On May 3, the voters of Scotland are headed to the polls to vote for the third Scottish Parliament since that body was created in 1999. There is apparently a pretty strong chance of a Scottish Nationalist Party victory there. The SNP’s manifesto calls– in reasonably argued terms– for Scotland’s independence from the Union it has maintained with England for exactly 300 years now.
The newly emerged “Scottish question” is impacting London politics in some very significant ways. Only one of these is the newly emerging possibility that the Holyrood (Scottish) Parliament might move towards secession. Another is the fact that the Labour Party’s anointed successor to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, who has loyally stood in line for years to wait for his turn as party and national leader, is now seen by many English people as far “too Scottish”.
Until very recently being seen as Scottish would have been viewed by most English people either as a plus or as something fairly netural. But now, suddenly, a surge in anti-Scottishness among many English people suddenly has Brown’s chances of winning the intra-party succession vote thrown into a serious degree of doubt.
Plus, Scotland has been a strong Labor stronghold since the birth of the Labour party. So an SNP victory there would signal a broad repudiation among many traditionally pro-Labour Scots of the Labour Party as Tony Blair has (re-)fashioned it… And then, an SNP-led secession from the Union would give the Tory Party a much stronger chance to recapture Westminster at the next election. (Indeed, it might hasten that election considerably.)
So the “Scottish Question” is big. The respected Scottish commentator Iain MacWhirter has argued for some months now that it may be time for a ‘Velvet Divorce’, similar to the one that in 1993 allowed the Czech Republic and Slovakia each to go very peaceably along its respective way.
The SNP’s manifesto is worth reading in some detail. Here what it says on p.7:
- Scotland can be more successful. Looking around at home and at our near neighbours abroad, more and more Scots believe this too. Independence is the natural state for nations like our own.
Scotland has the people, the talent and potential to become one of the big success stories of the 21st century. We can match the success of independent Norway – according to the UN the best place in the world to live. We can do as well as independent Ireland, now the fourth most prosperous nation on the planet.
With independence Scotland will be free to flourish and grow. We can give our nation a competitive edge.
… Together we can build a more prosperous nation, a Scotland that is a force for good, a voice for peace in our world.
Free to bring Scottish troops home from Iraq.
Free to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland’s shores.
Free to invest our oil wealth in a fund for future generations…
Note that reference to “our oil wealth”… With the vast majority of the North Sea oil that is currently controlled by London lying in what– under any divorce– would be Scotland’s economic exploitation zone, that line in the manifesto is presumably sending shivers down the spine of economic planners in London. (Note, too, those to “bring[ing] Scottish troops home from Iraq” and “remov[ing] nuclear weapons from Scotland’s shores.” Those ideas also seem to be very popular in Scotland these days.)
How ironic would that be– if, while government ministers in Washington and London argue about what final shape Iraq’s governance structure should take, one significant fallout from Blair’s decision to join W’s war-venture in Iraq should turn out to be the dissolution of Britain’s own 300-year-old Act of Union?
There are other reasons for many English people to worry about Scottish secession, too. One is that, without a concept of a shared “Britishness” to rely on, the question as to what it is that actually constitutes “Englishness” seems fairly hard to fathom.
I write this as someone who grow up in southern England, with Scottish, English, and Welsh forebears all proudly acknowledged as such within the family. And a high proportion of my “English” friends have similarly mixed ancestries.
But here’s another thing on this vexed question of Englishness. I also grew up Anglican– which, in terms of religious affiliation was in the England of the 1950s and 1960s a sort of an unthinking default option. Back then, if you were a Catholic, or a Jew, or a non-conformist (i.e., a member of a non-Anglican Protestant denomination), then you knew who you were and what you were supposed to believe.
If you were Anglican, you never even really questioned who you were; and you certainly were never required to believe anything in particular.
In this regard, the idea of “Englishness” feels to me like a sort of ethnic-affiliation ‘default option.’ It’s what you are if you’re British but you’re are also not Scottish or Welsh or Irish.
I note that George Orwell, back in the day, had a similar problem figuring out what it was that constituted ‘Englishness’ for him. In one of his writings, it really came down to knowing how to make a proper, English-style pot of tea. And yes, that was an important task we had to master to get our Brownie Girl Guide badges back in the England of the 1950s…
MacWhiter has done some great writing many aspects of the Scottishness question. In this recent article, he wrote, fairly mildly:
- Most Scots seem to favour, not separation, but extending the powers of the Scottish parliament. They want a parliament that looks and behaves less like a Labour local council and more like national champion.
Inexplicably, Labour have decided to reject any significant alteration or enhancement of Holyrood’s powers…
And here, he wrote about the anti-Scottishism expressed by many English writers:
- When commentators talk of the Scottish “raj”, “whingeing Jocks”, etc, they can indulge in identity politics without fear of being accused of supporting the BNP [the fascistic British National Party]. During last summer’s footie wars, The Observer ran the front-page headline: “Brown under fresh pressure over Scottish roots”. If Brown had been black the story would never have been printed.
This ethnic hostility is rife on the internet. It is an opportunity for English people to get it off their chests, to rant at the non-English, and to celebrate their own values. For one problem about criticising multiculturalism, and calling for a return to British values, is deciding what those values are. George Orwell’s warm beer, cricket and spinsters on bicycles usually figure on the inventory of Britishness. But these are essentially English, rather than Scottish, values. It is not easy to have a Scottish “cricket test”.
Now, I’m not for a second denying that Scots aren’t guilty of this kind of communal hostility themselves. There is far too much anti-English feeling in Scotland which is excused as banter, but is – in its own way – racist. That’s not the point.
This identity crisis may be one factor behind the withdrawal of English support for the union, and it is having a blow-back in Scotland. It may be that English nationalism is becoming a more important dynamic of constitutional change than Scottish nationalism. That like the Czech Republic before the velvet divorce from Slovakia, the momentum for dissolution is coming from the senior partner in the union…
So anyway, the May 3 Scottish election: Definitely one to watch.
(Cross-posted on Just World News.)