Comment: Only English bitterness can break the union
English resentment is now so strong it could soon destroy the union.
By Ian Dunt
Is there anything positive to say about the union? Given how little political support there is for the dismantling of the UK you’d have thought comment pages would be full of gushing praise for the wonderful status quo.
Instead, there is the endless complaint about the West Lothian question – that Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish MPs can vote on laws that apply to England and not the other way round. And occasionally there is a complaint about Scotland getting more than its fair share of government support, as if countries were crying babies smacking each other around for an extra go on mummy’s teat.
The second argument is barely worth considering if you believe in a union. The United Kingdom is a nation state. It directs resources to where they are most needed. This is not some dastardly plot by scheming Scottish devils in Downing Street, pulling magical levers to suck the lifeblood from England. The first argument, on the other hand, is perfectly reasonable and the nonchalance with which government treats it is directly to blame for the crumbling support for the union.
Why should we care? What is there that is good or worth saving about the union? Firstly it makes us – all of us – who we are, and personally I think we turned out alright, even if most media coverage will have you thinking the country is going down the toilet. Accepted, we have a bitter history together, most of which is comprised of the English treating everyone else like uppity slaves. We – the English – behaved appallingly.
Like much else in Britain, you wouldn’t design a constitutional arrangement like this. But this is what we’ve ended up with, and it works pretty well, as it happens. This union of nations offers, I posit, a coherent political nation, a national characteristic that boasts complexities, subtleties and the specification of what it is to be ‘a people’. Splitting us apart is like separating children. They won’t like it and it probably won’t do them any good.
We are a union of tribes who populated this land long ago. We are a union of nations, each separated by distinct cultural identities, but all of which share many of their best characteristics. “How very British of me,” some people say. “How very English of me.” We mix these phrases up and presumably it grates hugely on the Welsh and Scottish. But there’s no reason “how very Welsh of me” shouldn’t get mixed up as well. After all, we’re usually discussing similar traits.
They are subtle, vague traits, but it’s not too much of an effort to put them in a list: an aversion to self-promotion; the use of humour as a national glue, a form of social solidarity; the love of irony and that deep-seated understanding of how it can be used naughtily, or significantly or flippantly; a basic belief in egalitarianism, which ends up turning seemingly-trivial domestic drama into high art; bloody mindedness; a firm belief in privacy; a practical approach to life, with deep-seated suspicion of abstraction and intellectualism.
These are British characteristics. We all share them, and we can’t claim them.
This is perfectly logical. After all, we are all influenced historically by the fact we live on an island. We have lived here, together, throughout. The often unpleasant political history of our nations does not undo the personal history so many Brits have enjoyed – living together, and marrying, and fighting outside pubs, and building an empire, and swapping cooking recipes. The British Empire was an unpleasant thing, but it was an impressive practical achievement if nothing else. It would not have been possible without the Scots, or to a lesser extent the Welsh. The things this country could accomplish are diminished when we work separately. Britain made the world as it stands today – for better or worse. Not England.
But if the current trend towards English resentment and obstinance continues, we will end up separate. Those who wish to break the union already have a road map.
David Cameron will win the election, or so the thinking goes. The Scots will hate him. English resentment of West Lothian/funding ratios will increase. Scotland will vote to leave the union first and soon after that Wales will follow. I haven’t mentioned Northern Ireland so far in this article and I’m not going to start now. It is its own kettle of fish and you can’t expand out from specifics to generalities when it comes to events across the Irish Sea.
Indeed, there is an end point to Scottish resentment, a point at which it becomes so severe the opposition parties in Holyrood (presuming they still are in opposition, which they probably will be) can’t stop a referendum, and it ends up going against Britain. But it is an extreme resentment, something far in the future and requiring a precise and unlikely mixture of events to trigger it. There seems little of that appetite right now, despite Alex Salmond’s appeals north of the border.
A far greater danger to the union comes from English indifference. There are plenty of Englishmen who support Scotland in the football until they finally happen to see the sheer scale of Scottish support for ‘Anyone But England’. This is now happening at a political level as well. Once England doesn’t care about Scotland anymore, the end will come.
The best way to avert that is simply to negate the causal factor. There is an injustice in the current constitutional arrangement, although it is relatively trivial given the amount of time and passion dedicated to it. Nevertheless, we should correct it. West Lothian must no longer be a question. It must become a place again. We don’t even need our own parliamentary building. Just let English MPs sit in Westminster on Fridays to discuss purely English matters.
Simple solutions, taken in good time: It’s the kind of thing the government could readily do if it didn’t react to constitutional controversy like a drug dealer suddenly hearing sirens. We need to fix the cause of the resentment now, or a settlement that does us more good than we realise might just cease to exist.
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