The Wrong Anxieties

scottish and hypothetical ewnicish flags

I see David Cameron is getting round to supporting his supposed cause of unionism.  Or Brand Britain at least.  This is basically whatʼs wrong with the United Kingdom.  Itʼs not about a nation, in the sense of a group of people with something shared – however illusory.  Not according to the Tories and their ilk.  Itʼs a marketing opportunity.  A brand.  A way to allow shareholders to turn a profit.  That non-shareholders, and even the small scale shareholders, arenʼt now, nor will regularly in future, be getting anything worthwhile out of this is of no relevance.  Itʼs not even relevant that the large shareholders arenʼt from any particular part of Great Britain or its associated islands.  International capitalism requires successful brands, be it under Saʼudi, Chinese or British ownership, and the beneficiaries of the branding exercise are few and from around the world.

Well enough of it.  I had started out a couple of years ago assuming that the arguments for separation were mixed, which they are.  What has taken me by surprise is how abysmal the arguments for remaining in the UK are.  A reheated serving of romantic nationalism about a Britain that never was, but which has been getting increasingly ladled out by UK media for the last decade.  British sports, British baking, British monarchy, British reality TV, British I-donʼt-know-what-any-more.  You can tell that an identity is in trouble when it has to be so massively hyped, and that was before the referendum came over the horizon.  And underneath it, what?  More opportunities for the rich to become richer at the expense of everyone else.  I used to be amusedly tolerant of it, at least, so far as it wasnʼt the kind of malevolent Britishness of Ulster Unionism or British Imperialism and Nationalism.  After the last few years of brand exposure, Iʼm seriously sick of it.  Can has some clear headspace please?

Scotland as a state in its own right will not be immune from global neoliberalism either, any more than Canada (to take what might in some respects be a better comparison than the run-of-the-mill Scandinavian comparisons that have been floated lately).  Nor Ireland.  Both countries that intermittently, like the current UK, have spells of domination by the forces of new-right economic ideology, and others.  Itʼs already happened.  (Menie.)  But it will be simpler to spot when it's happening, if only because we wonʼt have the confusion of a broad-church nationalist party to deal with for long.

The other bad argument, now coming publicly from some in the English opposition (and mentioned a few years ago North of the border), is that Scotland has been acting as a civilising influence in the UK, which it would be perilous to withdraw.  Letʼs assume for the sake of the argument this is true.  Even so, the degree of influence has been limited, and it canʼt be expected to last.  What does it really amount to?  Absent the recent increase in SNP MPs, itʼs about the presence of a small number of Liberals (and later SDP and LibDems) persistently returned in Scottish rural areas, and a maybe-influential group of Labour MPs from the more urban areas – who used to be known in Scotland as “The Feeble Fifty”, because they (for those whoʼve forgotten) didnʼt prevent the generation of Tory rule from ʼ79–ʼ97 – even when there were more Scottish MPs to go round.

What has this truly produced other than a persistent distortion in the English Labour movement?  Did it stop them convincing themselves in 2010 of the prospect of another Labour majority to come?  No.  So they lost the opportunity to wholeheartedly push for a measure of proportional representation in that other referendum in 2011.  For all that there are some good people in it, the British Labour movement remains as hidebound and corrupt as the Tories, and as convinced of their entitlement to rule, and as prone to convincing themselves of convenient lies as ever.  Now, this wasnʼt exclusively an English problem.  But until the English Labour movement gets a grip, this problem will remain.  And thereʼs not much the rest of us can do about it.

They do still have the possibility of avoiding another generation of Tory rule in the absence of the (current) feeble forty-one.  Capitalise on the separation of Scotland.  Place the blame where it more or less lies – on the Tories who, contrary to their Unionist title, basically see this exercise as win/win.  Or maybe that wonʼt work, in spite of UKIP ready to wreck the Tory campaign.  Either way, learn the lesson.  The worst outcome of all this is that you keep trying to retain a one- or two-party system in any modern state, let alone the modern multi-nation state of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall, which may come squirming unwillingly into existence some time soon.

(EWNIC?  Maybe.  Or CENIW if you prefer an alphabetic order, or have castration anxiety setting in around now.  Cameron doesnʼt.  The English Labour movementʼs response to all these referenda has the opposite effect, seen from the Tory side of the bed.)