Engerland swings like a pendulum do
by Irvine Welsh
I’ve lived most of my adult life in England. A fair chunk of my family, in London and the Black Country, are English. I’ve loved, lost, lived with, run with, betrayed, been betrayed by, done every conceivable drug, and travelled to all corners of the globe with more English people than any other nationality in the world, including Scots. Yes, this is another long-winded way of making the dreaded ‘some of my best friends are English’ statement, but in my case there’s no way around it. My politics were formed in Scotland, but flourished in England. I’m a former Labour Party supporter, not conventionally nationalistic, but quietly proud of both my Scottish and British heritage, and saddened that the latter has been taken away from me. I mourn it regularly, especially when I return to London, which I regard almost as much my home as my native Edinburgh. However, I’ve accepted that it’s dearly departed and I’ve moved on.
When I think about where my Britain went, I always stop to consider how it came about. The union of Scotland and England was a marriage of convenience between the elites of two countries in pre-democratic times. The date, 1707, provides the obvious clue that this was not an arrangement intended to further the interests of the populace of either country. Those nations were opportunistically cobbled together to facilitate imperial expansion and industrial development. Since democracy gained a foothold in the early twentieth century, following on from universal suffrage and the growth of trade unionism and the Labour Party, the union has experienced some boom periods, but there hasn’t really been that much change out of two World Wars, a great depression, several recessions and a crushing neo-liberal ascendancy.
One of the few decent payouts was the post-war settlement of the welfare state. This was Britain’s genuine ‘we’re all in this together’ period, where the elites felt that the common people perhaps deserved something back (and feared what would happen if they didn’t get it) after building an empire, dying in the killing fields of World War One, starving in squalid slums, and saving the world from Nazi tyranny.
The welfare state was the deal. As well as the NHS and the eminent nationalised industries of British Steel, Rail and Coal, there was the concept of free universal education, based on ability, irrespective of social background or parental finances. The radical engine of Labour Party Clause Four socialism helped forge this, but it was aided by one-nation Toryism (the Butler Education Act) and old school Liberalism, with Beveridge and Keynes the social and economic architects of the post-war consensus. Like the elements they gave birth to, those ideological forces no longer exist, sacrificed, like their creations, on the altar of a self-serving, reductive neo-liberalism. All that remains of them are the empty platitudes it’s expedient for the political class leadership of all parties to rhetorically spout (half-heartedly these days) in order to convince us that factors other than greed and power-lust are at work in Westminster politics. But the key is that this was more than an economic and social settlement: it provided the building blocks of a democratic, post-imperial Britishness.
But that Britain has now gone, and English nationalism, in all its forms, has been the real powerhouse in its destruction. It long seemed to me that this force would work in tandem with the movement for Scottish independence to first dissolve, and then fragment Britain as a political entity. Without the empire, and with the natural dissipation of World War Two camaraderie, what was left worth saving about Britain was being systematically destroyed by the Tories, with either zero or token opposition, or in many cases, downright complicity from Labour. When those (British) national assets were sold off and stripped for private gain, so much of our (British) national consciousness went with them. Thatcher once memorably stated: ‘never forget that I am an English nationalist.’ Well yes, Scots definitely picked up on that one, but an English nationalist of a certain hue.
It suits neither left-wing, pro-independence Scots nor right-wing, unionist Englanders to acknowledge that Thatcher (and Blair, Cameron and Milliband), to a much greater degree than Salmond or the SNP, are the architects of the disintegration of Britain and the almost inevitable separation of Scotland. In the place of dead Britannia, murdered on the neo-liberal altar, we were offered the notion of the UK as a Greater England. (Or not all offered. By simple definition, there is realistically no place for the Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish at this table. ) This was a worldview dominated by the Tory shires, it’s epicentre the affluent South East. Let’s be clear: Britain might have been dismembered, but the UK is not broken. This reactionary, imperialist residue of the British welfare state is functioning perfectly as a mechanism to transfer the resources of this country to a small transnational cabal of the super-rich.
While all this was happening, the culture was responding: the Union Jack was being phased out all over England by the St George’s cross as the nationalistic emblem of choice. It wasn’t just football that was coming home in England, in the absence of the unifying post-war British institutions of the welfare state, it was English nationalism. The nineties Cool Britainia era, where pop stars decked their guitars, coats and dresses in the Union Flag, was Blairism’s surface retro attempt to compensate for the fact that the punters on both sides of the border were fleeing back to their old Saints.
Europe’s turbulent modern history of imperialism and fascism ensure that ‘nationalism’ is a term loaded with negative connotations. Yet the ideology of any nation state can be based on inclusivity or exceptionalism. It can be about meeting the wishes of its citizenry in a modern democracy, or overly mindful of a ‘status’ it achieved during imperialism and colonialism. Scottish ‘nationalism’ has made its choice, arguably definitively during the independence referendum. It’s always unwise to generalise from your own experience, but here are a couple of self-indulgent anecdotes from last September: when I was out in Edinburgh campaigning, some people asked me to be photographed with the St. Andrews cross. I was happy to be in pictures but refused to have them taken with the flag. I explained that I just wasn’t a banners person of either the Scottish or British variety. A few people were bemused, but everyone, to a man and woman, even in the heat of the moment, when Scotland was on the verge of voting to end the union, listened intently to what I had to say and respected my viewpoint. This brought home to me that the country (with all the usual caveats and exceptions) had grabbed with both hands the opportunity the campaign afforded it to grow from being the least, to the most, politically mature part of the UK.
My second anecdote provides a contrast. When it looked like the Union was sliding away, a nervous English friend said to me: “if you become independent, Scots (in England) will be treated like Poles and Romanians.” This begged the obvious question: how are Poles and Romanians treated in England? The answer is, of course, the same way as in Scotland or in any other host nation; like human beings by human beings, and something less than human by bigoted arseholes. My friend is good guy: he’ll stay nameless, as it was an out-of-character comment that didn’t do him justice. Yet the shrill and snide elements of hurt, fear and exasperation it contains have been regurgitated as staple fare by the mainstream private media, the Conservative Party and often, shockingly, the Labour Party.
Scottish independence is never going to be well received in the populous South East. The weight of history, custom and practice, makes it hard for people there to look at the basic, simple structure of unitary, centralised government, with the location of all its main institutions in London, and accept that the remainder of the UK subsidises all this, and therefore that region. Everything, from the great cultural sporting and vanity projects and tourist attractions, to the overheated housing market, is explained at its heart by that governmental subsidy the rest of the UK gives to the South East. From a standpoint of UK unity, this only became problematic in recent times. It wasn’t so important in an industrial era, as the factories, mills, mines and docks lay largely in the North, Midlands, Scotland and Wales. The class war zeal of Thatcherism turned what was always going to be an inevitable and painful deindustrialisation of the British economy into a festival of exploitation and hate. The neo-liberal template was set, since then accelerated with the ‘austerity’ scam, to exacerbate the regional power and wealth imbalance to the extent of undermining the viability of the UK as a state.
Theoretically, this could have been fixed, perhaps through the reform of government on a federal basis. However, there is no will or leverage to do this in a nation where the wealthiest region holds the balance of power. It suits the Conservatives to have become a regional party – in so far as the South is the most populous and dominant one. And it has led to a different type of politics developing there. Greater economic activity leads to an influx of people, with subsequent competition for housing, schools and services. Therefore, there are opportunities for racist politics based on the Trojan horse of limiting immigration, accompanied by the seductive, if silly, ‘paradise lost’ ballads so beloved of the right. This is the essence of the Greater England project, sometimes sold, (when it cares enough to remember, as in the referendum), as a sham ‘Britishness’.
The English right wing establishment’s current demonisation of ‘Scots’ (who, remember, actually voted no to separation) is largely about an attempt to define English national identity on their own divisive terms. It’s now very little to do with Scotland; for many that country seems to have become a mere tool in a covert battle for the soul of ‘Englishness’. Of course, it’s also the narrative of simpletons: anything that inverts cause and effect generally is. If you believe that the previously harmonious and prosperous UK is being derailed and undermined by Scottish malcontents, then you’re either an irredeemable idiot, or at best, chronically out of touch with historical reality.
Scots haven’t so much been wrecking, or even rejecting Britain, as watching it being dismantled around them. As this has been happening, they’ve (wisely) been getting on with building their own nation. This isn’t the mad demolition spree, rabidly and fearfully spewed out by the London media mouthpieces of billionaire proprietors. That carnage happened long ago: to the post-war consensus that formed the backbone of Britain. Without it, all we have is Trident-and-G7 strutting on the world catwalks as an expensive no-win vanity contestant on America’s Next Top Model Bomb Builder. For the Scots it’s been simple pragmatism: our house is falling down, so let’s build another one, and on more enlightened design principles. With: democracy and accountability. Without: an in-built avaricious elite that hoovers up everything, leaving the rest with the crumbs that very occasionally fall from the table.
The ongoing Scottish independence campaign is a response to such factors. It’s not – or at least only incidentally – down to the ‘bloody mindedness’ of Scots asserting their democratic rights. The notion that political momentum and forces owing themselves to economic and structural factors can be ‘settled’ by a one-off vote is highly erroneous. When I wrote about the aftermath of the referendum for the Guardian, in order to file in time I had to roughly pre-compose two pieces, one assuming a yes and the other a no. The yes piece was actually a bit boring; when you got past the euphoria and triumph, it would be about hangovers, lawyers, and the prosaic trials ahead. The no scenario was far more intriguing, as the issue (failing a definitive ‘devo max’ settlement, which obviously never came) would be left unresolved. Every election, UK, European, Scottish, local, would all, in some form, be a re-run of this debate and therefore a continuation of the independence process.
Thus every ‘victory’ on this issue for the UK ruling class and its lackeys merely unleashes a new set of potentially exhaustive considerations. Every response feeds into and becomes part of this developing story. The reality is that almost everyone is engaged in rebuilding the separatist states of new Scotland and England, even the Sun, with its English edition virulently anti-SNP and its Scottish one mildly and respectfully pro. Our resident fascists, the Scottish Defence League, would a few years back, have been part of a British Defence League. Then they would have been able to indulge in a united, cross-Cheviot bashing of whatever-latest-minority-has-destroyed-the-British-way-of-life. Now they are de facto not wanted in the EDL and have to go it alone – albeit with fraternal support from their southern brethren. When those sorts of institutions are hammering nails into the coffin of British national consciousness, it pretty much says ‘game over’.
The flabby, corpulent Greater Englandism of the establishment might not be able to fit into that Union Jack dress anymore, but England itself still has to make its choice on its model of national identity. My hunch is that any EU referendum, (not the vote, but the debate), could be the watershed. If it has a long lead in time, then the real substantive arguments (not just for and against the EU as both an ideal and in its current mess, but what English identity and political aspiration actually is) might just gain traction over the tiresome and destructive media-hyped ‘wogs start at Calais’ (and now also, apparently, Hadrian’s Wall) hysteria. On Scotland, as with Europe, there’s no doubt which brand of nationalism the UK establishment would like the English populace to embrace. But so what? Let Cameron have his referendum; the process in Scotland backfired by igniting a generation of Scots to new political possibilities. Give England its own opportunity for self-definition: the deranged and inflammatory rants of Hastings, Massie, Bell and the Sun, Mail and Telegraph constitutes only one aspect of this equation.
As the largest country in the imperial adventure, and principal home to a corrupt UK establishment, which, from cover-ups of its organised paedophilia, phone tapping, and Hillsborough lies, to its off-the-scale avaricious greed, is shown to be more unspeakably vile almost daily, England understandably has a greater struggle than Scotland to shrug off the negative associations with the imperial past and reassert itself as a post-colonial nation. But the genuine urge to modernise, despite being led up the garden path by New Labour and Blairism, is at least as strong as the deluded desire to turn the clock back to some rose-tinted version of Victoriana. Not everybody is inclined to sit back complacently as a secretive elite is granted immunity to expropriate the nation’s wealth and kiddie-fiddle while London burns, under the white heat of global property prices.
The fear and subsequent vilification of the vibrant Scots independence movement by entrenched elites is only tangentially to do with ‘losing’ Scotland. Yes, authoritarian politicians of an imperialist or proprietary mindset never like to lose ‘their’ territory, whether measured in Tory land or Labour votes. Of course, it’s also about legacy and ‘not on my watch’ politics. I would seriously doubt that there are any senior Westminster politicians who are intellectually convinced of the long-term viability of the UK in its current form. However, the real fear for the establishment is that Scottish independence will spark of calls for the genuine reform of politics in the rest of the UK, which would really undermine their entrenched power and privilege. The establishment’s big fear is that the English bulldog might just turn on the master who is constantly mistreating it, rather than waste time and energy barking at the Scots Terrier across the fence.
In the meantime, the predictable ‘Greater England’ establishment response to the decline of Britain only serves to keep the Scottish independence bandwagon accelerating. Any Scot who believes in independence can’t argue against the principle of English votes on English laws. This in turn, pushes out the separation envelope further. Eventually England’s politicians will back themselves into addressing the question many English people are now rightly asking: ‘why are we even bothering with all this?’ The idea that patching up a disintegrating union is more trouble than it’s worth, and thank you very much Scotland, but we have better things to be getting on with, must surely (and justifiably) be implanting itself in English minds. This perfectly natural and reasonable response is light years removed from Alan Massie’s Powelite Culloden-Bannockburn fantasies of the Thames running red with blood.
The North of England is probably the key. This most industrialised region of the UK is the last part to emotionally jettison the concept of an inclusive Britishness. Danny Boyle’s Olympic ceremony could probably only have been devised by a Northerner. Paul Mason recently posited in the Guardian that there were now three UK geopolitical mindsets; Scandi-Scotland and the wealthy South-East, which were confident in their voices and objectives. Caught between this was post-industrial Britain, and it’s these voices that so desperately need to be heard, as they will be crucial in the shaping and defining of the future England.
Ed Milliband seems set to fail at delineating and renewing this England, for much the same reason Blairism did. Post-Clause Four, the party is essentially devoid of guiding principles, other than the two main cardinal propositions of New Labour. One: attain office at all costs through staying in the ‘centre ground’. Two: do not, under any circumstances, speak the truth to real power. Cajole, beg, flatter and seduce, yes, but never, ever confront. Perhaps instead of worrying about what the rancid right of the mainstream media are saying, Labour in England should be moving with the times and taking note of the more progressive factions both within and outside of their party.
In the long run the left challenge to Labour in England could come from more than just the Greens. The new English identity might be a regionalist one. The North East Party and Yorkshire First now join the long-established Cornish and West Country advocacy parties of Meb Kernow and the Wessex Regionalists. Those small but ambitious groups in the North of England know the road map of getting the establishment (both Tory and Labour) to pay heed, is the one crayoned out in broad strokes by the SNP, and by Plaid Cymru in Wales. That is, crudely put, to jettison Labour and its careerist dependency on Westminster, and chart your own course.
Ironically, if the Labour Party south of the border decides to embrace a role as a viable progressive left-leaning party of an emerging civic English nationalism, they could do worse than model themselves on the post-referendum SNP. The demise of British nationalism means that Labour’s Scottish ship has probably sailed for good. They sank it themselves by throwing their lot in with the limited Tory ‘Greater England’ UK, and fighting to preserve its elitist and antiquated political structures. The sadness for Labour is that one of the most catastrophic political strategy calls of our time was made with no discussion and debate, and was inevitable, given what the party had become: a myopic slave to the Westminster game. Polls can be wrong, leads can be eroded, but whether the SNP enjoy an avalanche or just a paltry landslide, it is likely that the referendum campaign was seismic. It’s unlikely there will be any return to what the bemused rump of Scottish Labour stragglers often hopefully cite as ‘normal’ (ie: two-party, Westminster) politics. The longer into April the poll gap remains, the more Milliband will write off Scotland with a Blairite pitch to the south, seeking to be the party for all England: more unwitting nation building.
Whatever the SNP do (with 100,000 members, three-quarters of them post-referendum, it’s now to all intents and purposes a new party), England still has its own moves to make. Labeling Scots as the latest ‘enemy within’ isn’t going to alter those broader economic and structural issues shaping the UK, and it’s redesign as an instrument of expropriating the wealth of its citizens for the super-rich. It can only, at best, offer a temporary distraction from the big choices ahead. Scotland as an issue might seem an increasingly persistent and urgent one to English people, but in a country where practically everybody other than the very rich lead a life full of struggle, burdened with debt and job/financial insecurity, it’s far from the most crucial.
The main problem is a variation on an old one: if the English people don’t make their voices heard, the establishment will do it on their behalf. We will always hear the whining, exasperated Tory right/UKIP/Jeremy Clarkson ‘for crying out loud, how much more do we have to take’ voices of the privileged; loudly coming to terms with the realisation that despite their material wealth and indulged status, they fundamentally remain petty, miserable, uptight and resentful specimens. That is a given constant in English social life: the voice of power will always make itself heard through the mainstream media, even –especially- when it has nothing fresh or interesting to say. And they will always assume to speak for England, but of course they don’t, they only speak for themselves. The ideological battle for Britain is over. Thatcher saw to that, and all we’re doing is indulging in Savilesque corpse-fucking by pretending it ain’t so. But the battle of England is just beginning. As in all matters relating to that wonderful country, I’m on the side of the good guys.