Week in Review: England finally wakes up

The deep, deep sleep of England: Time to wake up
The deep, deep sleep of England: Time to wake up
Ian Dunt By

When Orwell got back from the Spanish civil war, he complained of the lethargy of his home country.

"The pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs."

England was woken up rather smartly a few years later, as Hitler's military ambitions became impossible to contain. But Orwell's analysis of the English political condition is accurate: perpetual sleepiness turning into a surprisingly formidable competence once forced into action.

A similar pattern has been evident from the Scottish independence referendum. It was safely assumed it would be a strong win for the union and for good reason. In early August, YouGov gave 'No' a 22-point lead. Last Sunday morning, it put 'Yes' ahead by one per cent. That was the bomb that woke up England.


The sleep, in truth, had not just been about the referendum. It had been about Britain's entire constitutional arrangement, from half-finished devolution to the West Lothian question. It was about a Westminster elite hated so widely and deeply that anyone – from Alex Salmond to Nigel Farage – could win an election merely by saying they were against them.

No matter what happens on September 18th, when Scotland actually goes to the polls, this will have been a historic week in English politics, because this is the week that its political structure decided to change. The reforms promised to Scotland in the event of a 'No' vote will make demands for English devolution impossible to resist. And a 'Yes' vote will necessarily trigger wide-ranging constitutional reforms. No matter what happens, nothing will be quite the same.

By Friday, Nick Clegg was putting his name to a report from IPPR North on devolution of power to metropolitan areas. One of the central questions in the years to come will be how to break up English politics so that its population size does not imbalance Wales and Scotland in a union which will inevitably go down the road of federalism.

But that entails the 'No' camp winning the vote. Recent polls have shown 'Yes' falling back behind again, leading some commentators to conclude that Scots stared down the cliff edge and decided not to jump. Perhaps, but the high levels of voter registration and reports of very high postal vote participation indicate that 'Yes' may have prepared a groundswell of support on polling day. The only reliable fact is that it is going to be tight, very tight.

Westminster has done little to help. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Clegg cancelled their participation in PMQs and headed up to Scotland. It was like trying to cure a headache with techno music. Given that Salmond had succeeded in making the election about Scotland vs Westminster, the active and visible participation of Westminster was not what the doctor ordered.

Cameron was placed on a seat for his speech in which he referred to the "effing Tories", presumably to give him a dash of humility. Humility does not come naturally to him, but he looked genuinely shaken. Nevertheless, his presence will not have helped Better Together. The same can be said for Nigel Farage, who headed up to Scotland on Friday, as if he was trying to secretly sabotage the union.

To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Similarly, Westminster does not know how to react to the problem of itself in a way which does not involve itself. The three leaders needed to adopt the humble posture Cameron had until now and stay well away. Their presence is a greater boost to the 'Yes' camp than anything Salmond could organise.

Firm answers are coming. This week was historic. But next week will be the biggest British politics has had for 300 years. The roar of bombs may sound again, but louder.

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