Diary

Neal Ascherson

For the last six months, a Scot reading the London papers, or watching London-made political TV shows, could only conclude that a sharp dislike of Scots and Scotland is spreading across South Britain. The reports suggest a bout of Scotophobia without parallel since the violently anti-Scottish mood of the English mob in Lord Bute’s day.

The ignorance and nastiness of some of this journalism have been startling. The Daily Telegraph wrote that Scotland was ‘trapped in the squalor of dependency’. ‘Until recently,’ the paper asserted, ‘an English voter hearing Gordon Brown’s Fifeshire accent would simply have said to himself, “Labour”; now, he says: “Scottish.” The lopsided devolution settlement has created a sense that the Scots are having their cake and yet guzzling away at it.’ The newspapers accuse a Scottish mafia of dominating the cabinet. They suggest that Scottish ministers, from the safety of northern constituencies, are driving through measures such as university tuition fees that are hateful to the English. They picture Scotland as pampered by unjustified subsidies from English taxpayers and yet nagging for more. Some Tory MPs and their commentator friends proclaim that parliamentary government will be destroyed if an MP from a Scottish constituency becomes prime minister.

On the Daily Telegraph website, hatred of Europe is closely associated with resentment of Scotland, so that ending the older Union is seen as the condition for ending the newer one. ‘Time to disband the Union, let the Scots join the euro, kowtow to the French for extra subsidies etc and let England move on to its destiny.’

How real is this fury? Does it reflect what English people really think about Scotland and the Scots? I am certain that for the most part it does not. Southern views of the Scots over the last hundred years have been faintly sceptical – chippy, lacking in humour, slow to unbend – but on the whole affectionate. (Contrast English attitudes to Welshness which, for reasons I am not sure of, are often genuinely hostile.) And the English have shown noticeable tolerance, appreciating that some Scottish touchiness was justified. The days when an Englishman could comfortably refer to the Highlands as the most beautiful part of England are now unimaginable (though not that distant). As for Scottish independence, polls as far back as the 1970s have shown that most English people thought it would be ‘a pity, after all we’ve been through together, but if they want that, I suppose they have a right to it.’ Unionist politicians must have found that absence of panic unnerving.

In other words, the present flare of Scotophobia began as little more than a media ramp, fuelled by and to some extent co-ordinated with the Conservative Party. Its motives are transparent. When the bombardment opened last summer, it was obviously targeted to damage and disable Gordon Brown, the Conservatives’ future adversary, as he scampered across the open ground towards the safety of Number Ten. It’s fascinating that professed Unionists should be ready, in order to knock out an adversary, to touch off this barrage against those damned Scots who are such fragments of grit in the otherwise creamy perfection of Britain’s constitutional arrangements.

Nonetheless, relentless repetition begins to wear a dent. Iain MacWhirter, the excellent journalist who writes political commentary for the Herald papers, received a torrent of cross and sometimes abusive posts – more than 1300 of them – when he tried, late last year, to explain Scotland’s political and financial realities on the Guardian’s website. Guardian readers retorted with the usual stuff: the Scots whine while they grab our money, abuse our parliamentary system and take over England. As MacWhirter comments, ‘the idea of a Scottish raj running England is . . . so extraordinary that it’s difficult to say anything coherent about it.’ But the interesting thing about these emails, like those on the Telegraph site, was this: all but a handful of them saw the solution to their complaints in ending the Union.

This isn’t Scotophobia. It’s Anglophilia. Last November’s ICM poll suggested that 59 per cent of English respondents would prefer Scotland to be independent, while 68 per cent want a parliament of their own. While the media and political campaign against the Scots has not apparently made the English more anti-Scottish in any general, xenophobic way, it has accelerated the slow resurgence of English national self-awareness.

Was that effect intended by the new Tory leadership? It’s hard to know. In the short term, there are Tory votes to be gained in the South by calling for a ban on Scottish MPs voting on English matters. But in the longer term, the prizes the Conservative Party could win by evicting the Scots from British politics are enormous: at the 2005 general election, the Conservatives won more English votes than Labour. The lesson is that any serious Tory revival could carry the party to an almost impregnable domination of English politics.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail King Arthur rides up to a muddy peasant and announces: ‘I am Arthur, king of the Britons.’ ‘King of the who? . . . Who are the Britons?’ The king answers rather uncertainly: ‘We are all Britons!’ Well, perhaps we are now all muddy peasants, because the notion of Britain is plainly growing less convincing. The last British Social Attitudes survey showed that, in the ten years up to 2005, the number of English people who felt they had a British identity had declined by 8 per cent to less than half the sample, while primary identification as English had risen by 9 per cent. (The far steeper decline in Scots prioritising British identity – now down to 14 per cent – has been known and written about for many years.)

The return of English nationalism and national self-awareness is a familiar subject. It is ten years since ‘Diana Week’ in London – a sea of red and white English flags, with hardly a Union Jack to be seen – confirmed that the St George’s Cross had become the flag of the heart for millions of English families, a symbol of allegiance which had spread far beyond the football stadiums. The future of this particular nationalism – whether it will find serious leadership in the English professional classes, and how far it will edge from sullen, xenophobic, ‘ethnic’ feelings towards more ‘civic’ programmes for reform and emancipation – is another matter. My point here is the way this new consciousness is beginning to question Britishness, and the growing conviction among the English that they are somehow its victims, despite forming 90 per cent of the UK population.

There are parallels. One is the late Habsburg Empire, in which the core imperial population – the German inhabitants of Austria – began to lose its own identity in the age of rising nationalisms. ‘The Hungarians were first and last only Hungarians,’ Robert Musil wrote in The Man without Qualities, ‘and counted only incidentally . . . as also Austro-Hungarians. The Austrians, on the other hand, were primarily nothing at all . . . there was not even a proper word for it. And there was no such thing as Austria, either.’ I thought of Musil when I read a passage from Keith Ajegbo’s recent Diversity and Citizenship report. The investigator was talking to a little seven-year-old, who was the only English child in her class. After all the others had talked about their origins, she said sadly: ‘I come from nowhere.’

We must allow for differences, of course. The Germans were a minority in their state, the English are an overwhelming majority. And terminology comes into it. People in the Habsburg Empire, weird patchwork as it was, knew the difference between a nation and a state. In recent history, the Irish, Scots and Welsh have never had any difficulty distinguishing the two either. But the English never grasped the difference. It is only in the last ten years or less that you have started to come across Westminster politicians referring to the UK as a ‘multinational state’. The muddle over words is significant. And it hasn’t always been an exclusively English muddle: in the 18th or early 19th century, successful Scots were happy to describe themselves as ‘English’ in the outside world and did not make much fuss when southerners referred to the whole island as ‘England’. Sir John Seeley wrote his prophecy of a global imperial destiny in 1883 under the title The Expansion of England. For generations, the fact of England’s numerical predominance in the UK was veiled by the image of the island English as the heroic founding few, outnumbered by the millions inhabiting the British Empire.

It was only in the late 20th century that civil servants and educators began to insist that English people should refer to themselves as ‘British’ in order not to offend Welsh and Scottish sensibilities. Patiently, the English adopted this new Sprachordnung, only to find that the Scots and the Welsh still identified them as English and found all this ‘Britishness’ rather evasive. Conceived as a well-meaning stroke of political correctness, it had the effect of concealing the truth that the English still used their wealth and numbers to call the shots in the UK. And almost inevitably, the English backlash slowly began. Who are these Eurocrats and Scottish carpetbaggers to tell us who we are and how we should think in our own country? Why should we be the victims whose tax-money is spent by people we didn’t elect? Why can’t we have a parliament too?

English self-assertion is the most intimate of all imaginable threats to the ‘Ukanian’ power structure. So the Britishness campaign, or campaigns, sprang up in rebuttal, proposing that Britain is a nation, like Holland or Hungary, which possesses some essential cultural identity and ‘typical values’. This is and has always been bad history. Seven years ago, the BBC History Department made an ass of itself by naming its millennium TV series A Thousand Years of British History (suggestions that a more accurate title would be ‘A Thousand Years of English Expansion’ were coldly received). ‘Britishness,’ Linda Colley has written, ‘was superimposed over an array of internal differences’ in response to contact (and conflict) with the other – i.e. with Catholic and then republican France. In other words, Britishness can exist when the nations of the UK face a common external threat or challenge: in war, in the armed forces, in the East India Company or the Indian Civil Service, in a British embassy abroad, and so on. But do these challenges have to be external? Could a moment of Britishness be sparked by something domestic – like an irresistible cry for social justice?

Many years ago, when Brown was new in government and trying to give some body to vapid New Labour slogans about unity, he began to talk about objects of patriotism, and proposed that the National Health Service should be such an object. It was a common achievement, he implied, a great moral reform done in the name of fairness and justice, and all the inhabitants of the United Kingdom should be proud of it and ready to defend it. (I’m glad he didn’t say ‘die for it’.) This remains to me the most impressive thought Brown has put forward since he edited the Red Paper on Scotland in 1975. It’s impressive because what it implies is utterly subversive. Patriotism gathered round an institution of reform created in the name of the people is a republican concept, not an Ancient British one. And that leads to an even more shocking thought. Is it possible that the only way to muster a united New Britain is around a programme of interventionist state socialism?

Since then, Brown on Britishness has followed a more conventional path. In a Daily Telegraph interview at the beginning of the year (in which he praised the patriotism of Mrs Thatcher and Winston Churchill, but of nobody in his own party), he defined British virtue thus: ‘Most nations subscribe to universal values like freedom, but it is how these values come together – in Britain’s case, in liberty married to social responsibility and to a belief in what Churchill called “fair play” – and then are mediated through our institutions and our history, that defines the character of the country.’

Attractive, but there isn’t anything solid there to build a patriotism on. Jack Straw’s most recent version of British values in what he glibly calls ‘a nation of nations’ runs like this: ‘the core democratic values of freedom, fairness, tolerance and plurality that define what it means to be British’. Don’t they also define what it means to be Norwegian? Alan Johnson, as education secretary, has a try: ‘free speech, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, which are not exclusively British [values]’. Or Slovenian, or Irish, or Australian? He was commenting on the Ajegbo report which suggested compulsory lessons for 11 to 16-year-olds on British values, emphasising respect for other cultures and tolerance of religious difference, and discussing freedom and justice. ‘This proposal is less Elizabeth I and Winston Churchill than Barney the Dinosaur meets the Commission for Racial Equality,’ the Times snorted. ‘Whatever Britishness may be, it is surely not the mush that is now being proposed.’

All that one can say is that the mush spoken about Britishness matches the mush thought about Britishness by the inhabitants of this archipelago. In the British Social Attitudes survey, researchers found their sample baffled by the invitation to define British values. They had no idea what these might be. Pressed to rate institutions by their importance to British identity, most of them thought the monarchy and trial by jury were ‘really important’, but they didn’t think that free speech mattered very much and were not impressed by the way government worked. Nobody, and certainly none of the politicians, counted ‘equality’ in their list of British values. ‘Plurality’ is on sale, and ‘fair play’. But not the equality that mattered so much to English radicals in the 17th century, and to the British labour movement in the 20th.

So where do these so-called British values come from – whose are they? Reviewing Peter Mandler’s The English National Character in the Observer, Rafael Behr wrote:

The Victorians were a bit snooty about European nationalism (which reeked of peasants, pitchforks and revolutionaries in grubby breeches). They didn’t want to be just a nation, so they promoted themselves to the status of ‘civilisation’ . . . As a consequence of this canny national rebranding, many of the characteristics people think of as primordially ‘British’ are actually Victorian: austere, eccentric, industrious, beloved of fair play, liking a good pageant, respectful of the monarch, obsessed with decency and propriety, redoubtable, stoical, in possession of a stiff upper lip.

‘There is a propriety to British [sic] nationalism that betrays its Victorian origins: austerity, industriousness, respect, stoicism, fortitude, fairness, regularity, decency,’ Adam Nicolson wrote a month later in the Telegraph, ‘there is nothing particularly British about them. They are the virtues of a Victorian middle class.’

If these bourgeois values attach to a class and a period, did they also belong to other classes? We can be certain now that they were widely shared, at least as aspirations. But the Victorian banker in his comfortable family villa in Otley or Bridge of Weir would probably have denied that, regarding the lower orders as improvident, unreliable and inclined to expect something for nothing. And if these so-called British values are no more than the values of one social class in one particular epoch, how can they be called ‘national’? Or was the Victorian bourgeoisie a nation in itself, a small but homogeneous social group sprinkled across a Ukanian territory whose other inhabitants were culturally diverse? Or, to put it another way, is there such a thing as Homo Britannicus?

The palaeontologist Chris Stringer has just written a book entitled Homo Britannicus. In it he writes not about recent history, but about the repeated failure of human groups to establish a permanent settlement in what was to become the British Isles until the end of the Younger Dryas glaciation, some 11,500 years ago. But he is, allegorically, showing that being British has been a discontinuous business with no manifest destiny about it.

From a political point of view, to be recognised as Danish or Welsh or British requires evidence of some bond with a place identified as ‘home’. From a cultural point of view, it requires the existence of a bundle of attributes which are perceived to be shared – in varying proportions – by members of this community. Some of these attributes may be external and material – tribal costume, hunting equipment. Others will be to do with language, with dietary preferences and taboos, and with techniques of social interaction and courtship. Entry to such a group is said to depend mostly on birth and lineage. But in practice the group maintains its vigour by a continuous process of fosterage and the acculturation of outsiders.

I am talking about the British gentleman. In the course of the 19th century, and through the socially transforming engines of public schools, a ruling elite with a common culture was created. Originally modelled on the mores and kit of the English landowning aristocracy, it came to be carried on mainly by the children of the new industrial and financial middle class, but with time the cultural identity of this group transcended local particularity.

Until very recently, whether you were rambling at Land’s End or John O’Groats, you would probably have been halted by the most threatening tribal challenge in the English language: ‘Can I help you?’ The landowning figure might have been called MacGregor, Griffiths, Penhaligon or Smith and his grandfather might well have spoken with a Gaelic, Yorkshire or Heads of the Valleys accent, but he would speak in precisely the same public-school tones whether he lived in Caithness or Cornwall. His clothes, his taste in food, the way he carried his gun and addressed his dogs, his wife’s hairstyle, the newspaper he read were all non-local, part of the culture of a universal class in which Scottishness or Irishness, backgrounds in land or trade, were transcended in a higher Hegelian synthesis: the global empire of countless races, languages and customs which he or his relations would serve as officers or governors. No wonder the question that made a true gent despise you was ‘Where are you from?’ A universal gent did not come from anywhere. He might have a town house and a country house, but he didn’t come from London or the local market town. He just was.

What can we call this gentleman culture other than ‘British’? Most multinational empires evolve something comparable. In the seventy years of the Soviet Union’s existence, Homo Sovieticus appeared and multiplied; men and women of European, Caucasian, Turkic or Mongolian appearance sat in the same offices from the Baltic to the Pacific, under portraits of the same autocrat, sipping standard glasses of tea, smoking the same cigarettes, lifting identical black telephones to say ‘Nyet!’ in the same dead tone. They too had transcended ethnic and familial differences in the universality of a great empire. But Homo Sovieticus was generally despised as a moronic automaton, while Homo Britannicus is remembered for reasonably fair dealing and unpredictable moods of leniency. Is he extinct? No, but at a time when Eton boys have begun to speak with the regional accent of South-East England he is endangered and has long ceased to be the power-bearing caste. And with the retreat of Homo Britannicus, the last living proof that Britishness was for a time not just a citizenship but a distinct, tangible culture dissolves.

I have been describing a country, a multinational state, in which the richest and most powerful section of the population has grown discontented with its relationship to the other nations. Those other nations, meanwhile, press for more autonomy and a larger share of state wealth. But in spite of some startling opinion polls, it’s still pretty unlikely that the component nations would actually vote for the break-up of the state in a referendum.

The story of the ‘Velvet Divorce’ between the Czechs and the Slovaks suggests that we may be looking at the possibility of a Scottish secession from quite the wrong angle. (Czechoslovakia: The Short Goodbye by Abby Innes, published in 2001, is a masterly account of those events.) When Londoners think about Scottish independence, they probably imagine half a million Bravehearts standing in Princes Street roaring: ‘Freedom!’ That’s improbable. Independence can happen by push as well as pull; it can be reached by backwards slither as well as by forward onrush. Much more likely, a series of disputes between Westminster and Holyrood about money and reserved powers will seize up the weak and ill-maintained machinery of devolution. Then the London negotiators may lose patience and tell the Scots to go off and have their own state – by that stage, the simplest solution. That’s a fatalistic scenario: institutional defects working out their own logic. But what about agency? What if some politician in the South decided that he or she had an interest in making that machinery seize up?

The background to the Czechoslovak split was both institutional and political. After the collapse of Communism in 1989, Slovak nationalism had revived, but mainly to demand greater autonomy rather than full independence. Meanwhile, the public in both nations felt sceptical about the existing federal structures, redesigned in the 1968 constitution after the Warsaw Pact invasion. But the motive power for the split – the agency – was provided by the Czech politician Václav Klaus.

An ambitious and crafty neoliberal, Klaus concluded that Slovak needs and demands would always obstruct his own plans in a federal Czechoslovakia. In an independent Czech state, on the other hand, he would be relatively unhindered. The difficulty was that neither the Czech nor the Slovak public wanted the federation to break up. Instead, discontented with the present structure, they looked forward to a better one.

What Klaus achieved, in the years leading to the final breach in late 1992, was to raise – and to provoke – a series of unacceptable proposals from either side that would end in a separation apparently caused by Slovak nationalist intransigence. In this dance, his tango partner was the Slovak politician Vladimir Meciar, who did not originally demand Slovakian independence but fell into almost all the traps Klaus set for him. ‘It was as if Meciar pounded on Klaus’s door without really wanting to knock it down; to Meciar’s surprise, Klaus opened the door and Meciar fell in,’ the American journalist and historian Theodore Draper wrote. As Abby Innes remarks, ‘it was the Czech and not the Slovak will to separation that proved implacable.’ Both sides declared that negotiations on a new federal or confederal relationship had failed, and that independence was the only conclusion. Both sides, quite scandalously, refused to hold referendums on the issue because they knew they would lose them. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist on 1 January 1993.

The old Klaus/Meciar script can be rerun with a new cast in the British present – most of the scenery has already been delivered to the theatre. First, politicians and journalists with an agenda have tried to create a general Scotophobia. Directly, they have failed, but they have encouraged English ethnic awareness and drawn English attention to the defects of the Union as expressed in the devolution settlement. For the purposes of the phobia-mongers, that can count as success. Second, there is now discontent with the 1997 settlement on both sides of the Border; the Union itself is no longer perceived in England as an indispensable pillar of parliamentary democracy. Third, the notion of ‘Britain’ is weakening as identity politics – already embedded in Scotland and Wales – take root in England. ‘Britishness’, as the common culture of a group of human beings providing social and political leadership, has ceased to be tangible since the gentleman class abdicated. Victorian bourgeois ethics repackaged as ‘British values’ are too vapid to be a substitute.

So far, the resemblances between us and 1990s Czechoslovakia are striking. But now comes the most delicate question. Does England have a Klaus? Is he already leading a party? In the words of the late Ian Richardson, ‘You might think so, but I couldn’t possibly comment.’ It must be plain, however, that almost all the preconditions for what Klaus did, with the stumbling assistance of Meciar, are now being rolled out in the United Kingdom. When mutually hostile parties govern in London and Edinburgh, as they certainly will within a few years or possibly months, the stage will be set. All it will then lack is an actor, a politician ruthless enough to divide in order to rule.