I can understand why a lot of you who live in Scotland are cynical. You’ve been talking about independence since the ’70s, and about the referendum for more than 2 years. And suddenly, a couple of weeks before the referendum, in an apparent panic, people all over England start pleading you not to leave, sending politicians from Westminster on desperate missions of persuasion offering all kinds of promises. Where were they, you wonder?
The truth is, we’ve been blind to something you realized a long time ago – that the “country of countries” model [excellent primer for international readers here] that the United Kingdom operates on, no longer works. That it is impossible to simultaneously live within a country called Scotland and a country called the UK without having democratic imbalance and conflict between the two. And that for a quite a few years now, the balance has been very off, with Scotland having little say in which government rules the land or what policies affect your daily lives.
I hope in this post to help explain why we English have reacted the way we have, and I hope to convince you that now that we have entered into this public debate, and Westminster are finally listening, that you do not need to leave the UK to get the democratic representation you desperately need and deserve. I hope to convince you that it is the current structure and distribution of power within the UK that needs to change – not the make-up of the UK itself. I hope also to persuade other English readers why we should not resent Yes-inclined Scots for feeling the way they do, and that they are not against us, they just see a Yes as the only way to achieve democratic change.
I know I only realized just how broken the UK is, democratically speaking, in the last few days – after lengthy discussions with other Brits (both English and Scottish) on the reasons for independence and the impacts of a Yes vote both north and south of the border.
The way I see it now, the “country of countries” model only worked as long as the member nations were primarily British, and as long as we were all equal. But as soon as some powers began to be devolved to Scotland, an inevitable shifting of consciousness was set in motion for Scotland. As soon as Scotland was recognized as an independent entity that deserved its own Parliament, I suspect that the identities of those living there began to shift – being British began to mean less to your daily lives than being Scottish did. Slowly but surely, the public consciousness began to drift, talking more and more about Scottish matters, and what matters for Scotland, and less and less about Britain and your place in it. Am I right?
I suspect a similar shifting also began when Wales and Northern Ireland became partially devolved nations too – but crucially this shift of consciousness has never happened in England, and this is why we have a mismatch of identity and awareness between England and Scotland today (more on that later).
I think it is an inevitability of partial devolution that the partially devolved nation will gain a stronger and stronger identity, and seek more and more autonomy to manage its own affairs. I absolutely understand why Scotland wants to control its own destiny, and the mismatch between Scottish voting patterns and the governments that have been elected at Westminster over the last 20-30 years can only have amplified this feeling of frustration at not having control (Since the 1980s Scotland’s votes have been consistently liberal, yet the Conservative governments of 1979-1997 and 2011-present have ruled anyway).
It reminds us that the first time Scotland had a referendum on independence in 1979, many Scots still worked for British industries such as British Steel, the National Coal Board or British Shipbuilders. They were part of trade unions that gave them solidarity with other workers across the UK and quite literally, worked for Britain – and Britain worked for them. So we have Thatcher’s dismantling of the unions and the demise of Britain as as a international player in industry to partly thank for a change in Scotland’s identity too. It’s easy to see that Scots who grew up after that period must feel less allegiance to the outer identity of “British” than their parents did, and more allegiance to the identity of Scottish than their parents did.
And so it is that I have come to understand why some Scots find it so much easier to entertain the idea of casting off the rest of the United Kingdom: Britain simply doesn’t matter to many Scottish citizens today. And worse than that, by repeatedly providing a government they didn’t vote for, it has acted against their interests time and time again.
In this context, it’s easy to see why many Scots are sick of the UK establishment. It is seen as a barrier to progress, a foreign influence controlling from afar the affairs of a land it doesn’t understand. (This is the paradoxical thing about Scotland-in-Britain, Westminster is simultaneously located in the same country (Britain) and yet at the same in a foreign country (England)).
So now we understand the Scottish point of view a little better, let’s take a look at the the perspective of the rest of us, those living south of the border (a perspective I can speak for with much more confidence as I have grown up and am now back living in Hexham, Northumberland, less than 30 miles south of the Scottish border).
This may seem a controversial statement, but my thinking in the last week or so has lead me to realize this – that England as a nation does not exist in the public consciousness of those who live here. I think I speak for most of us living here when I say that when we think of our identity, we think of ourselves as British. It is our citizenship, our nationality, our culture, and our identity. When we travel abroad we don’t describe ourselves as English, but as British. We are quite aware British does not equal English, but the reverse is true: to be English is to be British – there is no difference in our minds in that direction. Obviously we all belong to the land that is called England, which we love very much, and which has a distinct feel to it, but it does not define us in the same way being part of the UK (Britain)* does. We do not feel the loyalty to the inner nation identity that Scots do.
When I think of the things that I identify with, culturally, there is very little that is uniquely English. Our sense of justice and fair play, our sense of humour, our traditions, fish and chips, cups of tea, even our love of Doctor Who (a show that began in London, is made in Wales and which features a Scottish lead) – it’s all British, much more than it is English. England is where I live – but it’s not what I feel and it’s not who I am. It is notable that immigrants to England call themselves British, but never English. I have never met an Englishman who does not consider himself British.
There are some English things that unite us – most notably, our ever-underperforming national football team – but besides a few sporting endeavours and some remnants of the past (Albion, Glastonbury, Pagans, Druids and the legend of King Arthur, for example), there is little that binds us together today. The English identity is so unimportant to us that we do not celebrate St. George’s Day, and we have allowed his flag, the supposed symbol of England, to be used by extremists such as the English Defence League. Many English people even feel afraid to wave it, for fear of being persecuted.
In fact, the idea of England as a nation, while it has existed legally for a long time (England & Wales have a separate legal system from Scotland), is something that most of us have only begun to think about as a reaction to the increased powers of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
I hope that this helps Scots to empathize as to why some of us have taken the issue of Scottish independence so personally. It is because we English see ourselves primarily as British that we feel so threatened by the prospect of losing Scotland. I can imagine many Scots see independence as purely a matter for Scotland. It’s easy to say “Well England can just carry on without us, they’ve got more people and more resources, they’ll be just fine, it’s not really any concern of theirs”. But the reality is, if you leave, we are thrown into not just a lot of hard work restructuring, but a major identity crisis.
Because I don’t feel proud allegiance to an English identity, the prospect of my country changing from Britain to something else is quite alarming. I want to be British, not English. And I don’t mean British as a historical origin, but as an active, ongoing definition of my citizenship, culture, identity and home.
I hope you can understand that if you take the word “Britain” out of my country (“The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland” is thought to be the most likely name for rUK) and render my national symbol, the Union Jack, nonsensical (the St Andrews Cross being a large part of it), that you are affecting my sense of self quite deeply. Especially for someone like me; after spending 7 years living in other countries, I have become much more aware of what it means to be British, and feel it much more intensely and more proudly than some others. If you reduce Britain from being a country to just a historical legacy – a concept – you change us all forever and you throw away what we are.
Clearly, Scottish independence is not just about Scottish identity, but British identity too. Please try and keep that in mind as you vote, and remember that you are voting as a Brit, as well as as a Scot.
The lack of a strong English identity is the backdrop that has allowed the curious situation to arise where the UK’s largest member nation has no political assembly dedicated to its laws and issues. There is no English parliament, and thus we have the imbalance of the West Lothian question.
It is not clear how this will be solved. Clearly this is something we are aware of, and have grumbled about, but the solution for us is not so simple and clear as it is in Scotland. We cannot devolve our parliament, England can never be independent from Britain, because every English person considers himself a Brit first, English a distant second and because the British parliament is already based here. We do not entertain the idea of England as a distinct country because our country is Britain and we have no desire to align to any identity smaller than that.
It is this that has made us blind to the problems of the “country of countries” model. We simply didn’t notice, because we didn’t feel the conflict between inner and outer nation in the way that Scots did. It took Scots arguing passionately for independence to make us realize – and many of us still haven’t.
This is why we’re a bit late to the party when it comes to trying to take action to change the democratic make-up of the UK. We were aware of democratic issues in the UK (like being ignored by London), but we never thought about these as a problem of sovereignty or sub-nation independence until you showed us how to think that way.
And this is why we have been a bit slow to react to the referendum. Not being given a vote (which makes sense to me even though it feels wrong) meant that it wasn’t until the news broke of Yes taking the lead that it hit us. The realization that almost half of you want to leave what we have always thought of as our shared nation, was a shock to many of us. And it was only when that happened that we, amidst feelings of panic and fear, started to really ask ourselves how we got here, what it would mean for Britain, and what we could do about it. It is that thinking that has lead me to be able to write this post.
Much of the Yes campaign in Scotland has focussed on the fact that the Westminster government is undemocratic for Scotland – that policies that were thought by politicians in London offices, with their corporate cronies just around the corner in the City, have no relevance and make no sense in the remote highlands and lowlands of Scotland.
Mention this to anyone in England and you might get a frosty reception. Not because we are defending Westminster, far from it, but because this is a problem that we are acutely aware of too. It is not a Scottish problem. It is an everywhere-but-London problem. Northumberland, Cornwall and Pembrokeshire suffer exactly the same issues with London-centric government.
If you look at the voting statistics for areas of England and Wales like these, in many cases you will see exactly the same problem that Scots know only too well: David Cameron, we didn’t vote for you.
And so, much though we understand your desire to express the need for democratic change at the ballot box, it seems, from an English perspective, to be cracking a nut with a sledgehammer to use an independence referendum to solve this democratic problem of being governed by Westminster. Sure, it’ll work, but it’ll leave a hell of a mess behind.
So thank you Scotland, thank you for helping us understand your perspective. I know that many of you think that promises of “devo max” or further devolution across all regions of the UK, not just Scotland, are cynical last-minute promises made to persuade you to change your vote by the very people who you distrust the most. But it’s more than that. The whole of England has woken up to your plight.
But the truth is just by having this debate, things have changed. The public across the whole of the UK are engaged in thinking deeply about democracy, about the union, and about how to tackle the Westminster bias like never before.
I cannot imagine things simply going back to the status quo now. You cannot put the genie back in the bottle. It might not happen overnight, but things are going to change around here. The first tentative steps are starting to be taken, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
Now that we know it is the “country of countries” model that is the root of the problem, we can start thinking about how to restructure the United Kingdom into a fairer, more democratic form. We can work on this problem – one that affects us all – together, and not have to spend the next ten years dividing up our assets and squabbling over our history to determine who gets what, like the participants in a messy divorce. I do not pretend to know the solution – a federation of nations, a devolved alliance of city states, a rethinking of the United Kingdom itself – but I do know that it is a problem we share (I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar movements in Wales and Northern Ireland soon), and which we can and should fix together.
You have shown us the way, now please give us all the chance to change Scotland and the whole of Britain for the better – as one nation, not two. If we separate now, there will be bitterness and resentment forever more. Let’s not spend the next decade looking inwards when we there are far bigger issues – common issues – to worry about, like our own citizens becoming extremists and beheading our own.
Let’s never forget, whatever happens, that we are all British, we are basically the same. We have families, communities and organizations spread across the land that can never and should never be divided. Whatever the vote, we will need to work together closer than we ever have before in the years ahead. Let’s resolve not to let the media divide us and turn us against each other like they have during the build up to the referendum. It’s not a question of whether Scotland can go it alone – I don’t doubt that it could – it’s a question of whether you need to abandon the Union to achieve democratic change, whether being part of Britain is something worth holding on to. If you believe in our people – the tenacious Brits from every corner of the Isles – you must know that we can do this. We have the oldest democracy in the world, and while it’s far from perfect, the government works for us, for the people – and through the will of the people, things will change and evolve, as they have for hundreds of years.
Our only hope for a peaceful, happy future for this sceptred isle, is to vote No on Thursday. No to Balkanization, No to giving up on the democracy that we have evolved over hundreds of years, No to putting pride and passion above considered reasoning, No to dividing up all the great work we have done together as one nation, No to taking huge risks, No to having to build a clumsy currency union when we can just use the currency we already have, No to letting rhetoric and spin doctoring and media hype influence our decisions, and No to never quite being one people any more.
Vote No tomorrow, and we – the people of England, not the stuffy Westminster elite – promise to fight alongside you for a fairer, freer tomorrow for all of Britain.
Epilogue: To finish, I will leave you with this. It’s fascinating viewing, Question Time in 1992 just before the general election debating the question “Are the days of the Union numbered?”. It resonates greatly with what has been said in the press this week, and contains some seemingly very prophetic insights from all the MPs on the panel – Alex Salmond, Michael Heseltine, John Smith and Alan Beith.
* A note on “Britain” vs “UK”: I use UK and Britain fairly interchangeably in this post. I hope that I do not offend any Northern Irish to do so, but it is my belief that the dominant culture in the UK is British. British is what it says on our passports, and I am not aware of a “UK-ish” identity.. I suspect that the culture in Northern Ireland is to a large extent British, just as it is in Gibraltar, Falkland or the Isle of Man, even if it is semantically incorrect to refer to those places as British (Great Britain being a geographical term for the island containing England, Wales & Scotland).