Mike Small’s Bella piece of 6 June is bang on when it describes Kevin McKenna’s Observer piece of the previous day as a pitiful piece of Uncle Tom unionism (though I’m not sure about the ‘nadir’ – the Observer/ Guardian have had so many ‘nadirs’ it would be hard to pick any one out).
A number of state-sceptical writers have now picked out this thread of what Mike quotes Gerry Hassan calling ‘a tangible anger about Scotland’. Although some of this anger is simply down to a gentle but genuine form of envy (the comment ‘can I emigrate north?’ is often half-joking-whole-in-earnest), there is indeed a real thread of anger towards a Scotland increasingly working towards its own constitutional negotiation. This anger is notably different from the older, more obviously frothing and illogical Telegraphista moment of ‘if they want to go, damn them, let’s them go, and we can stop subsidising them’.
The question is where this speed-change in resentment comes from? Why now, when this moment has been foreseeable by most of the politically literate north of the border for years? It might help to see the ‘devolutionary era’ (post-1999) as split into two. During the first phase, there was still a common belief, often using some kind of New Labour doublethink, that the process was one of management, that it could be controlled and is an acceptable ‘regional’ solution to the embattled needs of the corporate state.
The second phase turned on at least three shocking and befuddling developments: the SNP minority government of 2007, the (ongoing) financial crisis from 2008, and the ‘Scottish Spring’ of May 2011. This last is much too real for many commentators on the ‘British left’ (as well as the British right) to adequately process. If the McKenna article was horrible, then look at how the Guardian utterly missed the significance of the 5 May elections, before, during, and after the event. Not only were readers encouraged to watch the wrong election (coverage of the Scottish national elections was several steps beneath the AV election in coverage and layout), even after the results there was a widespread failure to understand how the Scottish result was liable to deliver the kind of constitutional change apparently desired by much of the Yes to AV campaign much more quickly and much more substantially than any British proposal, and a plaintive sense of betrayal peddled repeatedly by the Guardian.
We also have to appreciate the tremendous size of the gap at the heart of English national life. The two-centuries-long interchangeability of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ was never really a slip of the tongue; it was never a ‘whoops, I forgot to be multicultural’ moment – it was a creation firstly and most obviously of empire, which is where that combination comes from, as English culture had its shotgun wedding with Scotto-British technocracy, and then, since the 1950s, to the many institutions which relied on the ‘un-place-ability’ of England.
The Guardian is one of these institutions, the BBC is another; the world of the financial City, with its ironic-sounding terminology of ‘instruments’ and ‘futures’ – in other words, bubbly exchange-value with nothing behind it – is perhaps the most obvious. I tend to think of the UK as itself an asset bubble, as exchange-value backed by no real substantial stuff.
All of these financial instruments have stepped in, as Tom Nairn has been pointing out for many, many years, to fill the gap left by the downfall of the English culture/ British state combined expansive form of empire. What remains especially at an English cultural level is what Paul Gilroy powerfully described as long ago as 2004 as ‘postcolonial melancholia’. It is a form of this melancholia, this perception of a gap, that comes out powerfully in the Guardian columns of Madeleine Bunting, David Mitchell, and others, some of which does indeed look like a more whiney and ‘betrayed’ version of a chunk of the Telegraph comments page five years ago.
This melancholia is also behind the proactive return to nostalgia in what might be described as an English nationalist politics; the deep sense of loss left by the Scottish Spring applies perhaps most powerfully to the British Labour Party, whose think tanks reveal them to be confounded by the fall of the union’s potential to consign them to history (though probably without as much ground as they imagine: pretty much every measure of how England is a ‘naturally Tory nation’ has been taken using British measurements). Some have turned to Blue Labour, most famously represented by Maurice Glasman, but also by the Jon Cruddas of this April’s ‘English special’ New Statesman, who quotes Alastair Bonnett’s sharp but deeply flawed Left in the Past (2010) on the positive powers of nostalgia.
Although it has much to commend it, one irreducible question that Bonnett’s book leaves hanging is, nostalgia for what? For a nationless unitary state? Orwell had the same problem, and Bonnett’s is in many ways a very Orwellian book, except that he has had seventy years longer to sort out the England/ Britain problem. Moreover, it is part of the British Conservative heritage from Burke onwards to avoid having to specify the place, feeling, or time of the event causing a moment of nostalgia while rendering it authoritative – and indeed to avoid the question of whether any such event ever took place.
British conservatism’s strength lies in its ahistoricism, just as the strength of the British constitution lies in its reliance on rules which need not have any real origin, but simply to seem to have always already been there, then to be adduced retrospectively. This turn in the flailing Labour Party is deeply suspect; the inability, for example, of some of its adherents to distinguish between ‘radical conservatism’ and ‘conservative radicalism’ is oddly reminiscent of Oswald Moseley’s turning his back on the Labour Party to form the British Union of Fascists – which, although it failed in the UK, then led to a new British Burkean settlement, magnified by the high-consensual moment of the Blitz, which accepted the ahistorical constitution and a rebranded version of an Establishment ‘soft totalitarianism’ as a hedge against the suited-and-booted style of fascism, with all its embarrassing goose-stepping that so offended Orwell.
Meanwhile we can expect more of the same from The Guardian and the BBC, who have throughout the whole devolutionary era been demonising nationalism, but who, since the 2007-2011 period, have been plunged into a state of panic over the futures of their own vested situations. One of the most interesting chapters in eds. McCrone and Bechhofer 2009, by Michael Rosie and Pille Petersoo, shows that the broadsheet or highbrow media are in fact the worst at ‘devolving’ news reporting; although they are substantially ‘Englished’ by the tacit assumption that Scotland now does things for itself, they remain British institutions – so that they take up an Anglo-British stance on the news as if it was the only and natural stance to take, which is in fact deeply corrosive to union at the same time as trying to play a rearguard action on its behalf.
Of course, this is just one more good reason to disregard most of The Guardian in favour of grown-up analysis – but it is also a sign of how the union settlement is hanging by a thread in powerful cultural-journalistic circles: all the time straining, against an ingrained sense of statism sometimes known as political correctness, to define this thing called England, their coat-tails are perpetually caught in the British-unionist doorway they find themselves institutionally, and even subconsciously, bound to represent.