Fear, Nostalgia and the British state

‘The British State’ is one of  the well-worn stock phrases of both those in favour of Scottish independence and also those from both the right and the left.  It conjures up images of an imperialistic, bureaucratic, impersonal structure, somehow detached from the countries of these isles yet confronting their denizens at every turn.  It resonates with an instinctual distrust of the state, of government, of politicians.  The wistful spirit of opposition to the British State is caught by A. J. P. Taylor when he wrote that before 1914 ‘a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman’.  No-one seems to particularly like the British state.  Scots don’t like Westminster’s dictates.  Leftists don’t like its imperial history and its anti-radicalism.  Those from the right don’t like its meddling.  Everyone seems to think it needs to change in some way, though these impulses are often contradictory.

‘We find ourselves on different sides of a line nobody drew,’ sings Leonard Cohen on his newest album.  So those in favour of the most significant alteration to the British State in centuries find themselves opposed by anti-statists and English progressives alike.  Historians of the left (for example E. P. Thompson, Angus Calder, Christopher Hill and R. H. Tawney, amongst others) document British history which is a narrative of lost opportunities, of a radical inheritance suppressed.  Less remorseful ‘golden age’ mythologies and more tragedies.  The British State has been their opponent, an omnipresent adversary.  Scottish history has also been seen in this way.  ‘Pathetic in other aspects, the Union is tragic in this, that it forever closed the career of the Parliament at the moment when, after long preparation, it was ready and able to play a fitting part in the nation’s history,’ wrote Charles Terry in 1905.  The ‘Norman Yoke’ is in Scotland the ‘Westminster Yoke’.

Why is it such a remote hope that English and Scottish progressives unite over the cause of independence?  Internationalism falls silent when the nations concerned are ours.  The left in England is by turns jealous and petty, afraid to be left alone with its fellow countrymen, quick to belittle visions of a better future as naive utopianism.  Some on the English left have perhaps lost hope, reduced to bitter irrelevancy, but their sourness should not contaminate the ideal of a fairer Scotland.  Instead of constructive dialogue we have the sniggering of ‘Political Scrapbook’ and the resolute anti-SNP stance of ‘Left Foot Forward’.  The Tories’ rule pushes Scotland in the direction of autonomy and the rump of the English left has no believable vision to counter it.

And where, I ask in all seriousness, are the Tories for independence?  Imagine this scenario: a political elite have orchestrated the dissolution of their country’s parliament and its subsumption into a new supranational entity.  There is the whiff of corruption, of money changing hands.  The people never voted for this development, nor are they ever given the chance to do so.  It is a fait accompli.  The new parliament is distant, unresponsive and bureaucratic and its members are charged with swindling public monies along with many other accusations of sleaze and dishonesty.  If I were describing the establishment of a European superstate, we can bet that the Tories would be howling in rage from the rooftops.  But I am, of course, describing the union of the parliaments which occurred in 1707.  A historical oversimplification, but one which nonetheless highlights the Conservative Party’s hypocrisy.

Every politician seems to be dancing to a formulaic tune, a few missteps here and there, but a rhythm of numbing predictability.  Opinion polls are broken weather vanes or crystal balls, to be taken with a pinch of salt or as gospel.  They all seem to know what is best for Scotland.  Politicking  threatens to pour cold water on embers which have been painstakingly stoked to life.  It is difficult to imagine an independent Scotland when one looks at the calibre of our politicians.  Good at electioneering they may be (or not, depending on which party we examine) but none are statesmen or stateswomen.  Winning a referendum is the game, not changing a nation, or so it seems.  An independent Scotland would undoubtedly produce better leaders, but we are stuck with the ones we have now until then.  To misappropriate a thought from Gramsci, ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’.  Indeed, the new has not yet been conceived.  There is hope beyond the politicians though, if enough of us aren’t hoovered into the suffocating confines of political machines.

Cynicism, crippling modesty and self-effacement are hangovers from a Calvinist past, or so we are told.  Repeatedly told until we are sure of it and quietly proud of it.  Strange that so old a doctrine could yet have a bearing on our future, yet our self-imagination is still limited by the ghosts of the past.  The history taught in schools was of futile, if noble, resistance to an English bogeyman, followed by subsumption into the British story, chiefly that of chartists, suffragettes and suffragists, and World War II.  The Welfare State as the zenith of all the radical ambitions of both England and Scotland.  Yet that Welfare State is being deconstructed in England; the shining proud post-war moment which unites Britons is fading.  Odd that an independent Scotland might sustain a British achievement, along with the other Celtic countries, bringing into question what is essentially ‘British’.

E. P. Thompson wrote that popular revolutionary crises ‘arise from… the conjunction between the grievances of the majority and the aspirations articulated by the politically-conscious minority’.  This is the task of the ‘Yes’ campaign: to draw the connection between the British State and the real problems faced by Scots.  The Union has infantalised Scotland, its politics and its people, to the extent that the grievances of the many are rarely articulated and even less frequently heard.  The unionists start out from a particularly uncritical position: the Union has been good for all the four nations, and Scotland in particular.  Unlike those in favour of independence, who cannot definitively assert that independence will be good for Scotland, the unionists have the ability and the requirement to substantiate their claim.  Therefore those opposed to independence must claim that continued participation in the Union will enable a swifter resolution of these problems than would autonomy.

In the end the British State is all about fear and nostalgia.  Fear in the present and of the future, nostalgic about a mythic past.  The left sees what could have been and the right what was.  In this light it is those in favour of independence who seem to be seeing most clearly: forget what was and what could have been, and focus on what yet could be.  Progressives of Britain, unite!  We have nothing to lose but the British State.

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  1. Peter A Bell says:

    Inspired and inspiring.

  2. Stevie says:

    The Brit nats are playing the ‘Fear and Nostalgia’ tune — that’s all they’ve got (plus a seat on the UN Security Council that most Scots don’t care a fig about.

    ‘They say they want a referendum, we say NO, NO, NO…’

  3. thomas says:

    It is that the British state’s political class hawk and prostitute themselves to foreign powers and corporate sugar-daddies, aspects of British legacy worth preserving did not arise from that well of corruptionThe party system is at the root of political dysfunction in the British state, participatory democracy, routine use of referenda to resolve clear cut contentions, unmoderated democracy, with its warts fickleness and all, open referenda which remain running until a half or more of the population have indicated their choice. The role of the politician itself called into question and the cure is to eliminate the mixture of patronage and egotistical self-selection that foists them on us, replacing them with people’s champions from the practical worlds than the lawyers and PPE effusions of class and privilege bound ‘masters of the universe’ manufactories, mis-educating them.

  4. Scott says:

    I like this, especially the observation that nobody asks unionists to justify the UK from ‘first principles’, i.e. setting history and nostalgia aside. Important double-standard.

    Forgive me spinning off in a different direction, but this also highlights the odd place of ‘state’ in the vocabulary of the debate so far. For radicals the state is The Man, the permanent government, the Establishment. But for nationalists statehood is also the promised land, and we measure progress in its image; not until Scotland has plausibly ‘statesmanlike’ politicians will independence be a genuine prospect.

    Paradox: even the most fiery, emancipatory liberal nationalism (not what we’ve got; the SNP say Scotland has no need of liberation) always implies a kind of minimal state-ism: a belief that some possible ‘state’, with all the associated flummery and hardware (including a monopoly on lawful violence), has a legitimate right to exist. While left-nationalism is usually pretty cagy about this — the Scottish state we’re after wouldn’t have any nasty pointy bits like detention centres or an emergency powers act, but *would* be strong enough to harbour what remains of the Welfare State — the question of what we mean by statehood, and why it’s desirable, is seldom properly asked.

    I guess most would say it’s just a necessary evil, the flip-side of ‘sovereignty’ within a world of nation-states. You can’t behave like a independent country without the apparatus of statehood.

    But at the level of ‘administration’ and bureaucratic machinery, some have argued, this is exactly the view modern Scottish history disproves (e.g. Lindsay Paterson; see link below). ‘Autonomous’ civic institutions have done the work of a Scottish state without being visible as such, and all the better for it: benignly, apolitically, barely noticeably. Tom Nairn is very good on the downside of that — opaque, incestuous, still quite undemocratic — but it’s question worth raising (and not in a way simply intended to nudge the argument toward devo-max or federalism).

    We want a state because we want sovereignty, and you can’t have one without the other. But supposing you don’t need a ‘state’ to govern Scotland — just the powers that make self-determination meaningful — is ‘statehood’ as such totemic? What do we even mean by it?


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