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England is showing parallels with Scotland of the 1980s

Yesterday I spoke at the Lewes Speakers' Festival, a small but perfectly formed festival of books in a charming East Sussex town.

It's always good to break out of the bubble and the predominantly (southern) English audience asked probing, perceptive questions revealing an impressive engagement with the nuance of a debate from which they must otherwise feel far removed.

But did they care whether Scotland stays or goes? According to a new film produced by Let's Stay Together they care very much, along with those in Wales and Northern Ireland. Or rather celebrities care. Certainly my audience in Lewes cared.

It's a question I'm asked a lot, but in reality there are a range of views in England about Scottish independence, just as there's a variety of opinions within Scotland about the future of the Union.

And as someone who's spent half the last decade - on an off - in London, I am, like the First Minister, a confirmed Anglophile. The English nation has almost inexhaustibly interesting geography, history and culture.

I say English nation but that isn't a description the political classes are comfortable with, fearing they'll end up in unpleasantly xenophobic territory. The same (Unionist) politicians who fly the Saltire in Scotland would balk at displaying the St George's cross south of the border.

At the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Reform, Devolution and Decentralisation in the United Kingdom in Westminster last week, the Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran admitted as much, talking of her "growing ease with the English being English". She, like many others, having previously associated it with right-wing extremism.

The focus of the APPG was inevitably constitutional, with Lord (Peter) Hennessy warning that "English indifference" to constitutional changes in the rest of the UK was "a profound problem", while the political scientist Richard Wyn Jones pointing to increasingly salient discontent among English voters, particularly in relation to what Iain McLean once called the two mad men in the attic, the Barnett Formula and West Lothian Question.

Now Alex Salmond, who's long been a keen (if somewhat mischievous) advocate of English nationalism, would argue that the best means of silencing the noise from above would be for Scotland to become independent. As he told The Economist back in January 2012, a Yes vote might liberate the English people to "craft a new modern identity without the 'appendage of Britain"' (although what that meant for Wales and Northern Ireland wasn't explored).

Last week, therefore, the First Minister made another of his occasional day trips to England to tell them how to run their own affairs, throwing in some scaremongering for good measure, chiefly that a No vote would risk the Scottish NHS being privatised by stealth, a line - without much supporting evidence - the Yes campaign seems keen to push.

Otherwise Salmond used the venue for his speech, the splendid St George's Hall, as a reminder that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (a period he fetishizes, much like the late Baroness Thatcher) Liverpool, together with Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle "had real political power to as well as economic power". Therefore independence offered a catalyst to regain that autonomy rather than a "long wait for belated scraps from the Westminster table".

It's a nice line, although the First Minister has never quite explained why greater decentralisation would be the natural consequence of a Yes vote (it wasn't, for example, in 1922). He also ignores the fact it's happening, for over the past four years the Conservative/LibDem coalition has made sincere efforts to implement various City Deals across England, the pitch being: tell us what powers you want and we'll do our best to deliver them.

That localism agenda (a debate far in advance of any equivalent in Scotland) predates the independence referendum, and indeed was recently extended to Glasgow, lending some credence to the Mayor of Liverpool's claim that the city he leads "has more in common with Glasgow than it does with London", which is arguably true historically, economically and perhaps even culturally.

Even when it comes to the possibility of a written constitution, which many advocates of independence view as a debate specific to Scotland, there's a lively corollary south of the border. Recently the Labour MP Graham Allen launched a consultation entitled A new Magna Carta? asking: Is it possible that we would travel another 800 years without a serious upgrade of our democratic foundations? And while the Magna Carta was of course an English document, as the historian Tom Holland recently argued, the significance of that and the Declaration of Arbroath "lay in ensuring that Scots and English would end up treasuring similar ideals", i.e. the assurance that "no one, not even a king, should be above the law".

So there is movement, indeed movement on a number of fronts, on the English constitutional debate, only a lot of Scottish commentators seem disinclined to notice. Thus in the Financial Times last week Neal Ascherson referred to "massive English indifference" over the future of the Union (which simply isn't true, neither in Lewes nor according to polls) and arguing, bizarrely, that since 1999 "only a set of informal…arrangements connects devolved Scotland to the rest of the UK".

But it's difficult to consider the Welfare State and a highly integrated economy as little more than 'informal' arrangements, and despite southern enthusiasm for what he calls "barbaric neoliberalism", Ascherson nevertheless wants post-union England and Scotland to remain close and linked formally in some sort of confederacy. Curiously, Messrs Salmond and Ascherson want to push England away, only to draw it close.

In an important new book by Michael Kenny, The Politics of English Nationhood, the author concludes that viewing the recent rise of Englishness through a constitutional prism is much too narrow. While discontent at an imbalance in UK governance (charted, among others, by the IPPR) is certainly a factor, it isn't the sole driver, being as much cultural as it is political. Pinning down national characteristics (Kenny is very good on the English propensity for 'lists'), meanwhile, is an enjoyable but essentially fruitless task, in either English or Scottish context.

Reading Kenny's book I couldn't help concluding that what's happening in England has parallels with the Scottish experience of the 1980s and '90s - a growing feeling that the legitimacy of centralised Westminster government is weakening. He concludes that in "cultural and political terms, properly nationalist sentiments are held only by a minority of English citizens" and that the growth of English nationhood is - like that in Scotland - predominantly civic in nature.

Scotland crops up in Hilary Mantel's enjoyable stage adaptation of her book Wolf Hall, which I saw in London last week. It appears as a distant and somewhat alien threat, but that is no doubt how it appeared in the early 16th century. Otherwise its protagonist Thomas Cromwell is portrayed as a keen follower of public opinion. He tells his manservant: "Governments should always listen to the voices of the people." And so they should.

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