would anyone tolerate such a miserable, unsatisfying political congress? Indeed.

Political unions are surely not just practical projects: they’re not just about pounds, shillings and euros. There is an emotional element to them. But if the only thing that keeps England and Scotland in the same cold house is economic expediency or fear in straitened times, then that is a sure recipe for growing mutual resentment, and a more acrimonious break up in the future.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2012 6:56 pm

    As a first approximation, ‘a loveless marriage’ is not a bad metaphor for the UK. But the Englsih often act as if they don’t really realise they’re married anyway – polls suggest opinion in favour of Scottish Independence is higher South of the border at the moment.

    I think the default (or at least very common) English attitude is that the Celtic nations are kinda of lodgers and kinda of relatives who are staying in our house if not quite under sufferance then certainly due to the goodness of our hearts. Even those English politicians most devoted to arguing for the Union with Scotland tend to argue on the ‘external appearances grounds’ of how, together, we all look more important to the neighbours (read: we might lose the UN Security Council seat, and have our EU weighted vote reduced to something like Poland’s) than we would if we separated.

    In terms of the internal life of the household, English politicians simply asset ‘well we’re all one family anyway so why harp on about minor differences’ ( read: ”haven’t we all been British for a long time, so what’s your problem Jock?”.)

    In short, the discussion of the nature of the Union and the complexities of running a multinational State is woefully underdeveloped in England compared to Scotland, Wales of Northern Ireland. This is not a promising basis for a useful re-negotiation of a ‘loveless marriage’.

  2. Rab permalink*
    January 15, 2012 9:01 pm

    There might still be a strong economic case that can be made for the union, from a Scottish perspective. Bt if that argument is made in terms of Scottish dependency then it might work in the short term but long term the English will resent it if they are seen to be paying of the Scots and sooner or later pride might get the better of the Scots. In short, if there’s no love then there is no economic circumstances will hold the union together for ever. If empire and welfare provided compelling economic and cultural narratives for the union, is there any conceivable contemporary narrative that will sustain relations. Just can’t see it in Austerity Britain under the Tories.

  3. Strategist permalink
    January 17, 2012 12:30 am

    Hi Rab, 2012 appears to be the year of a big push by the media machine to get the English switched on to this issue. Osborne appears to be behind it, and one must immediately be suspicious about what that little cunt is up to.
    My take on the question in general crystallised what seems like years ago when this was done pretty thoroughly on the old Red Pepper discussion board, and when Andy Newman kept taking it on on Socialist Unity. It seems like old hat almost going through it now, so ahead of the trend were we!
    Some think the Tories would be delighted for Scotland to sue for divorce, so that they could win all elections in continuity UK for the rest of time. My take is that this underestimates what a hammer blow it would be to the British establishment if Scotland went – I don’t underestimate how important Scotland is to the monarchy, the vile class system, the British Army, etc. There is no way Cameron wants to lose Scotland on his watch.
    As an Englishman, my personal preference would be for a Federal Republic, but I appreciate that position is not widely shared, and so I support Scottish independence (partly) as the only means I can see in the near term of rocking the establishment to its foundations, and giving England a bloody good shake-up.
    To me, the weird thing about middle England at the moment is not its indifference to the prospect of divorce from Scotland, it’s its apparent pleasure about being in a minority of one in the EU27, and the fact that it is entirely delusional about the economy and our global status.
    On a happier note, I see the Scots eventually going for devo max, and this in fact might be the route to a federal republic, so maybe this could all work out fine.
    Meantime, I’d like to see whether the Scots are really up for, and up to, a major civic project like going down a genuinely distinctive social democratic, “Nordic” route. I have to cling to the belief that they may be, because if it just becomes a tin pot crony capitalist place, that would be a tragedy.
    It will be interesting to see what the diaspora do. Hardeep Singh Kohli proclaimed on the Neill/Portillo show last week that he would go home to help build the nation if Scotland got independence, and I think Andrew Neill rightly called him out by saying bollocks, if that was really true, why don’t you go back now and help fight for independence. And he said something like, well y’know, the work’s down here in London. Which sounds pathetic, but is true for a lot of us. And of course he’s also hooked on popping out for decent quality fresh ciabatta after midnight, as we all are.

  4. Rab permalink*
    January 17, 2012 12:30 pm

    Hi Strategist,
    If Scotland goes independent or opts for dev max I’ll relocated to Scotland. It might be a bit of a gamble but it couldn’t be any worse than Belfast.

    I like the idea of a Federation and maybe you’re right, devo max would offer a step in that direction. The key, it seems to me is a relationship of equals. But that could be tricky given an uneven economy and differences in population size, to mention but two. Would the Scots settle for subordinate status? Doesn’t look like it anymore. Will the English ever see the Scots as equal partners? Doubt it. The drift apart looks more than certain.

    Funnily enough the British-Irish Council meets today, which, fond-boy that I am, had high hopes for. It was always seen as a sop to the Trimble during the Good Friday negotiations but I always thought it had the potential to strengthen the relationships on the Celtic fringe (inc. the Republic or ireland) and offer a counter-weight to English hegemony and perhaps promote real partnership. I don’t know though. As the European experience seems to demonstrate England makes a poor partner, unless of course it’s in a special relationship with the most powerful nation on earth. Maybe if England can get over its fascination with empire (it’s old one and the American’s) things will change.

    As you say, there was a good discussion about this on the RP site. I still feel as I did then, that a key element in all of this is the question of England: what sort of country does England want to be? Simply arguing for the continuation of the UK on the basis of some proposed British, working class unity (as some did and do) misses the point that Scottish independence may seem like an increasingly attractive option for working class Scots precisely because the UK is dominated an England alway captivated by free market capitalism.

  5. January 17, 2012 5:11 pm

    Gerry Hassan is interesting on all this:

    “A recent survey of the SNP membership by Professor James Mitchell of Strathclyde University showed a more pragmatic view of what independence is, at ease with sharing powers and sovereignties in the European Union and even the United Kingdom. The nationalists are as far as you could imagine from the old caricature of “separatists” still portrayed in unionist propaganda. The ancient, fossilised nationalists can be found at the heart of the British state. They are politicians such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, who each has fetishised the idea of “Britishness” as well as engaging in a late-in-the-day nation-building project.”

  6. Rab permalink*
    January 17, 2012 7:06 pm

    Meanwhile in the parallel universe occupied the leader of Ulster Unionist Party, Tom Elliot…

    Elliot has said that the SNP are greater threat to the union than the IRA and accused them of a pursuing a “19th-century romantic-style notion of nationalism” … which is at least some advance the 17th century-style of politics preferred by sections of unionism.

  7. Strategist permalink
    January 18, 2012 12:32 am

    >>>the question of England: what sort of country does England want to be?

    Hmm. One aspect of the dire “back to the 80s” feel of England at the moment is the horrible feeling that England is blindly walking into re-electing the Tories in 2015, probably with an absolute majority. The battleground right now is whether London re-elects Boris, and although I don’t concede the battle yet, it does appear likely.

    However bad Belfast is at the moment, at least I guess it doesn’t feel like back to the 80s in every respect.

    One aspect of the 80s that I’ve yet to really see is any revival of Northern England regionalism. The regional quangoes set up by New Labour have been pretty thoroughly destroyed by Eric Pickles – so nobody’s going to be getting paid to do it, but I wonder if there’ll be any civil society action on this front as the recession in Northern England deepens and the prospect of Tory government for the foreseeable future sinks in.

    It didn’t feel like there was only one England as a northern teenager in the 80s, but I was clearly wrong – the thing I still puzzle over was the strength of the Geordies’ rejection of regional devolution in the early 2000s. I noted Neil Oliver in his History of Scotland series quoting Scots’ puzzlement right back in the Middle Ages over the Geordies’ unshakeable allegiance to the King in London.

    >>>If Scotland goes independent or opts for dev max I’ll relocate to Scotland.

    I love the idea of rebuilding an independent Scotland as a “nordic” social democratic country as an international venture, with all persons of idealism & goodwill invited to move to Scotland to help out. I’m imagining being able to get out of a twatting in a Glasgow bar by whipping out your International Brigade ID. I like to think the Scots could be up for it. (It might indeed already be Salmond’s declared policy for all I know.)

    However, I’ve got to hit us both with the Andrew Neill killer question – why don’t we go there now, and help to make devo max happen?

    We’re not the only ones – I note Craig Murray has joined the SNP and promised to move to Scotland if it becomes independent, but he isn’t offering to relinquish his spot on England’s sunshine coast in Ramsgate actually today.

  8. charliemcmenamin permalink
    January 18, 2012 10:06 am

    Neill’s so-called ‘killer’ question is only successful because it makes the whole ‘If the SNP pull it off, I’m on the first Glasgow train outta Euston’ schtick seem a florid and empty rhetorical flourish.

    & ,for some people, perhaps it is. It is inherently implausible to think there is ever going to be a mass decamping of Scots – or Irish, or Welsh – in England back home once they have careers, families and, quite often, English partners.

    But, actually, the line quite often expresses something deeper:” I wish I hadn’t had to come to realise my dreams in the first place”. A Scottish friend living in London once said to me that he thought Scotland was a more equal society than England – but immediately followed it up with the tart observation that this was because seeking any kind of career advancement back home was a matter of waiting to fill ‘dead man’s shoes’, so the most talented or energetic Scots headed for opportunities South of the border and, he added, the least talented or most damaged could be found on the pavements around Kings Cross drinking white lightening. ….

    That an independent Scotland would have more opportunities for people to achieve and flourish at home is the implicit promise of the SNP dream. (Though, to be fair, this was also the promise of the dream of Irish independence, and it has only proved sporadically true of that country…)

  9. Rab permalink*
    January 18, 2012 12:47 pm

    Well, I hadn’t actually thought of joining an International Brigade to liberate Scotland… but if it gets me out of academia…

    I suspect peoples’ feelings about Scotland are contradictory. England has a considerable gravitational pull on the Celtic fringe. I felt it myself and have to confess some regrets that I didn’t work harder to persuade Mrs Rab of the attractions of living there. For all its charms – and they are considerable – there is something stagnant about Northern Ireland. I wonder do people in Scotland feel similarly?

    My very limited experience of England is as you call it, Charlie, it presents all sorts of opportunities for people with the talent and energy. There are regular bouts of soul search in Northern Ireland about our failure to hold onto our young and talented. There perception is that England and the US just hoovers them up. devolution over here has done nothing to reverse that and I wonder will independence or devo-max have any impact on Scotland.

    I mentioned the feeling that things are stagnant. But there is also, I think, a feeling of political impotence on the Celtic fringe. Strategist, you mention the election of a second Cameron administration. I can believe it. In a sense I think Balls and Miliband are effectively conceding defeat at the moment. But this means that once again the Celtic fringe gets ruled from London by governments that are unrepresentative of their own national or regional politics and who have little appreciation of Scottish, Irish or Welsh circumstances.

    There is an interesting question here for the Scottish Labour Party. Who does it serve? The party leadership, probably fearful of losing Scottish seats in a UK parliament and consigned to political opposition in England for God-knows-how-long? Or the Scottish electorate who want to be at a safe distance from Whitehall? If I was a Labour member in Scotland I’d be looking very hard had the devo-max option.

  10. Strategist permalink
    January 19, 2012 11:58 pm

    Cheers, Rab. I think there is increasing polarisation between the “core & periphery” across the board. I’ve lived in London 19 years and I have to say I think it has got more cosmopolitan every year I’ve been here, and it’s hoovering up all the talent from across Europe, never mind UK (not least Eastern Europe, without whose children it would simply not be functioning). Yet go to Birmingham and you already get the feeling you’re in the periphery, not stagnant perhaps, but not a vibrant ferment of limitless opportunities either.

    God only knows what the answer is. But having & being a real capital city does seem to be one answer. I haven’t been to Dublin since the crash, but before that it was really buzzing in a way that surpassed English regional cities of the same size or larger. And the same goes for Edinburgh since they got the Scottish Parliament, I’d say. Ditto Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, although they are no bigger than Birmingham. I’m sorry to say I’ve never set foot in Belfast, which I would like to put right one day.

    So, I think maybe we’re all agreed, devo max or indepedence the way to go for Scotland, not all of the answer by any means, but some of it at least.

    Whither the English regional cities, who can say? But I must correct two things I have said in earlier posts that I’m very pleased to say appear to be wrong:

    first, something is happening in the North of England civil society on devolution, this:

    and second, it’s not over yet in London as Red Ken edges into a lead:


  11. Rab permalink*
    January 20, 2012 6:50 am

    Initially I was surprised that there was so little enthusiasm for a northern regional assembly of some sort. And then I listened to all those arguments about people not wanting another layer of bureaucratic government and I thought… well,I suppose so.

    But it’s interesting that the idea has come back so quickly and under a Tory administration. To be honest, I don’t think it will fly but I’m sympathetic to what seems like an anti-Tory impulse that lies behind it, and I think there very fact that there are people and groups prepared to campaign for some form of northern devolution says something about what looks from here like deep divisions in England.

    The first comment on the Guardian’s Northern Blog article is interesting:

    ‘Maybe the quid pro quo for devolution for the north could be the withdrawal of subsidy from the south. With power comes responsibility and it could do the north’s self-esteem a lot of good for it to have to compete.’

    Ahh, competition. What sort of a competition is it when your opponent was effectively hobbled in 80s with the decimation of manufacturing?

    …but the partition of England… now there’s something

  12. charliemcmenamin permalink
    January 20, 2012 10:23 am

    I travel quite a bit round the English cities, and I think I’d put the division somewhere a little different to Strategist. Inner city Birmingham – or Manchester, or Leeds* etc – doesn’t feel that different to London to me. Not quite as diverse of course, more prone to concentrations of particular ethnic groups (e.g. Somalis in SE Brum) but recognisably the same kinds of places.

    The difference comes in the suburbs: London’s diversity stretches deep into suburbia, including quite wealthy bits of suburbia. Someone told me yesterday that there are c20,000-30,000 Koreans living around Wimbledon and the nicer bits of Mordon for instance. & places like Harrow and Croydon are increasingly comming to resemble Brent and Brixton in their ethnic composition. It is truly a World City and I love it.

    There are some signs of Hindu (not general Asian) populations shifting to suburbia in the Birmingham conurbation as they rise up the socio-economic scale but, in the main, most English cities outside London have disproportionately white suburban fringes.

    i think this division is more important , at least in terms of a ‘lived cutural experience’, than the North-South divide we talked so much of in the 1980s. Which is why I think I now favour not regionalism per se but some model of devolved power based on ‘city-regions’ (Greater Manchester, Merseyside etc), combined with County Councils for the truly suburbian and rural bits, rather than the huge and amorphous regions as proposed by the last Labour Govt to general indifference.

    *But not Newcastle- Newcastle is incredbly white.

  13. eilidh m permalink
    January 21, 2012 1:57 pm

    I’d suggest that the reason movement in the direction of a genuinely inclusive politics hasn’t happened in the period of devolution is largely down to the visceral mutual hatred between Scottish Labour and the SNP, who have both been guilty of using issues like minimum pricing on alcohol, the Edinburgh trams and the now abandoned rail link to Glasgow Airport to score points off each other. The electoral success of the SNP owes more to people’s contempt for Labour (and, since 2010, the LibDems) than to any real enthusiasm for the nationalist project, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the uppermost thought in the minds of voters who go for independence on referendum day was ‘well, it can’t be any worse than the status quo’. I worry that one of the negative consequences of independence would be the northward return of embittered Labour ex-MPs with axes to grind, ratcheting up the pettiness even further and putting off an electorate who already feel shut out of the process – the view being that a self-interested arsehole is a self-interested arsehole regardless of whether he/she sits in Holyrood or Westminster. Unless independence or devo max encourages more varied forms of political participation (as seemed possible with the rise of the Scottish Socialists in the early years of devolution), I can envisage us being locked into perpetual and grimly antagonistic politics as usual. And who would vote for that?

  14. Rab permalink*
    January 21, 2012 7:47 pm

    Hello eilidh,
    I’ve tried to suggest in the blog post that the Scottish independence owes little to strident separatism. As you say, SNP support is built on disillusionment with the (British) Labour party, so what do Scottish Labour members make of this? Do you think there is a section of Scottish Labour that sees Blair – Miliband as an millstone around their necks and would cherish more autonomy?

  15. eilidh m permalink
    January 22, 2012 1:20 pm

    The current failure of Labour in Westminster to provide any convincing opposition to coalition policy – especially on public sector job cuts – is bound to be frustrating to many Labour members and voters in Scotland. As you and previous commenters have said, the centre ground in Scotland is a bit to the left of where it lies in England. For that reason it would probably be politically advantageous to party campaigners to promote a distinctive identity for Scottish Labour. However, this is a bit of a double-edged sword – between now and any referendum, the pro-union parties are sure to make much of how our distinct policies, such as free university tuition and personal care for the elderly, might not be possible without the largesse of the prosperous south. Labour are in a difficult position just now as people don’t seem that sure of what they stand for, either in Holyrood or in Westminster. But I don’t think you can underestimate how fed-up the Scottish electorate are with Scottish Labour either, and it will be interesting to see how this year’s council elections go (with Labour losing their control of corruption-riddled Glasgow City Council a real possibility). Frustration with the perceived complacency of local Labour parties was at least as important as disillusionment with Labour in Westminster in securing the SNP their majority at the last election. If devo max is even suggested as an option by the SNP, it might make it harder still for Labour campaigners to fight them, as so much of their campaign last year consisted of presenting the SNP as being hell-bent on full independence and nothing but full independence. All the same, I think devo max, if offered, would be a pragmatic choice for Labour voters, as it’s distinct from the prevailing Tory and SNP stances, and it allows for some consistency with the original aims of devolution, which came about because of a referendum held by a Labour government and was never (I think) intended to be a non-negotiable arrangement.

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