North and South

Linda Colley on the break-up of Britain

The uneven rise of Scottish nationalism is deeply interesting: but not because it is hard to explain, or because it is the only domestic fracture that matters. It has long been accepted that neither the Union of Crowns of 1603, which saw the Scottish King James VI move south to London, nor the Treaty of Union of 1707 served to cancel out Scottish distinctiveness. In educational, ecclesiastical, intellectual and legal terms, and not only those, Scotland has always retained significant differences. Moreover, Great Britain (and still more the UK) never sought to operate as a determinedly assimilationist nation state in the way post-Revolutionary France often tried to do. This does not mean the UK can be regarded merely as a multinational state, or (pace some post-colonialist commentators) as an English-constructed empire.

Instead, the UK has most closely resembled what the Columbia political scientist Alfred Stepan styles a ‘state-nation’. Like many other state-nations – Spain, for example, Germany or indeed India – it is a composite of countries that were once separately ruled and that remain characterised by important differences and levels of autonomy. In order to function and to cohere, state-nations have to operate on two levels. On the one hand, their rulers and publicists need to nurture and sustain a sense of belonging with respect to the wider political community, while, on the other, accepting and providing protection for politically salient diversities in matters of language, religion, ethnicity, sacrosanct cultural and legal norms, or distinct territorial enclaves. It follows that the revival of separatism north of the border should be seen as more than a result of changes within Scotland itself. Rising Scottish nationalism has also been a function of a more widespread weakening in the sense of UK belonging.

Some of the reasons for this weakening are well known. Post-1945, a previously strong though never unanimous sense of British imperial and Protestant destiny faded; the UK became more culturally diverse; and economic and associational connections between Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland formerly sustained by common participation in trade unions and nationalised industries were substantially dismantled. Then there has been globalisation, with its challenge to cultural as well as economic distinctiveness. Take the fate of HP sauce. This was invented in Nottingham in the 1890s, named in honour of the Houses of Parliament, and once produced in massive quantities in a celebrated factory (since demolished) in Birmingham. Now, bottles of HP sauce are manufactured in Holland by Heinz. The Palace of Westminster still features on the label but, since the revival of the Scottish Parliament in 1998, this building no longer houses the only legislature in Britain.

Westminster’s altered position in the wake of devolution has contributed to something even more significant: the reduced force of a once powerful British ‘constitutive story’ that stressed the polity’s superior constitutional liberties and efficacy. As all such narratives tend to do, this constitutive story functioned to tell people who they were, not simply to offer a version of the past; and it was propagated by such major figures as De Lolme, Blackstone, Hallam, Macaulay, Stubbs, Maitland and Dicey, and by multitudes of lesser authors such as David Lindsay Keir, the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. Keir’s workmanlike Constitutional History of Modern Britain since 1485 went through nine editions between 1938 and 1969, and was both a celebration of how government in the UK was ‘conducted by … men sharing a common political tradition’, and an affirmation of the way ‘institutions the world over … testify to the resilience and continuity of the British tradition.’ It is easy now to forget how pervasive constitutional histories of this sort once were in UK schools, universities and private libraries. It is also easy to overlook what they achieved. Indisputably patriotic scripture, they nonetheless offered readers some instruction in the way their central government had evolved over time, and in how it was supposed to work. To that extent, these works functioned as a (limited) substitute for a written constitution. Now, such stories are rarely taught or read; but there is still no written UK constitution.

A constitutive story, argues Rogers Smith, another American political scientist, is a narrative that recounts the key historical events that formed a community and describes the ‘priceless’ character traits that community members have evolved as a result. When a state ceases to be able to direct or foster its own constitutive stories, he suggests, understandings of historical memory tend to become more localised. This is what has happened in the UK. One of the accompaniments of rising nationalism in Scotland has been a spectacular explosion of Scottish historical writing, much of it scholarly, some of it selective and imaginary. Either way, Scots are fast making their own constitutive story.

All this should seem familiar stuff to historians, since it is almost a cliché that nationalist movements characteristically seek to appropriate and rewrite the past. But present-day historians tend to be sniffy about nations and nationalism. Many now prefer to dwell on the fragmentary and the local, and on the permeability of national allegiances; or, conversely, they opt for the transnational or the global past as subjects. Current Scottish nationalism is a useful reminder of how potent and inventive nationalism continues to be.

Yet in regard to the current state of the UK, as with much else, those who stress the importance of the local, on the one hand, and the global, on the other, have a point. It is arguable for instance that the differences between the northern and southern sections of the island of Great Britain – imagining a line drawn roughly between Grimsby on the east coast and Gloucester to the west – have often been as important as the boundary between England and Scotland, or Wales and England. Class alignments and levels of urbanisation complicate this north-south divide, but it remains significant in terms of income, longevity, diet, cultural behaviour, politics and much more, and it has been persistent. In the late 15th century, English monarchs felt obliged to create a separate Council of the North, an arrangement that endured into the 17th century. In the late 18th century, Yorkshire and Lancashire were bastions of middle-class and working-class radicalism. The pattern of industrialisation served to publicise the divide, as suggested by Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South, published in 1855; while in the early 21st century, Conservative MPs have become a scarcely less endangered species in north-eastern England than they are in Scotland, and are under pressure too in the north-west.

Indeed, the fortunes of the last three prime ministers have been influenced by this north-south divide. It says something about the ambiguities of the Union that all three are of Scottish ancestry, as is the current Conservative pretender, Michael Gove. Gordon Brown was born in Scotland, went to university there and has represented only Scottish constituencies: and this unalloyed Scottishness undoubtedly worked against him in sectors of the English media and electorate. Conversely, although four generations of David Cameron’s paternal ancestors lived in Aberdeenshire, he was born in London and this, along with his time at Eton and Brasenose, and a safe seat in rural Oxfordshire, makes him appear not just English, but explicitly southern English, something that does him little good in Scotland, or with some in northern England. A friend at York University tells me that some of his local students would choose rule by Alex Salmond from Edinburgh over government by Cameron in London, and not just for party political reasons. By contrast, some of Tony Blair’s wide and protracted electoral success was surely due to his occupying a regional middle way. Born in Scotland, a student at Oxford, a pupil barrister at Lincoln’s Inn, he was also the MP for Sedgefield in the industrial north.

The regional fractures within the UK merit more attention and imaginative organisational expression. In the future, and whether the Union survives or not, there could usefully be an assembly or senate of the regions, with each designated region being allocated the same number of representatives. This is not a new idea. Before the First World War, Winston Churchill played with the idea of dividing England into seven regions as part of a wider federal reorganisation. But new modes of regional representation would not only benefit varieties of the English. The further north you travel in Scotland, the more likely you are to encounter local councillors who choose to define themselves as Independents, as distinct from SNP or Labour. To some in the Northern Isles, Edinburgh seems as alien as London.

Thinking more inventively in regional terms would also benefit Scottish and English universities, which at present are being dragged further apart by the different funding policies of Edinburgh and London – and by politics. Students in England and Wales will soon have to pay up to £9000 a year for a university education. But the Scottish government plans to make this increased fee apply only to English, Welsh and Northern Irish students coming to study in Scotland. Scottish students in Scotland – along with incoming students from all other EU countries – are to receive free university education. Under cover of a noble principle (free higher education as a right) a kind of nationalist academic apartheid is being constructed. In the future, students from England may well be less inclined to enter Scottish universities out of exasperation at having to pay fees from which Scots are exempt. Conversely, many Scots are likely to be put off from studying south of the border by the prospect of heavy fees there. Yet it would surely advance the transmission and the quality of knowledge on both sides of the border, as well as wider economic development, if the top universities in northern England and lowland Scotland were actually brought into closer synergy, assisted perhaps by some generous forced loans from the banks. That way, you might finally get a northern-based knowledge consortium that could compete with and balance the influence and clout of the so-called Golden Triangle in the south.

For if there is to be greater recognition of regional and national differences and autonomies, there will also need to be better provision – both in the UK and throughout Europe as a whole – for the multitudinous different communities and interests to come constructively and efficiently together. As it is, Europeans at present too often resemble the characters of Satyajit Ray’s wonderful film The Chess Players, in which various early 19th-century Indian nobles are shown persisting in their traditional cultural pastimes, bickering with one another and obsessively playing chess, while all around them the British are advancing and the world is inexorably changing.

Now, it is Europeans who often give the impression of wanting only to bicker with one another, play games and look obsessively within, while – outside their continent – all is yet again changing, and not in their favour. SNP zealots and manic English Eurosceptics can sound strangely alike. Once free of London, the former insist, the world will be our oyster; once free of Brussels, the latter claim, all options will again be available to us. Such dizzy and utterly unrealistic expectations are probably a leftover of the joint Scottish and English experience of global empire. But the world is not like that anymore.