Saturday 6 October 2012

Why Scottish unionists should be concerned about English nationalism

Whenever there is an article in the Daily Telegraph about Scottish politics and the independence referendum, the comment section is commonly dominated by Cybernats, who seem most concerned about insulting personally the author of the piece. There are usually few Scottish unionists commenting, no doubt because most Scots are too sensible to enjoy being insulted for expressing their opinions. There are usually still fewer obviously English people making comments, but occasionally this changes. Sometimes an article in the Telegraph goes mainstream and leaves its Scottish niche and then something quite interesting happens. When the English begin to comment on the independence referendum, the most popular posts are those which say good riddance to Scotland. 

Logically, if Scotland can have a referendum on independence, so can England, but what if England were to want Scottish independence more than the Scots do? What if they were so sick of the rise of Scottish nationalism, so sick of the unfair devolution settlement, that they decided to divorce us? Looking at the way the independence campaign in Scotland is going, and trying to avoid complacency as much as possible, it is looking ever more likely that Scots will never actually vote for independence. But Mr Salmond would achieve his dream equally well if England were to vote for independence, for it seems hardly likely that the rest of the UK minus England,  consisting of an unconnected Celtic fringe could possibly last. It is England that binds the union together. The English people traditionally identified themselves with Britain in a way that could only be matched in some parts of Ulster. But now this is beginning to change.

Of course, Mr Cameron has no intention of giving the English a referendum on independence, nor it would appear has he any intention of giving the UK a referendum on EU membership. The main reason that he won’t give such referendums is that he thinks he would have every chance of losing them. But eventually in a democracy there comes a politician who realises that there are votes in giving the people what they want. If English nationalism continues to rise, it will be addressed politically. 

Of course, this all must be put into perspective. At the moment, when push came to shove, it is likely that the English would still vote for the union. A few angry comments in the Telegraph, do not make an independence movement and no serious political party in England is proposing independence. But this is because, in my view, English nationalism is still just beginning.

My first real experience of England was during my studies in Cambridge, back before devolution. I never once came across anti Scottish sentiment. I used to do the Burns supper in Doric every year, dressed in a kilt, no one understanding a word I said and the English loved it. There were some jokes about my accent, which I had to considerably tone down, there was a lot of ignorance about Scotland, but there was huge amounts of goodwill towards Scotland. The English had a love of their country, which included a love of Scotland. The contrast with my own experience in Scotland was huge, where even unionists seemed barely able to utter a kind word about England and the English. To be honest, it made me a bit ashamed about some of the things my Scottish friends and I would sometimes say about England, how we were so ready to find insult when they described us as British, how we could be so chippy about some trivial misunderstanding of Scotland or Scottish history.

English nationalism did not exist until devolution, but since devolution and especially since the rise of Scottish nationalism, it has been growing. Devolution was completely unfair to England. It created division where it could have created unity. The reason for this is obvious. The devolution settlement should never have been applied only to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It should have been applied across the whole country. The Scottish constitutional convention thought it was a matter only for Scots and the Labour government agreed and thought that it was a matter that could be determined by a referendum of the Scottish people alone. But devolution should never have been a matter only for Scots as it affected everyone who lives in the United Kingdom. Perhaps, this was not entirely clear at the time, but it is becoming ever clearer as devolution continues.

Suddenly the English looked north and saw that, although Scotland paid the same level of tax as England did, the Scottish people gained free this and free that, while the English did not. The English saw a Scottish chancellor and a Scottish Prime Minister ruling in Westminster, they saw Scottish MPs pushing through laws for England, while English MPs and even the government in Westminster had no say about such matters in the constituency of the Prime Minister. This led to ever increasing levels of English resentment and ever increasing levels of English nationalism.

What finally led to an explosion of anti-Scottishness was Alex Salmond continually proposing to have a referendum on independence and his achieving a majority in the Scottish parliament. Look at this from the point of view of England. Scotland and England have been in a marriage for over 300 years. Suddenly Scotland says it’s thinking about a divorce. How do most married couples react when one party says I want a divorce? If a husband comes to his wife and says I’m sick of this marriage, I could do better on my own, would you expect the wife to continue loving him? No, her reaction would be first hurt, then most likely an expression of good riddance. Eventually so much damage is done to the marriage that even if the husband were to say I’ve decided to stay, the wife would say, no, now I want the divorce. This is what has happened in England. The English were first hurt by Scots apparently petitioning for divorce by electing Alex Salmond. They looked on the whole process of the independence referendum as profoundly insulting, and they are beginning to think if that’s how they feel we’d be better off rid of them.

What can be done? Firstly, Scottish unionists have to emphasis to their English friends that Scottish nationalism is a minority movement. Then we have to overwhelmingly defeat the nationalists in the independence referendum, so that the issue is defeated once and for all. Next, we cannot keep adding to the unfairness of the devolution settlement by adding still further layers of unfairness, devo-plus and devo max. Rather, we must find a fair devolution settlement for the whole UK, perhaps by devolving real power to local councils across the UK. Finally, we must show England and the English that we care about the union, that we want to be in this marriage with them, that we each have our identities as Scots or English, Welsh or Northern Irish, but that we are all and above all, British.