2007 - 2022

Postcolonial Melancholia

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.

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  1. Scottish republic says:

    The English national dress is no longer a Beefeater then.

  2. Scottish republic says:

    I see the Bitish parliament as being the last stand of the post-imperialist Brit nat UK p.l.c.. (a rather long description but accurate). Buying Trident to rule the waves; treating people as commodities to benefit UK p.l.c. .

    When Scotland is independent and all this empire dreaming guff is consigned to the toilet of history then the English will get a parliament for the people. Something that answers the needs of the population rather than the present parliament that puts big business growth first and foremost on its agenda. The Big Business agenda is all part of keeping Britain ‘Great’ and not the people great since they come at best 4th in the pecking order.

    1st UK as empire
    2nd Big business (the reason for the Empire’s great growth)
    3rd Personal interests of the establishment and politicians
    4th the voters.

    England will benefit greatly in gaining its own independence with a truer better sense of herself and that this country in the 21st century is a country of the people and for the people. At the moment, the ‘I’m British’ is just a vestige of empire building that remains but needs to disappear.

    Saor Alba

    Saor England

  3. Alex Buchan says:

    The ‘un-place-ability’ of England, and ‘soft-totalitarianism’, kind of sums up where we are. It feels like being caught in the gravitational pull of a dying star. The convergence of the advent of a SNP majority government with the queen’s visit to Ireland has brought out the differences in the press’ attitudes to Ireland. Ireland’s enthusiastic embrace of Europe over the years was motivated by its desire to further escape this gravitational pull. The lesson is clear: the “tacit assumption that Scotland does things for itself” is acknowledgment of a loosening and a yes vote in the independence referendum would be as cathartic for England and institutions like the Guardian and the BBC as it would be for Scotland. Conversely, an outright defeat in any independence referendum would add a new twist to our toxic relationship with our southern neighbours.

    So the responsibility is as much ours as theirs; it is a test of our maturity as much as theirs. We have to ensure that Scotland is ready to take that step and, if not ready, we have to be prepared to resist the kind of pressure starting to emerge, as David Steel demonstrated yesterday, for a, UK sponsored, high stakes, make or break vote, sanctioned by both London and Edinburgh. If, like Ireland, we see disengagement as an on-going process, where independence is a milestone along the way rather than a destination, then we need to insist on our right to take it at our pace, not theirs, through the option of a middle choice of ‘more powers’ if necessary. One thing that tends to be overlooked in the new mature relationship with Ireland is that it was the struggle of ordinary people in the nationalist community in the North to hold out for their legitimate rights that led to the ground-breaking changes in the UK and Ireland’s relationship. Ultimately it’s up to us to be equally determined.

  4. Flo Voder says:

    Wow, when it comes to licking each other’s balls and faces, there’s nothing like cybernats, is there

    1. An Duine Gruamach says:

      Well, Flo, that really is some cracking engaging with the issues there.

    2. Scottish republic says:

      Brit nat snide is the norm. Sarcsasm is their bread and buttern negativity is their force.


  5. Observer says:

    I voted for the SNP but to be honest I would hesitate to talk about a Scottish spring. How many people voted SNP so they didn’t have to pay more Council Tax, pay for prescriptions, pay for their kids tuition fees, or have to pay for travel if they are a pensioner. I wouldn’t get carried away.

    The Guardian is a shite newspaper, it is metro-centric to the point that you couldn’t satirise it. I am not quite sure why there is such an obsession with it. It is for middle class luvvies who think they are lefties. Does anyone actually read it?

  6. douglas clark says:

    I think there is a nostalgia by narrative for a Britain that never was. It is as though Biggles really existed or that a Christmas Carol accurately reflected the fundamental decency of a top down wealth distributive system. We all loved the drama of 007. It is that sort of archetype that drew us together.

    Reality has intruded and the mythology of ‘being British’ has become rather passé.

    I don’t get the impression that the likes of Madeleine Bunting nor David Mitchell would want to stop us leaving, I think they just believe in a time past that never existed.

    Not really.


    Loved ‘Postcolonial Melancholia’. Wonderful title.

  7. douglas clark says:

    Meant to add, that is a profoundly good post.

  8. MacNaughton says:

    My personal feeling is that independence will be won by putting forward the positive case for Scotland, and that it is all too easy, and tempting, to get bogged down in what London is doing, what England is going through, and what the papers are saying down there: ultimately it is a distraction.

    It is also carries with it some risk, because it almost inevitably leads to talk about “them” and “us”, thus mirroring the way the English media habitually talk about Scotland (how many times have we heard a BBC news presenter coming out with the those familiar words, “Meanwhile, in Scotland…”) and this risks alienating the English community in Scotland – our biggest community of non-born Scots I believe. We need them on board a yes campaign, we need a broad campaign.

    The ethical case for full independence for Scotland is twofold as far as I am concerned: one the one hand, it is a vote against the moral calamity of nuclear weapons (and British militarism), which should have no place in the world, much less Scotland, under any circumstances, because there is no moral justification for ever using them.

    And a vote for an independent Scotland is a vote against the social-economic abandonment of a huge swathe of the poor who live so much less, and in such worse conditions, than their European counterparts. This is something that has been tolerated by the governing bodies of the United Kingdom for the last 150 years, with no end in sight, leading to the situation which Carol Craig described “The Tears that Built The Clyde” whereby certain white males in areas of Greater Glasgow have a life expectancy comparable in the developed world only to the aboriginals of Australia and New Zealand, abandoned in reservoirs, poisoned by alcohol, having seen their cultures annihilated….

    These are two realities that no other country in Europe faces, and are more than sufficient grounds for leaving the Union.

  9. A considered piece given all the negative ranting appearing courtesy of the usual pro-union media outlets in Scotland.

    I agree with a poster above in that we, who wish Scottish Independence, take it at our own pace so independence becomes inevitable rather in the angry terms of the Unionist argument – divorce, separatist, insular, economically incompetent, ungrateful, scrounging and the rest.

    The reality is if Westminster is serious about ‘saving the Union’ there is a need to engage in a solution – a federal UK – which enables all the people of this island to live at peace or accept the inevitable. In 2011 the political ‘establishment’ lost the argument about which political solution is ‘best for Scotland’. The Scots have said they like a solution that is the best for Scotland – autonomy with a federal UK. The overwhelming vote (majority of FPTP seats, largest PR vote share) for the SNP is an indicator of that wish, a final warning to Westminster that the status quo is not working, Calman is never going to be enough so engage with us in a mature manner or we are gone.

    The SNP do not ‘scare the Scots’ and we will use them to get our way – one way or the other.

  10. MacNaughton says:

    . The UK is so unreformable there isn’t even a democratically elected second chamber, that is how bizarre a country it is. And if ever there was any desire for a country called Great Britain to exist, the second chamber would be in Cardiff or Edinburgh, and Britain’s various indigenous languages would on the school curriculum right across the land, to name just two things….

    New Labour had a real mandate to reshape Britain, but beyond devolution, they didn’t take advantage of it….As far as I can – and I should say I am writing this from Europe – there is no sign of any movement in England to latch on to what is going on in Scotland and use it to reform the UK. There are enough Scottish writers pointing out that it represents an opportunity, but where are the (mainstream) English counterparts?

    The English Civil War, which is to say, the War of the Four Kingdoms, began in Scotland with the refusal to accept the Common Prayer Book. I have no doubt that 400 years later, it is Scotland’s independence which will end up totally changing the face of these isles again….interesting times lie ahead, though I think in terms of the press and post-Colonial melancholy it is going to get worse and worse….and that there is little point in engaging with it.

    Going off topic, last week one of Europe’s great intellectual figures died in Paris. I am referring to Jorge Semprún, the Spanish writer who was forced into exile after the Civil War in Spain, and joined the resistance movement in France, where he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Buchenwald.

    Following his release, Semprún began a writing career with “The Long Journey” a harrowing account of the train journey to Buchenwald and the horrifying realization of what was in store once there, ending with “Writing or Life”, in which he compared his own decision not to write about the camps until a good number of years had passed, with that of Primo Levi, who wrote “If This is a Man” almost immediately on being released, and ended up taking his own life years later.

    Semprun was a leading figure of the communist clandestine movement during the Franco regime, and later served as Culture Minister under Felipe Gonzalez’s Socialist government. In his writings, Semprún, like Primo Levi, stresses the importance of historical remembrance of the Holocaust, of the dangers of forgetting, and I couldn’t help but see an irony in the almost total silence which greeted his departure from the world in the British press – there was a word on the BBC and “The Independent” and not much more.

    Semprún deserved better – he deserves to be read: an intellectual heavy-weight, a man of action, and ultimately a moral hero, survivor of the camps who lived to tell the tale – and never forgot those who didn’t make it.

    No doubt his books are out of print now in the UK, another victim of the UK publishing business and the total collapse of translated literature over the last 25 – 30 years, another form of that quiet, creeping censorhip known as the neo-liberal free market which the UK is particualry exposed to.

  11. David says:

    This is an excellent account of the dilemma that now faces many ‘progressive’ Anglo-British unionists. In essence, the whole Anglo-British ‘establishment’, which ranges from Westminster and Whitehall to the liberal-progressive cultural establishment and intelligentsia (the liberal ‘chattering classes’), is in massive denial about the effects of devolution, and the possibility and consequences of Scottish independence. ‘Denial’ is the right word, I think, with its psychoanalytical connotations: it’s pathological, for instance, how MPs and ministers can’t bring themselves to even say the word ‘England’ when they’re presenting and debating about the UK government’s England-specific policies. Yesterday, for instance, the PM didn’t say ‘England’ once in his presentation of the government’s response to the [English] NHS Future Forum’s recommendations about changes to the proposed reforms of the [English] NHS. They can’t / won’t accept that ‘UK’ government is now in effect merely English government in so many areas, and just carry on as if nothing has changed.

    Basically, it’s the Anglo-British establishment that has the biggest issue with ‘Anglophobia’ nowadays, not the Scots. Those articles by Madeleine Bunting and David Mitchell the author refers to quite explicitly articulate distaste for the whole idea of being ‘forced’ to embrace an English identity, culture and polity instead of the Anglo-British identity that has now been flatly and definitively contradicted by reality. You’re right that the ‘Scottish spring’ has presented liberal circles in England with a huge opportunity to bring about the constitutional and political reforms they’ve dreamed about for decades. But one of the reasons why, so far, they haven’t embraced it is that they can’t bear the idea – and just won’t accept it – that the new politics will have to be an English politics. ‘England’ and ‘English’ have become such unquestionable negatives that they just can’t envisage the positive English future that is within their grasp.

  12. Toque says:

    As an English nationalist, can I just say that I don’t feel a deep sense of loss at the Scottish Spring. Actually I find it liberating. And I feel no ‘postcolonial melancholia’ because I’ve never felt particularly British.

    A good article though. Would it be true to say that Scotland’s ‘cultural cringe’ is now England’s? It certainly seems as though certain Englanders (the Big Englanders – the AngloBrits, not the Little Englanders) are feeling uncomfortable in their own skin, now that the crisis of Unionism and Britishness has left them naked and exposed.

  13. Best article I’ve read all week.

    1. bellacaledonia says:


  14. Stephen Gash says:

    Quote: “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’.”

    Frothing eh? There were we frothers thinking that post-devolution Brtitain was/is gob-frothingly anti-English. What’s illogical about getting angry about people’s lives being considered less worthy in England than in Scotland? Tuition fees, cancer drugs, toll roads and bridges, poll tax, selling homes to pay for care, prescription charges etc etc. It beggars belief, at least to we frothers, that Scottish politicians are so miraculously thrifty with money in Scotland, yet when they bagpipe down to England like Brown, Reid, Alexander, Darling, Browne etc, not to mention the carpetbaggers like Blair, Fox and Gove, they become so totally financially imbecilic that people here are disadvantaged on every measure.

    Were any measures taken by Holyrood to prevent only students from England being the only ones paying full tuition fees when studying in Scotland? No. Instead, Scottish nationalists used this blatant discrimination as a way of angering English opinion. We are constantly told by Scottish politicians that it is English politicians who are to blame for for this apartheid system being enacted against English residents? However, I cannot recall any Scottish politician saying that what is happening is in anyway unfair. Lord Foulkes expressed surprise that calls for an English parliament seemed muted. In fact they are silenced by both media and British politicians alike. Andrew Neil’s recent Daily Politics edition with Billy Bragg was atypical in that for once it had someone making the case *for* an English parliament. However, Bragg, the main guest, was no doubt carefully selected to promote the regional carve-up of England. Lord Foulkes has never, to my knowledge, actually expressed the notion that anything is unfair.

    If the situation were reversed, what do you imagine Scottish opinion and reaction would be? Frothing and illogical? I doubt anybody would call it that, if “it’s our oil” is anything to go by. I’m sure you would describe it as “reasoned and understandable”. People in England have literally died for the sake of this union, while still being expected to subsidise benefits Scotland receives, that they are themselves denied.

    At the risk of being called “frothing and illogical” I would describe that as disgusting. The sooner England leaves this “union” the better.

    1. Michael Gardiner says:

      >The sooner England leaves this “union” the better.

      Well, I’m doing my best…

      >It beggars belief, at least to we frothers, that Scottish politicians are so miraculously thrifty with money in Scotland, yet when they bagpipe down to England like Brown, Reid, Alexander, Darling, Browne etc

      Please take a second to think about the logic of this. These are BRITISH politicians. They can’t ‘come to take over England – a country with no government – they are already resident in their own vile creation, the UK. That, forgive me, really is a Daily Telegraph moment.

      As for ‘subsidising Scotland’ – don’t go there, as they say. Seriously.

      There was a good long spell of froth and splutter. Hopefully it’s over now. And as your last line suggests, you, me, and Toque are on the same side here. Apologies for any offence; but let’s make it happen.

      1. Stephen Gash says:

        I believe we’ve gone over this ground before. The British politicians from Scotland signed the Scottish Claim of Right promising to make the interests of the people of Scotland paramount. No politicians from anywhere in the United Kingdom attended the inaugural meeting of the English Constitutional Convention in the House of Lords. There is a fundamental difference in attitude to England compared with Scotland shown by these British politicians. Devolution has exposed this.

        Let’s accept the notion that Scotland is subsidisng England then. Should this mean that Scotland gets more spent per head than England? Does it mean that England should always come bottom of the spending league? This is the assertion being made by British politicians. No other country has been bust up into regions as far as I can see. Scotland would have “benefitted” from regions as much as England has, arguably. Many of us reason that England was deliberately carved up to enable Scotland to be compared with whichever region suited Scotland’s argument at any particular time, for spending purposes. This is true for Wales too. Such regional comparisons have constantly been made.

        You say “don’t go there” but why should we put up with Salmond’s frothing and spluttering and “it’s our oil” without fighting our corner? Believe you me there is just as much resentment in England as there ever was/is in Scotland and frankly a good deal less “frothing, spluttering and lack of logic” in England than there has been in Scotland since North Sea oil was discovered.

        So, with all due respect it might be better for you to not spoil otherwise reasonable articles by resorting to patronising expressions in the future. Your compatriot Gerry Hassan does the same to the point of being nauseating. I’m considerably less tolerant than fellow English nationalists. Maybe that is because I get more exercised about all the things I listed in my first post here.

        There was plenty of spluttering and frothing from the SNP and other Scottish politicians when the coalition came up with a paltry £50 million to fund rare-cancer drugs in England, in an attempt to redress the imbalance between Scotland and England. Salmond had the temerity to suggest that cancer treatment should not be subject to national borders. Previously, when Scotland provided a dozen drugs NICE refused England he and his party smugly suggested that Scots were more caring or compassionate than the English. This “compassion” was starkly presented to the UK by Scotland introducing a residency rule to prevent “health tourism” from other parts of the UK. Salmond’s SNP cared more about Al Magrahi than about cancer patients from England. So, his “frothing” was hypocritical at best.

        As I asked before, what would Scots be doing if only students from Scotland were paying full tuition fees, out of the whole EU, when studying in England? A little bit more than frothing I’m sure.

        You may consider people like me to be “frothing, spluttering and illogical” but I choose to regard it as bringing into the open a few home truths.

        You rightly say we are on the same side, but people in England are being disadvantaged post-devolution in a manner those in Scotland never came close to experiencing pre-devolution. Nevertheless, there was plenty of “frothing” from north of the border. Still is.

    2. Michael Gardiner says:

      Okay, got you.

      The thing is, we have to have some concrete idea of an ‘England’, and we have to make sure we don’t really mean Britain or Westminster by default. The main reason not to ‘go there’ on subsidy was that it can only end in argument – ultimately, there are points on both sides but does it matter which of the member nations subsided which one, when we are all being humped by the British political class a hundred times worse? What I want (and you are a bit quick to tell me who my ‘compatriots’ are – I live in England and will apply for citizenship of an English state if I have to) is for this country to have a concrete and recognised existence so that this split can actually take place rather than reverting to an argument about seceding and leaving the rest behind, then we can ALL take back some power and not have quite so much of all our taxes pissed up the wall. Once you start saying that Scottish politicians have been able to come down and rule England, The specificity of England is out the window and we’re back to square one.

      And I don’t think you’re spluttering or frothing or any of the rest of it. Mid-2000s in the comments pages of the Telegraph there was much spluttering, mostly out of confusion – I’m not saying you are. Sorry if I made it sound like that.

  15. Maria says:

    Don’t believe in Anglo Britishness (most UK politicians do not aquaint with being English and don’t ever mention England – and the likes of Gordon Brown have had more than a say in the current mess), and the English are not “Anglos” anyway. The trouble is England was submerged by Britain after the 1707 Act of Union, and there are now too many vested interests in keeping it that way.

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