The Rise of English Nationalism and the Balkanization of Britain

The Rise of English Nationalism and the Balkanization of Britain

Mini Teaser: What if not just the institutions but the allegiances and even the identity of Britain were fundamentally to alter? Until quite recently such a hypothesis would have seemed risible. But suddenly it is not.

by Author(s): Robin Harris

The BBC's most irritating interviewer and sometime social
commentator, Jeremy Paxman, is the most recent contributor to the
debate on Englishness. In his book, The English: A Portrait of a
People (1998), Paxman debunks most of what the British (or indeed
English) once thought made them distinctive. But he argues that "the
most vital sense of national identity is the individual awareness of
the country of the mind", and concludes optimistically that,

"The new [English] nationalism is less likely to be based on flags
and anthems. It [will be] modest, individualistic, ironic,
solipsistic, concerned as much with cities and regions as with
counties and countries . . . based on values that are so deeply
embedded in the culture as to be almost unconscious."

Such ambiguities find no favor with the distinguished polemicist of
cultural conservatism, Peregrine Worsthorne, who takes an apocalyptic
view of what the national future holds. He predicts:

"The break-up of the United Kingdom will give the best and the
brightest of the English the decisive push which will take them off
the fence in favour of the European Union, not because they love
England so little but because they love England so much. For a
nationalistic Little England will be a travesty of Britain's former
self, with all its vices bloated and all its virtues shrunken."

Worsthorne's laments at the vulgar, brutish nature of English
nationalism reflect the fact that serious political movements require
leaders, not just a stock of raw passion. Where might such leadership
be found?

No Gratitude for Labour

Not, of course, in the Labour Party, which is ever more painfully
impaled on its Scottish policy. Labour has, after all, long depended
upon its strength in Scotland in order to be a viable British party
of government. Some of the government's most senior--and, not
coincidentally in English eyes, least popular--members are Scotsmen,
including Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer; Robin Cook,
the foreign secretary; and Lord Irvine, the lord chancellor. Labour
initially imagined that its promise of a Scottish parliament would
win it the lasting gratitude of the Scots. But it has not done so. A
number of opinion polls have shown the Scottish National Party (SNP)
in the lead and even suggested majority support for its radical
program of Scottish "Independence in Europe."

Scottish voters have turned against Labour since the general election
for a variety of reasons, the desire to punish Scottish Labour Party
corruption and misbehavior being among them. But essentially they
have done so because they have turned against the English--and
"English" is what Labour in power in Westminster now seems.

It is difficult to overstate the shift in Scottish attitudes, which
have rapidly developed from resentment into something approaching
hatred for everything and almost everyone from England. An opinion
poll published by the Sunday Times in June showed that

"4 in 10 [Scots interviewed] believe anti-English sentiment is
increasing north of the border, [that] most regard themselves as
Scottish rather than British, [that they] believe independence is an
inevitability and feel they will be better off economically in an
independent Scotland--at which point a third believe they should
break their links with the Queen."

Among Scottish schoolchildren 45 percent felt a little--and 30
percent a lot of--antipathy toward the English, whom they considered
"arrogant, ill-mannered, aggressive and untrustworthy." The Scottish
editor-in-chief of The European and The Scotsman, Andrew Neil, has
also recorded--and condemned--the phenomenon: "Children with English
accents are bullied in the play-ground (one teen-ager was recently
murdered for the 'crime' of being English). . . . The English have
every right to be mystified by this outpouring of denigration and

Mr. Blair too may be forgiven for being mystified. His problem is
that, though he was born and went to school in Scotland, the Scots
have detected in him a leader as English as their traditional bête
noire, Margaret Thatcher. The prime minister's attempts to lead the
Labour Party's fight-back against the SNP have exposed him to a
deluge of bile from the Scottish press. His claim that he would draw
support from a "Middle [i.e., middle-class] Scotland", as he had from
"Middle England", was subject to particularly waspish criticism, for
even the Scottish middle classes now think that they have nothing in
common with their English equivalents. That poses New Labour an
insurmountable problem: it can neither satisfy the obstreperous
Scots, nor reassure the English who resent their manners.

The Liberal Party, relatively strong in Scotland and priding itself
on its commitment to devolved government, is equally incapable of
articulating English national sentiments. Which leaves the
Conservatives. Shell-shocked by the worst defeat in their history,
enmeshed in complicated structural party reform, led by an unpopular
and still insecure leader, the Conservative Party was initially
reluctant to embark on any such controversial strategy as trying to
exploit English national exasperation. But Tory toes are now being
tentatively dipped into these troubled waters.

The occasion is the need to resolve an abstruse but fundamental
constitutional issue long associated with Scottish devolution. This,
the so-called "Midlothian Question" (so named after the constituency
of the Scottish Labour mp who first expounded it), relates to the
fact that after the institution of a Scottish parliament to handle
most of Scotland's domestic policies, Scottish Westminster MPS will
be in the absurd position of voting on English education, local
government, and housing, but not on Scotland's. To add insult to
injury, English MPS may then be outvoted on matters that concern
England because of Scottish votes.

One response to this would be for English MPS to meet and vote
separately on English matters. But some leading Conservatives want to
go further and have begun to argue the case for a new institution, an
"English parliament." The new Tory leader, William Hague, is
attracted by the politics of this option and in his speech to the
Conservative Party Conference in October signaled the fact. Hague
emphasized that the Conservatives would not "become an English
Nationalist Party." But he went on to say:

We are going to see that the voters of England are fairly
represented. . . . For the first time we will have to become the
advocates of major constitutional change. It may be a change in the
voting rights of Scottish MPS, it may be an English Parliament in
some form.

Of course, the Conservative Party would not be true to its current
reputation if it were not split on the issue. Those most fearful of
European federalism believe that a separatist England would be more
vulnerable to the European project of turning the country into a
glorified Euro-region. For their part, some expatriate Scottish
Tories now representing English seats at Westminster fear that such
talk might amount to giving up on the Union altogether. The two most
influential right-of-center English newspapers are also fiercely
opposed to the whole project, as they showed in their October 9
reaction to the Tory leader's speech. The Times commented, "[Mr.
Hague] should have scotched [sic] more firmly any question of a Tory
flirtation with English nationalism. . . . An English parliament is
not compatible with the stability of the United Kingdom." The Daily
Telegraph sourly condemned the notion of an English parliament as an
"anti-Union concept."

Riding the Tiger

Of course, the great difference between Conservative politicians and
Conservative newspaper editors is that only the former have to get
elected. If there are votes in English nationalism, the Tories will
surely find a way to reconcile it with their traditional
constitutionalism. It is naive to expect otherwise. But for the
country as a whole there are also drawbacks.

The first is obvious: the more explicitly English grievances are
stated and English interests declared paramount, the more opportunity
the Scottish nationalists will have to fuel separatist passions,
bringing the break-up of the UK nearer. That would not always have
been so. There was a time--ideally in the 1970s--when some straight
talking by English politicians might have done wonders in providing a
cold douche for tartan zealots. The case could have been put in the
starkest terms: "Either accept your [Scottish] responsibilities
within a unitary British state, along with all the benefits, or face
up to the cost of outright independence. No middle way exists."

Even in the 1980s the stratagem might have been attempted with some
hope of success. The Conservative government had, after all, a clear
rationale for opposition to devolved government. Margaret Thatcher
held that true devolution consists everywhere--not just in
Scotland--of returning power to individuals, not creating new
political and bureaucratic structures. It might thus have been
possible to put the case both for unitarism and for capitalism in
clear terms north of the border. But, by and large, it was not done.
In Scotland Conservative ministers took public pride in their ability
to keep government spending high and state intervention intrusive.
What chance, then, of persuading Scots today that low spending and
low taxes work? In John Major's time, Scottish ministers desperately
toyed with Scottish symbolism (returning the Stone of Scone to
Scotland) and further institutional devolution. But it was already
too late. The illusions had become too deep-rooted, the subsidies too
habitual, the blaming of England for everything too automatic.

Essay Types: Essay