The Scots And The English: Some Guilty Thoughts

Battle of Bannockburn - Robert the Bruce reviewing his troops

Josh Marshall is bug-eyed at the possibility that the union of England and Scotland may soon end. The Sunday Times poll last weekend gave the markets the willies, and prompted what looked to me like a panicky bunch of last-minute concessions from London. My old chum Boris Johnson had a very Boris defense of Britain and “British” as core identities for a multicultural country in the Telegraph yesterday. Money quote:

The entity under mortal threat next week is Britain itself. You cannot refer to a state called “Britain” unless you include Scotland, because it is a basic fact of geography that Britain comprises everything from Land’s End to John o’Groats.

Look at the map – so often rendered by cartoonists from the 18th century onwards as Britannia sitting down: rump in east Anglia, feet in Cornwall, and topped off with that sweeping Scottish cerebrum and helmet. Chop it off – decapitate Britain at Carlisle and you can no longer call it Britain; and what goes for geography must go for politics, too. Take Scotland away from England and you are losing a critical part of our political nomenclature. There was no British government before the union with Scotland; there was no British electorate; there were no British interests. There was England and Wales, and there was Scotland. Take away Scotland, and we destroy Britain.

He’s not wrong – and part of the alchemy of Britain has always been the mixture of the shire and the highlands, the Angles and the Celts. Blair and Brown were both Scots. BoJo notes that the great Englishman, Samuel Johnson, needed his Scottish side-kick, James Boswell, to be fully who he is in our collective civilization. That’s the kind of national chemistry that independence might destroy. And it was a Scot, “Queen” James I, who cemented England’s religious settlement for a while after the death of Elizabeth I.

And yet … I have to say, I find myself a little emotionally indifferent, even as I am rationally persuaded by the argument that an independent Scotland with the pound as its currency could be headed for Greece-like status. And it’s that conflict between emotion and reason that will Nicola Sturgeon Continues Health Campaigndetermine the result. Maybe it helps Americans to understand those emotions if I examine my own. So why the indifference?

For one thing, Scotland is not like, say, California. It’s an ancient nation, and, unlike England, was never pacified by the Romans. It’s a prickly country, bristling often at England, its exports to London often having more than a bit of a chip on their shoulders. More to the point, it gets to have its own parliament and yet also have a full presence in the London parliament – an arrangement not accorded to the English. It’s politically well to the left of middle England, and is a big net beneficiary of British Treasury. After a while, if you’re English, and right-of-center, and taxed to the hilt, endlessly subsidizing the Scots in return for their thinly veiled disdain, you get a bit irritated. Deep, deep down in my Sussex soul, there’s a “fuck ’em” urging to come out, even as my own Irish ancestry gives me some emotional accord with the Scots.

And since “Britain” is at stake, why should one small part of it be the only part that has a say? What do the English think about Scottish independence? Or the Welsh? Or the Northern Irish? Why shouldn’t they be a part of the deliberation? I guess it says a huge thing about British democracy, decency and fairness that Scotland is being allowed this no-fault divorce option (one only has to look at Ukraine to see the alternative) – but it also says a lot about the way Scotland often wants to eat its cake and have it too.

“Britain” as an entity, moreover, is indistinguishable from empire. From 1707 on, the Scots played an outsize role in creating and sustaining that empire across the world – and I can understand why a thoroughly post-imperial country doesn’t quite have the collective martial spirit to keep it all together any more. A long while back, I saw this coming. Back in 1999, I wrote, after re-visiting my homeland, that:

As the century ends, it is possible, I think, to talk about the abolition of Britain without the risk of hyperbole.

The United Kingdom’s cultural and social identity has been altered beyond any recent prediction. Its very geographical boundaries are being redrawn … To begin with, Blair is proposing what amounts to the end of the unitary government of the United Kingdom. Scotland’s new Parliament will be elected in May, a symbol of self-government not known since the 16th century. In the referendum that sanctioned it, 74 percent of Scots voted in favor. More significant, a full 64 percent supported the notion that such a Parliament should have tax-raising powers, essentially replacing Westminster.

Blair has allowed the Scottish Parliament the leeway to lower or raise the British rate of income tax by only 3 percentage points. But the direction is clear enough. Blair clearly believed that by devolving some power to Scotland he would defuse the independence movement. Instead, the opposite could happen. The latest polls suggest that in the new Edinburgh Parliament the largest single party may well be the Scottish Nationalists, who see the new Parliament as a way station to full independence. Of the dozens of conversations I had in London about the future of the United Kingdom, literally no one I spoke with believed that Scotland would be a part of Britain in 10 years’ time…

What Blair has ushered in, in other words, may well turn out to be a return to a political Constitution last seen in the late Middle Ages: an English state with an almost independent European metropolis on the Thames, a feisty neighbor to its north and a half-heartedly controlled province to its west.

You end the empire, you unravel – through a new cosmopolitanism – the cultural power of Britishness, you see London emerging as essentially a separate country as well, and you devolve power more and more to Scotland … and, well, you can see why we are where we are. The logic of recent history – and ancient history – points solidly to an amicable divorce. This is not some sudden, unforeseen act of madness. It is the result of history and culture and economics.

And then there’s English nationalism as well. By far the most striking new development I saw in Britain at the turn of the century was the adoption of the English flag over the Union Jack:

When I left for America, the clear, simple symbol of England was the Union Jack. It is now increasingly the bare emblem of St. George: a red cross on a white background. You see it in soccer stadiums and emblazoned into the skulls of East End skinheads. In 1995, the biggest greeting-card distributor introduced a card to celebrate St. George’s Day on April 23. Within two years, as the journalist Jeremy Paxman pointed out, the number of cards sold had grown to 50,000.

And when I hoisted a flag on my cottage in Ptown during last year’s Olympics, it was the English flag, and not the British one, that I flew. For it is England I truly love. Scotland? Best of luck to them.

(Painting: Battle of Bannockburn – Robert the Bruce reviewing his troops before battle, 24 June 1314. Significant Scottish victory in the Wars of Scottish Independence and  the decisive battle in  First War of Scottish Independence. By Culture Club/Getty Images; Photo: Danny Barbieri, 4-years old, dressed in a Superman superhero outfit, holds aloft a Pro-Scottish independence ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign sign, as he and other supporters await the start of a press event in Glasgow, Scotland on September 8, 2014. By Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)