What is united about our kingdom? Is it the economy, governance or identity?
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What is United about our Kingdom?

A professor, a pollster and a journalist hashed out the question at Chatham House last week.

As the debate on Scottish independence centres on the alleged differences between the Scots and the English, the New Statesman headed to Chatham House last Thursday, where the question at hand was what is united about our fair kingdom.

Journalist and author Sir Simon Jenkins kicked off with a history lesson, pinpointing the end of the British Empire as the beginning of profound changes to our “confederacy, which is the proper way of describing the British Isles.”

A stickler for precision, he pointed out that when discussing the Union at all, we must acknowledge that the “United Kingdom”, in its original formation, ceased to exist following the Partition of Ireland in 1921; since then we have been but the isle of “Great Britain plus Northern Ireland”.

Turning his attention to the referendum on 18 September, he slammed the Better Together campaign for its “ham-fisted” strategy, which centres on promoting the economic argument for Scotland remaining in the Union.

“Secession is not about money,” he barked. “It’s about emotion, tribalism... It's about the way people feel about identity in a changing world.”

Localism is the dominating trend in identity politics, he argued: “In a globalised world, people want a local identity.” The smaller the unit of locality, the stronger the affinity people feel with it (though it was pointed out that London remains the exception, where the city resonates more with residents than their specific borough).

Another complication of British identity is its variation throughout the Union. Most damagingly: “To the English, it means England and little bits on the outside."

If that were not galling enough for the Scots, Jenkins argued that their nation should be as rich as Denmark now, but alas, “it has been ruled badly from London for 50 years if not 200 years”.

No wonder some Scots hate the English, you would be forgiven for thinking. Indeed, they do, said Ipsos MORI chief executive Ben Page.

The pollster pointed out that among football Scottish fans, 15 per cent would always support a national team playing against England than plump for their southern cousins.

Channel 4 news broadcaster Jon Snow described those hard-line nationalists as “angry, entitled, resentful, alienated”, who have come to the conclusion on independence: “Let's just do it ourselves because nobody's done it very well for us yet.”

Still, “devo max” will “cure” the antipathy of these Scots towards Westminster, he maintained.

Page argued that there is more that unites the Scots, the English and the Welsh than divides them, pointing out that the greatest gulf in culture and identity is between London and the rest of the UK.

He said: “London is becoming something other than the countries of which it is in charge; it's almost becoming a separate city-state in its own right.” He added: “That’s a problem”.

Jenkins stood up for the city: “I’m a London nationalist”, he declared.

Princeton-based Professor Linda Colley argued that Westminster and the physical set up of Parliament turned many voters off, but particularly the Scots living hundreds of miles away.

Westminster should emulate the Welsh Assembly, she said. Unlike the rectangular House of Commons, with facing benches designed for rhetorical combat, the Welsh Assembly, she eulogised, is a "light, airy, circular building, where people can do their emails while listening to talks. And you get translations of debates into Welsh, not just English. People can gather outside and look at what their representatives are doing.”

Jenkins snorted. "It’s a citadel of total incompetence", he said.

The growing need for a written constitution to codify the nature of the Union was also discussed. Colley said that the complexity of Parliament today meant a constitution was required for the aid of MPs, a viewpoint shared by a parliamentary clerk – not usually the type to eschew tradition and embrace change – with whom she had spoken.

She issued a warning, however. “It can’t just be a car manual, it can’t be like the cabinet guide recently created. There has to be an inspiration element to it, that’s the trick.” she said. 

So a written code would spark further questions about who we are as a nation and what kind of people we want to be. 

 

As to the central question of what unites our kingdom, the panel was passionately divided.

Page surmised: “Ultimately, it’s still the economy stupid. Essentially people are pragmatic - most polls show that people want to vote to stay in for pragmatic reasons”. Colley agreed, but only in part. She added: “It’s governance stupid”. With a grin and delighting in his own contrarianism, Jenkins had the last word: “I’m going to say: it’s identity stupid.”

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage