Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Empires and Dance

Doctor Who returned to our screens at the weekend with a Glaswegian accent, questions of identity and a variety of strategies for living together: secret marriage, non-boyfriend and parasitical robots to the fore. This made it a more fruitful commentary on Scottish independence than the televised debates between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling. This is not a cheap crack at the politicians, but an acknowledgement that the focus on practicalities, such as the pound and the BBC, is largely irrelevant until after (and if) a yes vote puts negotiating chips on the table. To repurpose a popular metaphor, you don't discuss the theoretical division of the CD collection before deciding on divorce.

Scots themselves have been self-congratulatory at the high-minded and reasonable tone of the debate so far, emphasising the absence (for the most part) of anglophobia and Braveheartery, and the aspiration for Scotland to "punch above its weight" internationally. Of course, this decorum is ideological, promoting the myth of a country that is uniformly social democratic and tolerant (anti-Tory, not anti-English), while open to global capital (pro-EU and willing to cut corporation tax). This is progressive cant that ignores the conservative nature of Scottish politics (the SNP remain at heart Tartan Tories) and the residual bigotry beneath the veneer of post-Thatcher modernity.

The focus on the pragmatic over the emotional is not merely a tactic; it reveals a fundamental truth about the way that the Scots view the union, which in turn does much to explain English indifference. The Act of Union of 1707 was a deal brokered between English and Scottish elites long before the birth of ideas such as a "national interest". The English elites' motives were a mix of regime security (extinguishing the Stuart threat) and a desire to absorb an economic competitor. Compensation for the Scottish investors in the Darien scheme secured votes in the Scottish Parliament for union, but it also secured agreement that Scottish trade and finance would be subservient to the City of London. The Scottish elites' motives were not merely to avoid bankruptcy in the face of English competition, but to import the Protestant Whig gains of 1688 while retaining their own legal and ecclesiastical authority (together with the removal of aristocrats to London, this would help produce the Scottish Enlightenment).

The Scots did not integrate into a Greater England after 1707, but nor did they immediately become British. The idea of "Britain" was originally developed as a state identity (the supposed legacy of King Arthur) to justify English territorial expansion and ethnic cleansing in Ireland during the Elizabethan era. It would be reinvented during the creation of the "second empire" (after the loss of the American colonies in 1783) as a portmanteau that could accommodate multiple political and cultural identities, both real and imagined (e.g. Walter Scott). This neutralised the political threat of romantic nationalism and provided the means by which the ambitious Scottish landowning and commercial classes could access the single market of the empire on equal terms with the English, while retaining a nominal national identity that in turn smoothed over the reality of the cultural and religious divisions of Scotland.

As these dominant classes became more anglicised in the nineteenth century, the "North British" identity began to evaporate. British increasingly became a synonym for English while Scottish was increasingly reserved for backward (often sentimentalised) rural and proletarian habits, much as "Northern" was in industrial Britain. By the twentieth century, this also reflected the growing belief among English elites that Scotland (and the periphery more generally) was of dwindling value, as its traditional economic resources (coal, shipyards and manpower for empire) declined. The gradual concession of devolution after 1974 and contemporary insouciance about the end of union are corollaries of the globalised turn of the City of London since the 1960s (the current Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf, is a Scot: "I am quite often extolling the virtues of the global experience that we have, because the UK is a small domestic market and is something of a trampoline for bouncing out all over the rest of the world").

In 2005, the Scottish academics Iain McClean and Alistair McMillan noted that: "Primordial Unionism (the belief that the union is good in and for itself) now survives only in Northern Ireland. Instrumental Unionism supported the Union as a means to other ends, such as the Empire and the Welfare State; but the first is gone and the second is now evolving differently in the four territories of the UK. Representation and finance are the unsolved, and arguably insoluble problems of the post-1997 devolution settlement".

British identity reached its apogee in the post-WW2 era due to three developments. First, the welfare state required a common identification - now eulogised as the "spirit of '45" - to underpin collective provision (significantly this British identity excluded Northern Ireland, where much welfare, such as council housing, remained sectarian). This meant that the NHS and the BBC became more British than the monarchy in the eyes of many progressives. Second, "British" increasingly became the self-identifier of immigrants and their descendants (thus London is the most British region of England), and was thereby hitched to the idea of multiculturalism from the 60s onwards (the NF and BNP's focus on British as a contested identity - "there ain't no black in the Union Jack" - ironically helped this). Third, it also correlated with socio-economic status, with the professional and executive classes more likely to both identify as British and be pro-EU from the 80s onwards (and to consequently consider English identity, outside sport, as reactionary).

The decline of British identity and its substitution by a "modern" national identity is presented in Scotland as progressive (and has been since Tom Nairn's 1977 The Break-Up of Britain), but its agenda is fundamentally conservative. As the historian Tom Devine sees it, "The Scottish parliament has demonstrated competent government and it represents a Scottish people who are wedded to a social democratic agenda and the kind of political values which sustained and were embedded in the welfare state of the late 1940s and 1950s. ... It is the Scots who have succeeded most in preserving the British idea of fairness and compassion in terms of state support and intervention. Ironically, it is England, since the 1980s, which has embarked on a separate journey." As Gerry Hassan noted in response, "The case that the welfare state of the 1940s and 1950s is the pinnacle of human ingenuity and the best we can do is profoundly pessimistic".

England's "separate journey" has seen the political right increasingly associate the word British with "failed" multiculturalism, the nanny state, metropolitan elites, and a belief that the Scots and other peripheral nations are getting more than their fair share of public expenditure. Though there is clearly a background hum of xenophobia, this indicates that English nationalism remains instrumental rather than primordial, i.e. concerned with the economic and social interests of particular classes (small capitalists more than workers) rather than a culturally homogeneous community. The ambivalence over the flag of St George is as much about "vulgar jingoism" as racism.

As postwar British identity had been insubstantial beyond the welfare state, public corporations and archaic relics likes the monarchy, the "national revival" of Thatcher found itself resorting by default to the forms of empire, where British practice actually meant something. Thus local government was eroded by central diktat, public assets were transferred into private hands, and recalcitrant communities were ostracised. From "partner in empire" Scotland had become a subaltern. This neocolonial treatment, most famously in the form of the Poll Tax, convinced many Scots that England wanted out of the marriage as much as they did. The resulting migration of votes from the Conservative Party to the SNP was entirely pragmatic.

New Labour failed to reboot the welfare state as a common endeavour and instead approached it as a managerialist challenge (internal markets, targets, PFI etc). Lacking this original buttress, and with no interest in imperial remnants like the Commonwealth, it preferred to redefine the identity of Britain as a "young country" and a "global player", from The City to Iraq. From the concrete invention of tradition (tartan), we had moved to the performative aspiration of neoliberalism (Cool Britannia). The modest nature of New Labour's commitment to devolution, and the modest achievements of the resulting assemblies, is testament to the instrumental attitude that continues to prevail on both sides of the border. This means that the union is a dead letter, whatever the result in September. Indeed, the quicker the social infrastructure of Britain is fragmented through privatisation and austerity, the quicker the break-up of Britain (to use Tom Nairn's phrase) will occur. Devo-max is not an end point but just another turn in the dance. The music will only stop when Scottish MPs quit Westminster for good.

The driving force behind this is the political dominance of the City of London, which has always regarded the hinterland of Britain as it would come to regard empire, in terms of either its potential for economic exploitation or the threat it posed to the security of existing commerce (consider the foundation of Londonderry). Geography made London a major entrepot and trading nexus, but it was mercantilism that turned Elizabethan "Britain" into the British Empire. Through the Sterling area, empire bequeathed an outsized financial centre with minimal scruples and an allegiance to a narrow interest rather than a national community. This turned out to be the ideal profile to exploit the opportunities of modern finance, from unregulated trading though privatisation to tax avoidance. For a variety of political and personal reasons, David Cameron is not the Tory Prime Minister who wants to oversee the end of the union, but Boris Johnson may well be.

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