Being Normal

This piece by Neal Ascherson has been getting a lot of attention (The long Brexit ordeal will finish off the break-up of Britain), particularly his claim that: “It’s commonly said that the Brexit years have made the English more xenophobic, less tolerant, more angrily divided among themselves. The first is clearly true. Non-British Europeans confirm a new nastiness, even just a new coldness. So, even more emphatically, will migrants from Somalia, Nigeria, India, Bangladesh.” He goes on:

“It’s true that English dislike of foreigners is ancient, abating in the middle 19th century as the public welcomed political refugees from failed revolutions, but only for an interval. A recent example: in a sample of adults in Scotland who list Pakistani as their ethnicity, 31% identified as Scottish. The corresponding sample taken in England found only 15% identifying as English. That tells you nothing particularly wonderful about Scotland, except that it’s a normal country. But it does tell a tale about England: a nation self-consciously unlike others and uneasy about sharing its “essence” with others.”

This will be derided as parochialism and exceptionalism from Ascherson, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort.

This is the essence of the competing nationalisms at play in Britain.

Scottish nationalism – or rather the movement for independence – wants the powers that others countries have, for self-determination. We want to be the same as other countries. English nationalism wants powers and status that other countries don’t have. They want to be different from other countries.

The paradox is that England has a functioning parliament, and all the sovereignty it requires, but it is being crippled by imagined enemies and fictitious grievance. The idea that the national breakdown of Brexit will find some conclusion after an exit treaty is signed is laughable.

Whatever England is going through, its extremely doubtful that Brexit will help.

Nothing has changed.

An insight into the state of this disarray is the recent Fifteen Ways to Strengthen the Union from Conservative Home. The problem is seen basically as a lack of gratitude from a recalcitrant Celtic fringe.

Some of the ideas are just fantastically dumb.Much of it sounds like mission creep, power grabs or blatant encroachment on devolution.

Options to strengthen the precious one include:

  • Making Michael Gove Secretary of State for the Union 
  • Sending Jeremy Hunt to Northern Ireland.
  • “Brand UK spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland prominently.  The Coalition started to do this with overseas aid.  As Warwick Lightfoot and Will Heaven wrote on this site earlier this week, there is no reason why Westminster should not spend more in the devolved areas if necessary.”
  • “Relocating or establish the capacity of central government departments in places of the country where their work is most relevant, and in particular, in the case of departments with reserved functions, in the constituent nations. For example, DEFRA could expand its operation in places like Peterhead.”
  • “Make the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 a UK-wide bank holiday – it falls on the 5th May 2021 – so that its impact and significance is felt across the entire country, as Jan Zeber has argued on this site.  Whitehall departments should also consider how they can support the planned Northern Ireland ‘Expo 100’ that year.”
  • “Establish a presence for key cultural institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (such as the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Scottish National Gallery, National Museum Wales, Ulster Museum and Titanic Belfast).
    *
    that Peterhead one’s a game-changer but my personal favourite…
    *
  • “Make at least one of England’s home cricket test matches each summer and coverage of the men’s and women’s Cricket World Cup final and semi-finals, as well as women’s national football tournaments, available on free-to-air TV.”

It’s easy to laugh, and it does seem that nobody at Conservative Home has an ounce of self-reflection to think about how these ideas come across. These are it seems, serious ideas.

Union Blues

Ascherson nails some of the underlying causes of Brexit – “English sense of powerlessness and resentment of elites” – but I’m not sure of his final diagnosis:

“the deepest change since 2016 is the weakening of the United Kingdom’s inner bonds. Theresa May went around preaching about “our precious, precious union”. This puzzled me, given massive English indifference. Ask somebody in Durham or Exeter why the union matters, and you get a blank stare, a shrug and perhaps a mumble. Then I understood: it wasn’t Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland that was “precious” to her, but “the union” in the abstract – a sort of legitimising halo hovering over Westminster’s anointed. It’s a cult confined to Britain’s ruling caste and, of course, to Scottish and Irish unionists who genuinely have something to lose.”

Of course the “ruling caste” has much to lose, but the self-defined “Scottish unionists”? Who are we talking about here? People persuaded to invest in re-tread Empire Loyalism out of a desperate poverty that leads inevitably to a culture of bigotry? Or Unionists who have been brainwashed by decades of subtle (and not so subtle) cultural messaging that they are an impoverished fringe? Anglo-normative thinking lies very deep in some generations but it does not mean they genuinely have something to lose. What they have to lose are the illusions about their loss and an identity that confines them to the past.

Comments (21)

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  1. Bruce McQuillan says:

    As Sting once said “If you love somebody set them free”. The best way for England to maintain its friendship with Scotland is to let it vote for independence and be a good neighbour.

  2. Ian McCubbin says:

    A very good view of the English two part psyche.
    On the one hand a majority of ordinary folk who seem disconnected with Brexit genuinely.
    On the other hand an elite wanting ti asert themselves over all of the nations/colonial parts left.
    The leaders of this group are allowing chaos to bring in a new style of Facism.
    Beware it creeps all through this.

  3. Simon Barrow says:

    I often describe myself as English by birth and Scottish by affiliation these days. I find what’s happening to the land of (most of) my ancestors ghastly. It’s not up to us in Scotland to sort this out, though holding up a mirror and saying, “Really, you can be better than this” is entirely reasonable, as well as demonstrating the self-scrutiny that’s often been painfully lacking in English identities. Oh, and we can decide to build a new/old independent country, and propose that a commonwealth of nations would be a far better future for these Isles than a United Kingdom which is anything but, and which has been injected with poison…

  4. Sheila Rae says:

    The comments on the 15 ways to promote the Union are an insult of their perceived superiority and arroganance in the extreme. Free Scotland.

    1. They’re great aren’t they!

  5. BSA says:

    Unity, for them, is just domination, always a one way traffic. There is no healthy exchange envisaged between the 4 countries. Just like the BBC network with its wholly English content, its voices, locations, sport, history and the rest. No doubt this winter we’ll be treated again to the early rounds of their FA Cup featuring Yeovil Town and co live on Friday prime time – even more offensive than the cricket proposal.

  6. MBC says:

    I could do better at promoting the union and I’m an independinista! Not giving anything away though. Let them stew in their own toxic hubris.

  7. Wul says:

    The “Fifteen Ways to Strengthen the Union” can be summarised as: “Give them some sweeties to shut them up”

  8. SleepingDog says:

    I would rate the long-term project to create a ruling UK caste as “ongoing” rather than completed, which offers hope to those seeking to join not only themselves, but whatever conceived ancestry they may lay claim to. Having followed some of the debates that cross into “history wars” territory, it seems to me that there is a cluster of British imperialists who practice a kind of ancestor worship by proxy. This allows them to “claim” various historical personages as kin whose prestige (mana?) can be drawn upon to lustre up their own (self) images. Drawing a knife through the Union may, in this imagination, slice through the skeins of virtual patronage, severing the ties between the illustrious dead and the living, who no longer can take nationally-imputed pride in some past conquest or act of intellect. No longer would Scottish unionists be able to claim “we won that” or “we invented this” if the proxy-ancestor is seized by parties on the other side of the divide, while they are left clinging to a pound-shop Pantheon, caste-adrift.

  9. florian albert says:

    The quotation from Neal Ascherson is disappointing from one with such a distinguished career. He writes of England being unwilling to share its ‘essence’ with others. He backs this up with the results of an opinion poll.
    If you look instead at comparative demographics of Scotland and England, a different story emerges. In England, the capital city has has under 45% ‘white British.’
    The Scottish capital has almost 90% ‘white British’. In England’s second city, Birmingham, 53% are ‘white British’, while Glasgow is 88% ‘white British.’
    BME migrants have flocked to England and, mostly, stayed well clear of Scotland. This is more convincing than Neal Ascherson.
    You see it in the national football teams. Over 90 BME players have played for England. This includes a player with 107 caps (Ashley Cole) and another 7 with over 50 caps. No Scottish player from a BME background has made such an impact.
    Of course, Scotland has attracted one large immigrant group, Irish Catholics. Their treatment was such that it took a century longer for Irish Catholics to achieve income parity, in comparison with Irish Catholics who went to the USA. That is another part of Scottish normality.

    1. There’s no doubt England is a far more multicultural country and has a far more cultural diversity.

      However the opinion poll quoted by Asherson is replicated in many surveys and peer-reviewed and academic research on the rise of racism and xenophobia since and through the Brexit process. This shouldnt be a surprise given the nature of the campaign and messaging. I’m confused Florian, are you saying this research is all wrong?

      Btw – there are many black players have played for Scotland.

      1. florian albert says:

        England has a far better claim than Scotland to be a successful, multi-cultural country. Whatever rise in racism has taken place recently, there are (tragically) who are willing to risk – and lose – their life to get to England; even when they could remain and claim asylum on the other side of the English Channel.
        England and Scotland are both overwhelmingly tolerant countries; something to celebrate.
        With regard to the many black players who have played for Scotland, they have all been peripheral. Ferdinand, Ince, Sterling and a number of others have been, and are, at the heart of England’s team.

        Implicit in your, and Neal Ascherson’s, comments is the belief that Scotland is superior in being willing to share its ‘essence’. I have two problems with this. I do not know what Scotland’s ‘essence’ is and I very much doubt that – whatever it is – it is better than the English equivalent.

        1. Bruce McQuillan says:

          I dont think you can dismiss the rise in racism as a new phenomenon: it is a facet of English exceptionalism and all that has happened recently is that it has been mainstreamed by populist politicians.

          In general Scots nationalism is an aspirational nationalism rather than an ethnic nationalism, we dont claim to be ethnically superior to anyone we simply aspire to live in a more equal society and anyone who chooses to live and work in Scotland has as much right to live and work as I do.

          1. florian albert says:

            ‘we dont claim to be ethnically superior to anyone’

            Having lived in England, I never met anybody who believed they were ethnically superior to others. For me, it was a bit of a culture shock to find myself in a genuinely multi-cultural society. I can’t help wondering why, if England is so antipathetic to ‘others’ – in comparison to Scotland – these ‘others’ have settled in England is such large numbers and in Scotland is such small numbers.

        2. “Implicit in your, and Neal Ascherson’s, comments is the belief that Scotland is superior in being willing to share its ‘essence’.”

          This is simply not true. I was just noting the difference in aspiration. Please dont misrepresent me.

          The black players who have played for Scotland are not peripheral. From Andrew Watson – the world’s first black international football player, capped three times for Scotland between 1881 and 1882 and considered as one of the top ten most important players of the 19th century to Ikechi Anya – and Chris Iwelumo today.

          If you’re celebrating English football you should note that only earlier this month an FA CUP game had to be abandoned after racist abuse of players in a match between Haringey Borough v Yeovil.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            Ifeoma Dieke, who has Nigerian parents, according to Wikipedia:
            “Between 2004 and 2017, she won 123 caps for the Scotland women’s national football team.”
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ifeoma_Dieke
            I saw her play for Scotland at Stark’s Park when she was a first-choice defender, and certainly not a peripheral player.

          2. florian albert says:

            I doubt that you will convince many people that Ikechi Anya or Chris Iwelumo are anything other than – in the context of Scottish international footballers – peripheral.

            I am not ‘celebrating’ English football. I am stating the obvious; that black players are at the heart of English football and they are not at the heart of Scottish football.

            Is the difference in ‘aspiration’ not one in which Scotland is morally superior to England ? That is the way it comes across.

            I am still trying to work out what Scotland’s ‘essence’ amounts to.

            I have admired Neal Ascherson for decades but that particular article in The Guardian struck me as really poor.

          3. Iwelumo peripheral Ikechi Anya not.

            You have celebrated English football as reflective of a great multiculturalism whilst ignoring racism in the game. It doesn’t make any sense.

            You are quite right that black players are at the heart of English football and they are not at the heart of Scottish football – but not sure what this has to do with anything we are discussing.

  10. MBC says:

    I read the fifteen ways of strengthening the union as an attempt to impose dominion by force rather than to address the root causes of the alienation of affection and respect with which the idea of Britain used to be held in Scotland. I think this is going to get a whole lot nastier.

    1. Yes, that’s how I read it too.

  11. greta macdougal says:

    Apparently Theresa May cried at the EU Referendum result because ” those who will be worst affected by Brexit are those who voted for Brexit”.

    She meant people in “left behind” areas, like the NW and NE of England. One of their reasons for voting Brexit was “immigration”. They believe Non-Brits take jobs, houses and benefits. In the NE there are hardly any “immigrants”, so its not clear who has told them to believe this. Yet Priti Patel announced that in the points-based system the tories propose extra points would be given to those prepared to live in areas like the NE. The tories in yet another example of complete failure to understand what concerns people have.

    The same blindness applies to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, whose views are continually ignored. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched Tories leave their places when Ian Blackford gets up to speak. This complete fixation on aTory Brexit to the exclusion of all else will result in serious problems further down the road.

    Forcing us to wave Union Jacks and sing patriotic songs is putting petrol on the fire. I’ll take the extra bank holiday but lets make sure its a celebration of Scotland done in our own inimitable way.

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