In the run-up to the 2014 referendum, I invited the then First Minister Alex Salmond to give a lecture in which he would make the case for independence right at the heart of Westminster.
I’d long believed the political elites in London were complacent about the long-term trends that had destabilised the Union and powered the rise of the SNP: an incoherent devolution settlement, the decline of cross-border working-class solidarity, the weakening of Protestantism as a unifying force, the decline of the trade unions and especially of the Labour Party.
Defining issues such as the currency, pensions and the national debt were essential to the debate, but nationalism is ultimately about more than economic self-interest, as Brexit showed.
That evening in London, Salmond compared the capital city to a “dark star, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy” from the rest of the UK. He neglected to mention of course that London had the highest child poverty rate of any English region and several of the most deprived local authorities.
It suited Salmond’s purpose to focus on the worst excesses of financial capitalism just as it suits Nicola Sturgeon to blame the failures of her government on Westminster, or the botched devolution settlement, or both.
Nations are defined by the stories we tell about them or the stories they tell about themselves. Narratives shape politics. And Sturgeon has her own narrative to shape about why Scotland would flourish as a Nordic-style social democracy outside the UK, if only those pesky Tories in London would agree to another referendum, on the SNP’s terms, here and now.
I once asked Salmond whether federalism, or neo-federalism – what has been called independence within the UK – would ever be enough for nationalists. “No, we are a party of independence,” he told me, seven years before he broke with the SNP to form Alba, which was crushed at last year’s Holyrood elections. “The great secret weapon of the SNP is that it is a cause, an objective and an ideal.”
In 2014, the SNP’s version of independence was not then one of stark separation or rupture. The party favoured a social union, a currency union, a monarchical union, a defence union within Nato, as well as membership of the EU.
You could call this position unionist-nationalism or independence lite. After he resigned as first minister, Salmond called it the dream that shall never die. The effect of the referendum was to create one of the most politically sophisticated electorates in Europe.
Scotland was not an independent state, but it was increasingly exhibiting what the pro-independence commentator Gerry Hassan called an “independence of the mind”. It also left Scotland, and the independence movement, on a permanent election footing: no sooner had the referendum been lost, than the campaign for the next one began.
Nine months after the referendum, Labour was routed in Scotland, losing 40 of its 41 seats to the SNP; the SNP won 56 of the 59 Westminster seats. There would be no coming back for Labour, once hegemonic in Scotland. The kingdom was becoming untied.
What does this untying mean not only for Scotland but also for England, the largest nation in Europe without its own parliament or discrete political institutions? That’s the question with which I’ve been grappling in my new book, Who Are We Now? Stories Of Modern England, which is an exploration of what George Orwell called the social atmosphere of the country over the last 25 years, from the election of Tony Blair in 1997 to the pandemic.
As a binding sense of British nationhood fades away, and with it a shared vocabulary, I ask: What is England and who are the English?
I grew up in the Essex new town of Harlow and from an early age, because I had close friends whose parents were born outside the UK, I was fascinated by British identity and peculiarities of life in a multinational state.
Ever since the Act of Union of 1707, Englishness has been lost within Britishness. For too long England and Britain were seen as being interchangeable or coterminous – by the English at least, much to the irritation of the Scots and the Welsh.
Since the Second World War, Scottish immigration levels have been low compared to those in England, and for some Scots I’ve spoken to over the years it can be hard for them to understand why Britishness – a non-racial, civic, plural, inclusive identity – matters to so many from minority ethnic backgrounds and why they fear it being ripped away from them.
One seldom hears the SNP speak of what could be lost, as well as gained, from the break-up of Britain and how it might affect all of us, not just those living in Scotland. In 2014, for instance, 88% of the 632,000 immigrants who arrived in the UK settled in England and only 6% in Scotland.
The SNP rejects ethnic nativism, welcomes freedom of movement and an independent Scotland would aspire to join the EU. Scotland needs more people – despite occupying a third of the land mass of the island of Great Britain, its population is quite small, at around 5.2 million.
“Scottish nationalism’s success has been built on a kind of native cosmopolitanism, offering a highly ‘inclusive’ vision of nationhood that self-consciously incorporates diverse identities into its own,” Rory Scothorne wrote in The New Statesman.
Yet one could say the same of modern Britishness and indeed of Englishness – consider the progressive patriotic pride Gareth Southgate’s young, multi-ethnic football team (several of the squad are activists as well as superstar players) inspired during the Euros last summer.
Where does all this leave us? Modern British identity is a big, broad umbrella under which citizens from diverse cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds can comfortably shelter. Britishness has different historical and cultural associations from Englishness and Scottishness.
Fundamental to what it means to be British today is to have plural or overlapping identities. But a plural society still needs more than plural politics; it needs a shared commitment to the common good and that is sadly missing.
What makes a nation cohere? How do we find a sense of common purpose? Is it even appropriate to speak of Britain as a single united country at a time of rising English and Scottish nationalism?
The bond between patriotism and unionism, cherished by my mother’s wartime generation, has weakened but the notion of Britishness as a binding, cohesive civic force still matters. Even more so when 14% of the population, 9.5 million people, were born outside the UK (5.9 million from non-EU countries), and one in four children have a foreign-born mother.
As we emerge from the pandemic into the most serious cost of living crisis since the 1970s, and as the world darkens, it’s worth pausing to consider what still unites as well as divides us in these islands.
And we should cherish the ties that bind even as we ponder who we are now, after Brexit, after the pandemic, as war rages in Europe.
Jason Cowley is editor-in-chief of the New Statesman. His new book, Who Are We Now? Stories Of Modern England, is published by Picador.
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