A No vote won’t save England from the English

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Mrs Thatcher may not have governed Scotland “like a province”, as the signatories to Charter 88 claimed towards the end of her premiership, but she certainly entertained a profound disregard for Scottish opinion. Her insistence on implementing policies consistently rejected by a majority of the Scottish electorate revealed how often Scots, as junior partners in the Union, were forced to adapt to English political preferences at the expense of their own.

Devolution was designed to help redress this imbalance and, since 1999, has been relatively successful at doing so. Under both Labour and SNP administrations, Holyrood has managed to preserve an integrated Scottish health service and state-funded higher-education system against a tide of New Labour and Tory reforms south of the border, while Alex Salmond’s current defence of universal benefits contrasts with Westminster’s growing preference for means-testing.

Yet Scotland’s loyalty to more traditional forms of social democracy has begun to stoke resentment in England. Increasingly, English voters believe Scotland’s higher levels of public expenditure are funded by subsidies from the English tax-payer. This reflects a perception among large sections of English society that the current, uneven distribution of legislative powers across the United Kingdom leaves England at a disadvantage.

The existence of a new, more active sense of English national identity is confirmed by the latest report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), England and its two unions: the anatomy of a nation and its discontents. The IPPR’s research shows that rising numbers of English people now think of themselves as English first and British second, a trend which last year’s Olympics and Jubilee celebrations did little to alter.

Significantly, this strengthening of English nationalist sentiment is tied to certain political and constitutional attitudes. The more English respondents to the IPPR’s survey felt, the more strongly they believed Scotland receives a greater share of public spending than it deserves or that current constitutional arrangements don’t serve England’s interests. This pattern applies to the European question as well. Respondents who defined themselves as exclusively English, or as more English than British, were deeply hostile to the European Union, while those who chose British as their primary identity were much less Eurosceptic.

One conclusion to be drawn from these findings is that, in its current form, English nationalism is broadly populist and right-wing. As the IPPR points out, the main beneficiary of the surge in Englishness has been UKIP, whose increased support “reflects English discontentment with the political status quo – and not just with ‘Europe’.” UKIP’s failure to make any sort of progress in Scotland (despite the repeated efforts of its leader, Nigel Farage) consolidates its status as the favoured party of English nationalists.

Responding to the IPPR’s research in the Observer last week, Geoffrey Wheatcroft argued that Scottish independence would aggravate the separatist streak in English nationalism:

Without Scotland, the [UK] would appear less coherent, a lot less impressive and somehow less stable … the English might easily turn inwards and allow the present mood of chippy isolationism, which holds Scotland, the EU and pretty much everyone else in contempt, to dominate.

This is a common fear among liberal and left-leaning English commentators, many of whom seem convinced that Britishness, with its multicultural and multinational connotations, has a civilising effect on English politics. Their opposition to Scottish independence is often couched in these terms. Wheatcroft himself thinks an absence of Scottish influence in English life could result in a “rank flowering of Little England”, glimpses of which can be seen in the “shameless xenophobia” of UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom.

However, Scotland’s continued presence in the UK will not, as Wheatcroft hopes, save England from the English. For one thing, if Scots reject independence next year the process of devolution which sparked England’s nationalist revival is likely to continue, with each of the main unionist parties having committed to an increase in the powers of the Scottish Parliament after 2014. Likewise, there is little to suggest the long-term decline in the authority of once dominant British institutions such as Westminster and the Monarchy will end any time soon. The English question, in other words, is here to stay.

The challenge for the English left is to seize control of the nationalist agenda from the populist right by crafting its own radical and egalitarian account of England’s national story. The core elements of that story already exist in Ed Miliband’s One Nation narrative, but they are distorted by Labour’s pandering to anti-immigration sentiment on the one hand and its obsession with maintaining the Union on the other.

Perhaps if the English left could let Scotland go (and with it the distraction of Britishness), it would be in a better position to develop a clearer vision of England’s political future?

Links

  1. http://www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/pages/the-original-charter-88
  2. http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/political-news/snp-vows-universal-benefit-support.19403094
  3. http://www.ippr.org/images/media/files/publication/2013/07/england-two-unions_Jul2013_11003.pdf
  4. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/ukip/10128953/Nigel-Farages-Scotland-trip-ends-in-chaos-amid-protests.html
  5. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/10/scotland-independence-referendum-alex-salmond?guni=Keyword:news-grid%20main-3%20%28comment%29%20Pickable%20with%20editable%20override:Pickable%20with%20editable%20override:Position2
  6. http://bettertogether.net/blog/entry/the-choice-we-face-further-devolution-vs.-separation
  7. http://www.labour.org.uk/one-nation-politics-speech
  8. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/08/labours-woes-deepen-after-chris-bryants-car-crash-performance-today

Comments (12)

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  1. Charles Patrick O'Brien says:

    I think the article shows that the media,mainly the printed press,have by their stupidity and their anti Scottish-ness have created this monster and will regret their their bias for England and bias against Scotland,or maybe contempt for Scotland and many things Scottish which I think stems from jealousy of Scotland.

  2. Agreed Charles. For too long the media and establishment have cultivated the myth that Scotland is “subsidised” by England. This was propaganda against Scotland but increasingly people here are beginning to see it for the lie it is, while people down south are buying it wholeheartedly.

    A no vote next year won’t help that at all; it will make it far worse. The calls from down south for Scotland to have less powers and more cuts will be overwhelming. With 8% of the UK population, regardless of what people in Scotland want or hope for, we will have no chance against that. It wouldn’t matter if Scotland and all its political leaders were 100% behind more powers: the decision will rest with the government of the whole UK, Westminster.

    1. muttley79 says:

      I agree Cath. If there is a No vote I cannot see Scotland getting more powers, particularly significant ones. It will be taken as an endorsement of Westminster rule. It does not matter what the Unionists’ Scottish branches say about more powers, only their main British parties can deliver. Given that Davidson could not say whether Cameron would agree to support more powers, and Lamont did the same in regards to her income tax proposal (in regards to Milliband), I think the likelihood of more powers is almost zero in the event of a No vote. The reference to the widespread belief in England that Scotland gets too much in the way of public spending also indicates that there would be very little or no political will or pressure, for more powers for the Scottish parliament, if there is a No vote. In fact it indicates the exact opposite.

  3. Steven Clegg says:

    Why would any Englishman even entertain the pathetic idea of a Left Wing English movement?. For years the main aim of the socialist left has been to destroy everything that is English and erode the very essence of English history and culture. England needs Independence and the sooner the better.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      What parts of English history and culture have the left been trying to erode? Genuine question.

    2. barakabe says:

      You sound like the sort of New Jerusalem acolyte of the home counties that calls anyone moderately less hidebound than yourself a radical “collectivist”- what after all is ‘Englishness’ Mr Clegg? A PG Wodehouse/Merchant Ivory fantasia of cucumber sandwiches and tea on cricket lawns as Cedric polishes his shotgun in readiness for the pheasant shoot?
      England needs Independence from whom or what?
      The last time I looked Westminster was in London.

  4. Juteman says:

    “with each of the main unionist parties having committed to an increase in the powers of the Scottish Parliament after 2014.”

    Can you post a link to these commitments please.

    1. Peter says:

      I would be interested in seeing these commitments too. As far as I can tell, there have been vague promises to “look”, but none to “do”.

      1. Colin Dunn says:

        Ditto me. They’ve certainly mentioned it in vague terms (though usually meaning responsibilities at our own expense rather than powers) but I’ve come across no actual concrete commitment. Links would be of great interest, thanks.

  5. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

    The dissolution of the Union might well breed a rather noxious revanchism. The idea of Scottish independence is loathed in equal measure by left and right. Both sides of the establishment fear the loss of international face that would follow the restoration of Scottish sovereignty. With a sense of pride deeply wounded we should not be surprised by any new political order that might arise in England. However, it is our future that matters. After 300 years of being cooperative we are entitled to be “selfish”.

  6. jdmank says:

    in 1979 Alex Douglas Hume laid a concrete path to “something better”
    but dont walk on it,
    its not set yet

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