Vote for the British melting-pot

The case for devolution, by the time Labour took office two years ago, was an unanswerable one. That a country with its own separate legal and educational system should nevertheless have its laws and its schools controlled by a parliament in which other nationalities had a clear majority was always an absurdity, and far more so than the fabled West Lothian question will ever be. Yet the problem was not so much the national aspirations of the Scots and the Welsh as the exceptional centralism of the British state. Under Margaret Thatcher, Whitehall became intolerant, not just of regionalism (as it always had been), but of localism. No other country in Europe allows so little discretion to local government, and Labour - tightening its grip on, for example, schools - shows few signs of reversing the trend. Indeed, as George Rosie points out on page 25, the powers of the new Scottish Parliament are more circumscribed than many may think.

The reflex action of the British state - whether confronted by stubborn unionist hegemony in Northern Ireland, by high property taxation in English boroughs or by mediocre schools in Hackney - is to take more powers unto itself. So a campaign for what ought to have been a simple matter of administrative efficiency and justice - the creation of separate representative bodies for Scotland and Wales - became, particularly in Scotland's case, a matter of passion and protest. As Pat Kane, the journalist and popular singer, has written in the Independent: "Scottish culture reinvented itself as a defensive moral identity." The Tories simply raised the temperature with their warnings about the "break-up of Britain" and a new Yugoslavia - language that must have seemed quite preposterous to anybody in North Rhine Westphalia or Massachusetts or Queensland, provinces or states that have long enjoyed autonomy inside federal entities without any such angst.

So we now have all the questions about national values and national identities, not just in Scotland, but in England, too. Who are the Scots, the English, the British? Would the English and the Scots (and even, ultimately, the Welsh) be better off without each other? Can they, in some mysterious way, realise their own distinctive national characters if they live politically apart?

Behind these questions lies deep confusion both about the meaning of nationality and about the role of government. British state institutions, whatever their other faults, have never been instruments for discrimination against minorities. Even Mrs Thatcher did not threaten anything distinctively Scottish; on the contrary, Scotland continued to receive a disproportionate share of public spending and to get more MPs than its population merited. To be sure, Mrs Thatcher imposed her individualistic, free-market values on a people that, at the time, mostly preferred a more collectivist approach. But it is hard to argue from Scottish history that collectivism is somehow bred in the bone, and the complaint against Mrs Thatcher was, in any case, shared by most of urban England.

If Britishness - or, for that matter, Englishness - means anything, it surely means inclusivity, not exclusivity. That is why Britain, for all its current (and justified) concerns about police racism and London nail-bombs, has absorbed successive waves of immigration in relative peace, and why the far right (in comparison to, say, France) remains marginal. We have, almost in a fit of absent-mindedness, created a melting-pot and could well claim that more melting goes on here that it ever has in America. Try spending a morning at an English country house, move on to a Caribbean carnival, relax in an Irish pub, round off the day with a Chinese or Indian meal (bearing in mind that none of these will be nearly as "authentic" as they pretend), and then ask yourself what Englishness is supposed to mean, and whether you really need to know. A Muslim of Pakistani origin living in Glasgow, but frequently travelling on business to London, Brussels or Paris, may from some viewpoints struggle with an identity problem. A better way to look at it, by far, is that he can enjoy the best of several traditions or ignore the lot, that he is a free man in a free country who has the privilege of choosing his identity. That privilege ought to be hailed as the ultimate human liberation, more precious to us than any spurious "roots".

As they go to the polls, the Scots and the Welsh should celebrate the weakening of the central state while recognising that, for them and for the English, there is still a long way to go. But they should reject those parties that would dismantle the British union, which represents values that, more than ever, are truly worth defending.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special