A No vote won’t save England from the English
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?