Chasing Imperial Virility with Enoch Powell and Oliver’s Army

This week saw the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of the Union, on January 16 1707. The past 24 hours (never mind the previous 312 years) has put such a strain on the Union that it seems at breaking point. The slow draining of the last residual respect not just for Westminster but from the processes and institutions of politics in general is a sign of a society broken by failed promises. This damage threatens to effect and disable political discourse in Scotland as well as wider Britain as the public sphere just becomes even more toxic and more frightened.

The ugly face of a proto-English fascism was on display on Newsnight:

and on BBC Question Time a snarling baying audience cheered the prospect of a No Deal Brexit that is uniformly thought to mean economic chaos:



As we begin the end of colonial Britain, it’s no surprise that it’s post-colonial writers who are the most articulate describers of the collapse.

The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra (the author of “Age of Anger: A History of the Present”) observed the parallels between British misrule of empire and their Brexit behaviour. He writes of how Louis Mountbatten, described as a “mendacious, intellectually limited hustler,” came to preside, as the last British viceroy of India, over the destiny of some 400 million people. The malign incompetence of the Brexiteers he suggests was precisely prefigured during Britain’s exit from India in 1947, most strikingly in the lack of orderly preparation.

Mishra suggests that this is partition — the British Empire’s ruinous exit strategy — coming home. He writes: “In a grotesque irony, borders imposed in 1921 on Ireland, England’s first colony, have proved to be the biggest stumbling block for the English Brexiteers chasing imperial virility. Moreover, Britain itself faces the prospect of partition if Brexit, a primarily English demand, is achieved and Scottish nationalists renew their call for independence. It is a measure of English Brexiteers’ political acumen that they were initially oblivious to the volatile Irish question and contemptuous of the Scottish one.”

The Irish writer Fintan O’Toole describes the “the rise of a sensationally self-indulgent and clownish ruling class” and suggests that Brexit has popped the lid off the existing system with its “the profound regional inequalities within England; the generational divergence of values and aspirations; the undermining of the welfare state and its promise of shared citizenship …and contempt for the poor and vulnerable”.

Brexit is he argues: “the projection outwards of an inner turmoil. An archaic political system had carried on even while its foundations in a collective sense of belonging were crumbling. Brexit in one way alone has done a real service: it has forced the old system to play out its death throes in public. The spectacle is ugly, but at least it shows that a fissiparous four-nation state cannot be governed without radical social and constitutional change.”

But why given such extremism and such dysfunctional institutions – is polling for Scottish independence not soaring? And how should we respond to the Brexit crisis and the rise of a newly emboldened far-right English nationalism?

Writing in the Scotsman Joyce McMillan has warned against the idea of an immediate Scottish independence referendum as some (many) have been calling for. She writes:

“For now the chances of achieving a peaceful and consensual untangling of the Union are close to zero; and if it cannot be done by agreement and consent, then I suspect the vast majority of Scots would rather wait until it can, just as they waited patiently through the Thatcher years for the return of the Scottish Parliament, finally achieved by constitutional means in 1999 without a pane of glass broken, and with the overwhelming support of 75 per cent of the people.”

The article was lauded by Iain Macwhirter and others and caused apoplexy amongst the nationalist faithful.

But the choice isn’t between do-nothing inertia and bold action as it’s been framed. McMillan’s is quite right to suggest that lessons need to be learnt from the Catalan experience, and advocates of “demanding a referendum” have to actually spell out a) how this would be achieved b) how it would be won.

But equally, McMillan isn’t treating like with like.

Independence isn’t Devolution.

The British state didn’t lose anything through the devolution process.

It’s just not the same.

The values of consensus, peacefulness and liberal harmony are valuable and worthwhile but it may be naive to think we are still in that space.

Her vision of “the big picture of where we would like Scotland and the other countries of these islands to be in 25 years’ time; and … the final aim of a peaceful confederation of countries living in a mutually respectful economic and trading union, with open borders and close social and cultural links” may be an aspiration, and a good one, but it may not be achievable.

If the England/Britain Thing is intent on self-harm and intoxicated by Empire Revival we can’t be part of that. We can’t wait around for it all to pan-out just like it did in the 1980 and 1990s (at huge economic cost).

The Labour Party doesn’t exist in the form it did then – and the Liberals have disappeared off the political map. The establishment consensus that created the devolution settlement are scattered and buried and the conditions that made that possible don’t exist. Neither does the pre-devolution, pre-indyref, pre-Brexit belief in politics, the benign nature of the British state or the belief in power being patiently handed down by rational consensual forces.

That idea – which seems central to McMillan’s folk-memory – seem from another world.

If it’s incumbent on the nationalist movement to do better than just “indyref now!” without strategy or innovation or self-reflection, it’s also incumbent on social democrats to do better than to argue for a ‘softly-softly’ re-tread of the 1980s.

Our relations have changed dramatically. We are now in the grip of “a sensationally self-indulgent and clownish ruling class” – that was not fully manifest in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


Comments (11)

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Are we ready? I really don’t know. Tomorrow I hope to get a clearer picture; I’ll be wearing my SNP hat and knocking doors. There is a particular street that I find gives a good idea, at the 2014 referendum it was slightly no, at the GE it was good for SNP. Unless there is another plan i hope to get along there and find a strong Yes.

    I’ve watched the balloons in Westminster repeating their rubbish and not listening to any sense about the catastrophe that will be visited on Scotland if England pulls up our drawbridge and shuts of the supply of workers from EU. I hope many of the more sensible have seen the same picture and have given up with the cess pit that is London rule.

  2. Kenny Smith says:

    Mike I totally get the points you are making here, it’s a head bomb no doubt but and here is the but how can we be patient without looking like we are sitting on our hands but how can we be proactive without looking rash. Personally I just want out pronto and as much as vote SNP im getting a bit bemused by the hold, nicey nicey approach. I think some sort of official campaign must start now whatever shape it takes. I think the losses yes has supposedly lost over the EU referendum have been exaggerated and now we have a right wing elements in the sense that business people that were perhaps more conservative leaning now see profits plunging after brexit. Are Asda and the like going to come out for no again knowing they would like a territory on the UK mainland still in the EU or EFTA etc. Who leads the better together side this time? It’s ok saying have we learned from before but what can they use, what can they reheat that’s not already blown to bits. Don’t get me wrong they’ll give the internal market crap and fight as dirty as hell but I’m convinced if we actually get a proper campaign up and running we,l win. We started on less than 30% 1st time round all we need is a 6% swing and it’s ours.

  3. florian albert says:

    Mike Small agrees that we are in the grip of a ‘sensationally self-indulgent and clownish ruling class’ and he suspects that ‘the England/Britain thing is intent on self-harm and intoxicated by Empire Revival.’
    At the same time he admits that – despite this – support for Scottish independence in not soaring.

    How can you reconcile this ?

    My conclusion would be that the notion of a ‘clownish ruling class’ and the idea of an ‘Empire Revival’ are both hugely over-blown. The latter is a trope which a small minority on the Left buy into enthusiastically but which has very little substance. Most Tory MPs – about 2/3rds – supported the government last week. There is a section of the Tory Party that is seriously hostile to the EU but it remains a minority and includes a fair number of opportunists who have jumped on a bandwagon only to realize it is going nowhere. Theresa May simply does not fit into this picture.

    Having lived through the 1970s and 1980s, I note how much less pessimism there is today than there was then. In the 1970s, there was a widespread feeling that ordinary life was deteriorating fast and would continue to do so. In the 1980s, a whole way of life in industrial Scotland disappeared almost overnight.
    Much of the media is in overdrive about a bleak future but ordinary people are stoical. My money is on the ordinary people being vindicated.

    1. Kenny Smith says:

      I admit I would have thought the numbers would be higher in favour of independence but as the herald poll hints at is if a no deal brexit becomes reality which is more than a possibility then the numbers will rise. We already have companies relocating, reducing staff as well as EU citizens leaving. I don’t agree that people are less enthused in 70,s or 80,s people are genuinely feeling the pinch and more kids in poverty than in 2008, food banks, stagnant wage growth and the rise of short term unstable employment means people are starting to get pissed right off. If someone offers you a different path it’s natural to be wary but more and more are coming to the conclusion that they don’t have that much to lose. If brexit starts eating into the middle upper class share returns on pensions etc then if a few drift to yes then the numbers are there. The edges of union have been fraying for a long time now under the weight of brexit they are unraveling fast

  4. john burrows says:

    From a purely economic point of view, any form of Brexit will diminish state revenues in the UK. Leaving a trading relationship absents you from a marketplace for your products and services. Any business relying on tariff free access to customers in the EU will have to accept substantially reduced profits upon leaving. Even sane Leavers accept this as fact.

    Recipient regions of current EU financial support will be the first victims. Across the board losses will also be incurred in the housing sector as prices plunge and interest rates rise. Decreasing demand for housing in the real estate market will depress prices further. The working poor will still be shutout of the housing sector as banks limit access to credit to minimize their losses during the downturn. To encourage inward investment it is inevitable that the UK government will further reduce corporate tax rates, continuing the erosion of government revenues. The triple lock protecting pensioners will have to go as these will now be unsustainable.

    Throughout all of this, the buying power of the consumer will practically collapse, as the myth of high employment is exploded, further depressing government revenues. Government services will continue to be gutted like a fish as the centralizing British Government ramps up employment of their overpriced Whitehall bureaucracy. And through it all, what minimal revenues available will continue to be directed towards the Home counties and London.

    As there is no likely hood that the English Shires will abandon the Conservative and Union Party for the foreseeable future, Westminster, for all intents and purposes is impossible to reform. But only reform will save it. Those counselling that we wait for a non existent future to evolve under the guidance of a malign band of disaster capitalists are as bad as the leavers advocating unicorns. Both condemn the current generations living in the UK to a future treadmill of hopelessness and despair.

    The only option available to Scotland to minimize the damage of this insanity is to force the requisite constitutional change required to reform the UK. The only option currently available to the Scottish electorate is via an independence referendum. At the very least, it will give us the option of removing our diminished revenues from the hands of the halfwits running Westminster these days who seem hell bent on spending us all into ruin, laughably preparing us from a “No Deal Brexit.” Forcing the UK to the edge of dissolution is now the only way of radically altering its current trajectory.

  5. Me Bungo Pony says:

    I watched Question Time on Thursday night for the first time in ages. It is clear to me that England has gone mad. Scots therefore have a choice to make. Do they allow the English madness to shape Scotland’s future, or do they “take back control” and shape it in their, and the country’s, best interests with independence?

    1. Redgauntlet says:

      Same with me Bungo Pony.

      I watched QT on Youtube here in Spain and was truly freaked out by the baying mob that passed for an impartial audience. All that was missing were some flaming torches and a monster to hunt down…

      Half of England has been brainwashed, it’s all too clear…. deeply worrying.

      1. J Galt says:

        Ach gie yersel peace.

        I only saw applause and cheering.

        If it had been applause and cheering for Independence you would have been all for it, and rightly so.

  6. Elaine Fraser says:

    I dont believe a ‘Question time ‘ audience is a true reflection of any public opinion. Just look at the previous audiences for episodes here in Scotland. As for bias – as a Scot I watched and felt the SNP panellist was interrupted the most and positively shot down by Fiona Bruce at the end when she dared to mention that Scotland were trying to reduce carbon emissions or some such policy. For what its worth last week I thought Fiona Bruce had given the Labour panellist Emily Thornberry loads of time to speak . Maybe her bosses told her to be less accommodating this time. Who knows? Who cares? Its a pantomime. Why was the By the way did anyone else notice how Oakshotte person was OK with a NO Deal but was later lamenting the plight of farm animals – why didnt Fiona Bruce ask her what she thought of chlorinated chicken coming in from US? During Indy 1 I waited in line for the big Channel 4 debate and a very very mixed bunch we were. I would suggest mostly hand-picked by a researcher looking to create drama and spectacle. It too was a circus.

    Like social media, the tv companies vying for our ‘attention’, know that drama, shouting , booing etc is a winner. They are not appealing to our best selves quite the opposite. We need to stop watching in droves and start meeting face-to-face with each other across the divide. The events in Indy 1 were great but lets be honest we were often preaching to the converted so of course it felt positive.
    I suspect that a Peoples vote would come back again for Leave. I fear in a general election Ruth Davidson would swan in , teflon-like, untouched by Brexit and the disengaged here in Scotland might well fancy a change from Nicola. In my own world I dont see much change in folks views. In fact last week at a Burns thing with a pensioner audience, a positive passing reference to the Scottish Parliament was met with low groans and disapproval. People I fear who despite their free bus passes and prescriptions etc wouldn’t care two hoots it their own Parliament was dissolved. Sad and scary.

  7. Dundeeboy says:

    The sad reality of the QT audience in Derby was that it reflects the thinking of the majority of traditional ‘working-class’ conurbations in England. This forms the bedrock of pro-Brexit sentiment south of the border and the political rhetoric, which depicts the EU as somehow being the ‘enemy’, plays upon the ignorance of the populous and promotes an ultra-right political agenda, which is abhorrent and toxic. National socialism dressed up as ‘Englishness’ is the mantra of the Tories, and as we lurch towards even greater antipathy towards the EU, it isn’t difficult to observe just how ‘right-wing’ the political debates in England are increasingly becoming. Unfortunately, a strong and coherent counter to this fascist steamroller, cannot be provided by a fractured and impotent Labour, whose own EU agenda remains mystery to most. In times of political turmoil (and this is one), the people expect their elected representatives to provide leadership; there seems precious little of that on offer at Westminster.
    Westminster does not represent the interests of Scotland………as a ‘remainer’ at the last Referendum, the incompetence of parliament over Brexit, combined with the inevitable right-wing ‘revolution’ that seems clear to follow departure from the EU, has convinced me that Scotland cn only ever free itslf from Toryism, by achieving independence……the sooner the better.

  8. w.b.robertson says:

    I sense a general disillusion with the performance of the Holyrood govt. I can understand the frustration of folks wanting another Indy ref and, as Salmond argues, there is nothing like the present time with the chaos surrounding Brexit. But do the punters have any more idea about the plans for the New Scotland?. The SNP have wasted years when they should have had groups researching every aspect of what would be their manifesto…instead, at the present rate, they will be lucky to even maintain their current level of Holyrood seats. It is sad.

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