TIME, then, for the annual bout of ambivalence.
Robert Burns, poet and cultural bulwark: well and good. Burns the haggis supper manifestation, like a rowdy poltergeist, of half-truths, witless romance, and a weakness for one wee drink too many? If the invitation is lost in the post again, there'll be no complaints.
I keep Burns Night, if it needs to be kept, in my own way. I might read a bit. The fact there is something to read about, and a reason to read, doesn't escape me. Other countries have no such occasions. The poor people of England don't even have grisly dinners with which to celebrate their nation and misquote poetry. Some of them are not even sure they have a nation.
This is both odd and ironic. Odd because the world at large only rarely misidentifies an English person. It is ironic because, historically, the people of England haven't often seen a difference between their country and Britain. They have been puzzled, to put it no higher, that anyone should want to point out a difference.
Not any more. After slumbering through successive constitutional upheavals, England has begun to awaken. Or as the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) puts it in a new report, the dog has begun to bark. It has sensed a disturbance.
Those of us who believe in self-determination would say it's about time. For one thing, the old Unionist dismissal of "identity politics" always seemed illogical and unfair. On the one hand, it objected only to the Scottish version of identity. The British alternative – witness the preparations for the Queen's jubilee – was for some reason another, respectable matter.
Equally, the claim that only one version of identity was reputable perpetrated an injustice on the English. Crudely put, they could not be themselves. Racists and worse swarmed in to fill the void, claiming the national flag, appropriating patriotism, and attempting to inflict insularity – it's quite a trick – on half an island. This has not been a pretty sight.
It's not England, either. As anyone with half a wit who knows anything about a people and their remarkable history would understand, the English Defence League and the rest are a sick joke, founded on a grotesque lie. They have gained attention by default. If the agitation for Scottish independence has caused the real England to awaken (and bark) we'll call it a service rendered.
That doesn't mean a new-found sense of identity south of the Border will make life easier for Scots. Weren't we supposed to be the ones consumed by grudges? The IPPR finds 45% of English voters subscribing to the unkillable myth that Scotland gets "more than its fair share of public spending", while 40% believe England is short-changed. In fact, better than half – 52% – of English respondents think Scotland does better than England from UK membership.
A complicated picture then emerges. Only 22% think Scots "should go it alone", but 80% – David Cameron should bear it in mind – favour complete fiscal autonomy for Scotland. Meanwhile, 79% would answer the West Lothian Question by banning Scottish MPs from voting on "English laws". Clearly, they have not been asked to define such laws, or to explain their understanding of maximal devolution, but you get the idea.
It should be said that the IPPR has been waiting for English barking to erupt since the Edinburgh parliament was restored. The think tankers were surprised, year upon year, by sanguine southern attitudes – or apathy – towards events in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. They looked for the emergence of English nationalism and failed, most of the time, to find it. Suddenly, the SNP's referendum plans have concentrated minds. When Alex Salmond produces his consultation document today, comment will become intense.
A host of questions are thereby provoked. Could it be that the UK is actually bad for England? Can the Westminster Parliament function with two classes of MP and the prospect of Tory government for a generation? How will English opinion react if maximal devolution turns out to be a real economic benefit to Scotland? And what would an emergent English nationalism involve, in any case?
The last question is not for me to answer. That would be the equivalent of the preposterous claim from some south of the Border that England should have the casting vote in any UK "divorce". It would be nice to see more English people remember Tom Paine, or Tolpuddle, or Clem Attlee, but if they choose to venerate Margaret Thatcher, that's not my business.
It's one thing to say, as the IPPR does, that an English identity is "re-emerging" – 40% are now "more English than British" – but difficult to say what that means. At bottom, there is a clear sense that the people of England simply feel forgotten, not least by politicians. All those appeals to "Britishness" aimed at dissuading restless Scots have involved overlooking what it means to be English. We used to call it a democratic deficit.
It could be observed, of course, that England's complaints are of very recent origin. Until Scotland began to agitate, very few below the Border thought twice about fairness, political or economic. Regional assemblies were spurned; Westminster and the British state functioned to their satisfaction. The idea that England might also have unmet rights was treated as preposterous. I wonder why.
But facts are facts. The West Lothian Question amounts to an abuse of democracy. If Scotland and Wales have rights and claims, so does England. As the IPPR argues, "the main problem is not that the English question is now finally being asked by the country's electorate, but rather that the British political class has failed to take it, and them, seriously".
No nation will long stand for that. But what will the reaction be, I wonder, when finally that British political class grasps a fundamental truth: emergent English nationalism is the surest guarantee of Scottish independence.
Meanwhile, this Burns Night, I look forward to the debate between Yorkshire, Kent and Cornwall over what it means to be English, and why everything is London's fault. Best of luck.
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