Is home rule enough?
It is many years since you and I were foot soldiers in the Portobello Labour party in Edinburgh. Scottish politics looks very different today (alas, the same cannot be said for Scottish football). The polls predict a substantial SNP lead over Labour in next May’s elections for the Scottish parliament. Some polls also show a majority in favour of outright independence, especially among the under-30s, who have no memory of the second world war high watermark of Britishness.
None of this comes as a surprise to me, or those like me, who defected from New Labour’s christian democracy to the traditional social democracy of the SNP. Unlike Roy Hattersley, we had somewhere to go. But it does seem to have surprised my friends in the great metropolis who assumed that a devolved parliament was the end of the matter.
After all, what possible gain, economically or socially, can there be from the turmoil of outright independence? Surely a devolved parliament gives the Scots the best of both worlds: local autonomy plus the chance to benefit from the economies of scale, political muscle and subsidies from the British state.
This patronising, London-centred fug is dispelled in one word: Europe. The anachronism of the British union state is that it was created as a political counterweight to continental Europe in its various pre-EU forms. But today’s Scots, especially the young, have rejoined Europe in their hearts and pay packets. The union is already irrelevant.
Economically speaking, Scotland exports more per head than England (or Japan, for that matter). Silicon Glen now dominates a significant part of the European market for silicon chips. The key Scottish markets are France and Germany. English tourism to Scotland has declined sharply and has been replaced by Italian students learning Scots English. Scots business can’t wait to join the single currency and escape the high interest rates imposed to curb London property prices. A new breed of young Scottish entrepreneurs write computer games and make corporate videos-selling to Europe and the US. They rage when British companies refuse to buy business services outside the London clique. This is the entrepreneurial class-New Labour in England-which votes for and funds the SNP.
Thanks to Europe, young Scots, like the Irish, have a sense of moving on-this is missing in England, where nostalgia still reigns. Old institutions, including the union, are regarded as suspect. Blair, educated in the most English of Edinburgh private schools, still confuses modernity with Britpop. In Scotland, Blair is condemned for embracing Thatcher’s uncaring vision. This is partly the innate social democracy of a small western country-a national mood which the SNP has championed. Partly it is a reflection of the dense network of civil society through which Scotland has preserved its identity during the 300 years without a parliament.
The distance between the New Labour project and what is happening in Scotland is evident in the rhetoric of New Unionism. For 30 years, Scotland has been developing a separate culture-different plays and playwrights, authors and poets, architects and designers, its own film industry and newspapers. And suddenly wham, bam-Blair invents something called Cool Britannia and expects us all to join.
The union can’t be repaired, but we do need a framework through which to conduct relations between the peoples of these wet Atlantic islands. The SNP wants a loose alliance of all the nation states of the former UK. This is taking shape in the Good Friday-inspired Council of the Isles. Rather than pursuing the chimera of New Unionism, we should be developing this council. We could even put its secretariat somewhere interesting, like Glasgow or Liverpool.
3rd July 1998
It doesn’t seem long since we walked those Edinburgh streets together in the Labour cause, although I left the party years ago to pursue the dubious perpetual opposition of journalism. First things first. You won’t get an argument from me about Scotland’s self-confidence or growing political maturity. I have never regarded an independent Scotland as disastrous, nor do I dismiss the SNP as ethnic nationalists. The biggest problem with Scottish politics has long been its function as a perpetual protest machine-London blamed for everything, no connection between voting and taxpaying-just a great long girn. The Scottish constitutional convention of the 1980s was the break away from girning into adult politics; the Scottish parliament will end the moan for good.
Our argument is about the best relationship between Scotland and the rest of Britain. As a London Scot, by “best” I mean the most politically liberal and satisfactory for everyone in these wet islands. Here are a couple of defences of Britishness from someone who would, if Scotland became independent, immediately take a Scottish passport.
First, “British” is a political term, not an ethnic one. There are no ethnic British. For millions of non-English island dwellers that makes it useful and reassuring. “Britain” may have imperial connotations, but it also represents the authority of treaty and ethnic compromise. For many black, Asian, European and Irish people here, who will never be English, Britishness is a useful badge of belonging. For you, in Edinburgh, Britain may seem a flag of convenience for Greater England. From where I sit, “British” surmounts and tames England. During the World Cup the cross of St George fluttered on every street; not everyone enjoyed that. That anti-English and anti-Scottish sentiment is now low doesn’t mean that we can ignore it. Britishness is a civic device-a historical fudge-which I would not throw away lightly.
Second, as co-linguists on a small island, it seems handy to pool expensive functions such as defence. I cannot conceive of a threat to Scotland that is not a threat to England and Wales too. I cannot see the point of a network of new Scottish embassies and I would resent the cost of all this in a country which should be spending on its education system. I want a Scottish parliament which delivers on all the areas of domestic policy that can be done more handily near to home. I think its power will grow, not diminish. I don’t recognise this as devolution, but as home rule exercised by a sovereign people. This gives all the room we need for rebuilding Scottish life. Going further seems a bit old-fashioned.
You sum up your response to this in the word Europe. You see the EU as an uncomplicated good: part mother, part bolt-hole. I don’t. For a long time, the EU did seem like a refuge from the archaic British state. But things are more complicated today. Currency union will mean macroeconomic policy driven by a fiercely anti-inflationary bank. It will mean a boost for the rich parts of the EU at the expense of the poor; which will mean transfer payments and high taxes. It will mean that if a Keynesian government is elected in, say, Belgium or Scotland, it will be told to get lost.
This might be tolerable if the EU were a democratic and open system of institutions, but it isn’t. So there is, or should be, trouble ahead in Europe. The challenge in front of us is to reform the EU, democratise it, open it up, rein in the commission, elevate the council of ministers and so on. That will be one hell of a fight-and small nations won’t count. I would like to see that battle won before we dissolve the British union. As for the Irish, they have been bribed for years by Germany and France to make them enthusiastic Europeans. Similar moolah will not be on offer for Scotland.
I suspect that your biggest problem with the union is the relentless grin of Tony Blair and his clammily passionate relationship with middle England-replicating in the late 1990s what we both seethed about while canvassing against Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Am I right?
4th July 1998
You suggest that going beyond devolution is old fashioned and unnecessary and that non-ethnic British citizenship “tames” England. The desire for Scottish independence is thus a knee-jerk reaction to Tony’s middle English orthodontia. I suspect that Gladstone used similar arguments about Ireland in the 19th century.
The crucial concept here is sovereignty. For independence read, above all, political sovereignty exercised via an elected Scottish parliament. Ignore the ambassadorial trappings and Scottish field marshals, Andrew. The Scots are too canny to want many gunboats. We are more concerned with inward investment and removing entry fees into higher education.
The Scottish parliament, as currently envisaged, has no sovereign powers; it exists at the whim of Westminster. The Scots, and the English for that matter, are not citizens but subjects of the crown in parliament-which is gobbledegook for Westminster doing what it wants, unrestrained by a written constitution. It is this arcane, pre-modern polity that is being challenged by the demand for Scottish independence. Only a constitutionally sovereign Scotland could reforge the partnership between itself and England as a partnership of equals.
As for the idea that Britishness serves as a civic umbrella for a multi-ethnic, multicultural state, I can only regard that as a cruel joke played on each wave of black immigrants. A good idea-but not one with which the Lawrence family would identify. I don’t mean that as a cheap shot. Of course we need to rebuild a strong sense of citizenship. But hewing it out of the rotten timbers of empire, isolation from continental Europe and non-democratic political institutions will not work.
Since the end of the first world war, English culture and politics have been pole-axed by the retreat from empire and the rise of the US and Germany. The English intelligentsia has been gripped by a sense of decay, retreat and failure, in contrast to the optimism north of the border. I find this sense of English national malaise much more dangerous than the odd category C football hooligan. Twentieth century Britishness trapped England; it did not tame it. Dissolve the union and let England be reborn-the England which invented individual liberty and created the industrial revolution. England has to find its soul again; it can’t do that within a decaying union. That means England making its peace with Europe. I agree that the present EU is politically deficient. But a Scottish presence at the European central bank is better than an absent British one.
6th July 1998
The idea that a Scottish parliament could be abolished on a whim of Westminster, after being set up, is absurd. That could only happen if the people of Scotland hated it and demanded its disappearance. Both of us, I take it, hope and believe that it will work and earn public support very fast.
There is no serious argument about whether or not the Scottish people have the right to independence if they want it. And Westminster absolutism is a dead letter: citizenship, legally incorporated rights, the end of the hereditary second chamber, freedom of information, a new voting system, the peace deal in Northern Ireland, English regional assemblies, a new relationship with the EU, home rule itself…
You speak of England recovering its soul, reborn, becoming again the freedom-loving, dissenting England of old. But that is happening inside Britain already; you badly underestimate the modernisation going on. We live in a stroppy, diverse, argumentative country now. I don’t spend my life enclosed by the rotten timbers of empire or isolated from continental Europe; I live in a jostling cosmopolitan city where the local stores are filled with French, German, Chinese and Indian voices and where the prospects for democratic renewal are better than at any stage in my lifetime. To suggest that Britain wilts passively under a “pre-modern polity” like a pallid damsel who can only be rescued by the SNP is a tad arrogant. I like and admire Alex Salmond; but the St George of the constitution he ain’t.
Your bleak picture of a decayed, defeated and retreating English intelligentsia, as distinct from the vibrant Scots, smacks of propaganda. England has few good writers at the moment-fewer than Scotland-but it has strong groups of artists, political thinkers, architects, new historians. It outstrips Germany or France in the theatre, in the visual arts, building and design, software and music. You don’t need the Cool Britannia hype to see that things here aren’t all that bad. Apart from the summer rain, it’s just about bearable, George.
Nor (speaking of rain) is that civic umbrella to be discarded so easily. At the Stephen Lawrence inquiry I saw the dangers ahead. But England has absorbed a lot of immigration over a long time without the rise of ethnic nationalism on the French or German model; this has something to do with the separation between the ethnic (Englishness) and the civic or political (Britishness). Asian people and black people can declare: I am British; and know that the assertion is irrefutable. But they don’t feel English, any more than I do. There is no such thing as an ethnic Briton, just as there isn’t an ethnic American. I like that.
Finally, it isn’t a question of making peace with the EU, but of reforming it. Looking ahead, this is a bigger constitutional question than the relationship between Scotland and England. Rebalancing power within the EU means that an independent Scotland’s voice is unlikely to be very loud, and the Scottish economy would still be run from abroad. Given that, and your implication that an independent Scotland would pool its military with England (are you sure about that?) I wonder just how big, in real terms, is the difference between us?
7th July 1998
As sons of the Scottish Enlightenment we agree on many things, including the need for an inclusive civic identity. I feel this is more easily accomplished inside a small country like Scotland where names such as Lazarowicz, Demarco or Ali are already considered as Scottish as MacDonald. You have not shown why solving the social problems of southeast England demands that Scotland remain bolted on to England just so you can reinvent Britishness.
And I am not arguing that English and metropolitan culture is stale. Far from it: from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited to Derek Jarman’s The Last of England, the culture of decline can produce vibrant art. I am arguing only that the English intelligentsia is obsessed with nostalgia and what they perceive as relative national decline-unlike the Scottish intelligentsia, which sees its task as building a new nation. The English intelligentsia (and English politicians) haven’t a clue what Britain or England stand for any longer. Your New Britishness lacks content. That’s why it won’t work.
But the real reason for Scottish independence is jobs and international relations. Of course Westminster would not dare to abolish the Scottish parliament so soon after the referendum. But it will set a macroeconomic policy to suit an over-heating London economy, control oil and energy policy and send us the world’s nuclear waste without consultation.
Yes, the old British state is changing, but under duress. I want a British Isles of sovereign democracies enjoying their diversity and cooperating as necessary. I want an independent Scotland promoting an alliance of Scandinavian and Nordic countries inside the EU. I see Europe’s youth flooding to Scotland to learn English. I see Scottish trade offices across Europe and North America vigorously promoting Scottish goods and culture.
In the end you fall back on the old metropolitan refrain: Scotland will be less influential in the world without nanny London. But in a 21st century dominated by globalisation, instant communications and rapidly evolving international institutions, we would rather go to the ball on our own than take a chaperon.
8th July 1998
PS We’d love you to come home and run a Scottish newspaper.
Our difference is not huge, although it may dominate Scottish politics for years to come. I just don’t think that the extra costs and trappings of full Scottish independence, and the resurgence of English nationalism it would help to create, are worth the modest extra freedom of action it would bring.
For me, for the time being, home rule is enough-potentially a huge change. The spectacle of a Scottish parliament testing its strength, discovering and delivering a popular agenda of change and showing that there are ways to govern which Westminster hasn’t noticed, will be a great thing. I would like to see a new policy on land ownership in the Highlands, a health policy directed at the evils of diet and habit that make Scots so short-lived, and a parliament taking a tougher line on council corruption. I would also like to see the Scottish universities reformed, to give the country a chance of rediscovering its intellectual glory days.
All that excites me. But there is another side to this. Britishness is less empty than you suggest. There is a common Scottish-English tradition of ideas and action-look at the influence of Hutcheson and Hume on English radicalism and of non-Scots such as Bevan and Attlee on postwar Scotland. The Enlightenment was a common project; so was the welfare state; today we face new challenges of globalisation and political modernisation.
Nor is the border necessarily the decisive break-point in our island culture. The northern English are much more like the Scots than they are like home counties English; Newcastle seems more Scottish to me than English; sometimes-my cheap shot-Edinburgh seems more English than Scottish. We are fellow islanders in a shared democracy, without oppression of one nation by another. And politics aside, there is a vitality, a cheekiness and, yes, an optimism in the metropolitan culture of Manchester and London which is similar in spirit to Glasgow’s.
Most of what you want-trade offices, initiatives with other countries and the arrival of language students at Leith docks-is possible inside a reformed, looser union. Nor will future macroeconomic policy be decided in the interests of London-it will be decided for the benefit of Europe’s golden triangle.
Scotland has a lot going for it at present, but my enthusiasm for the English has also grown since settling in London-I even married one. In a world whose barriers are falling, I don’t see the point in raising one. At least, though, we share a basic optimism about the growth of an authentic Scottish politics. Next time I am in the Waverley bar-looking for a job, who knows?-maybe we can drink to that.