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Homage to Caledonia: what would Orwell make of Britain’s break-up?

If Orwell belonged anywhere he belonged to London, and he would have seen that the independence referendum is as much about the capital as it is about Scotland, writes Robert Colls.

Cartoon by Ralph Steadman


Orwell was not much interested in Scotland or party politics, so it is unlikely he would have written a word on Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon. On the other hand, he did live intermittently on the Hebridean island of Jura from 1946 to 1949 and loved it, so it is hard to believe that the prospect of a 307-year-old Anglo-Scottish Union unravelling before his eyes would not have caught his imagination. He always saw himself as a “belly to earth” sort of writer.

However, we would have to be ready for a different point of entry. Most probably he would have started out with Scotland’s literature. Sir Walter Scott’s Gothic unionism might have appealed, but Matthew Arnold’s gibe in On the Study of Celtic Literature that the capacity “to form powerful states is just what the Celt has least turn for” would have been a better place to start, followed perhaps by Robbie Burns and Tobias Smollett as men who lived through the lean years of Union, and then John Buchan and A J Cronin, who lived through the high points, albeit from very different points of view. Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Edwin Muir would have seen Orwell as a bit of a Rupert, I think, and put on a charge for impudence. In our own time Liz Lochhead and James Kelman would have given the Englishman plenty to chew on – especially in the field of politics and the English language. Even so, he would have enjoyed all these modern writers’ intricate Scottish worlds. He was one for the little platoons.

If Orwell belonged anywhere he belonged to London, and he would have seen immediately, in a back-to-front sort of way, that the independence referendum is as much about that city as it is about Scotland.

In The Road to Wigan Pier he noted how English regional identity was in fact a series of intemperate reactions to an overbearing capital, and his wartime essay “The English People” found clearly in favour of more autonomy for Scotland and Wales and more intelligent regionalism for England.

Gladstone’s reinvention of the Union was based on the idea of a unitary state com­prising four equal (but actually unequal) nations. The British state was supposed to be placeless, everywhere in general but nowhere in particular, while the four nations were left to represent visceral homelands. But it didn’t turn out that way. The British state turned into London and London, as everyone knows, turned into the centre of everything.

Gladstone’s original idea of home rule to express increasingly strong provinces was reinvented, and not unreasonably so, by Labour in 1999 to express increasingly weak provinces. Many Scots feel weakened by the Union and want to leave it, or to curtail it, and now that they have few Tories of their own they do not like being ruled by southern English ones. They suspect that the Home Counties would miss them dreadfully, but not as dreadfully as a couple days without Radio 4. In the face of this shift in Union sentiment, I could see Orwell urging the Scottish people, as he once urged the English, to come out of the shadows and be themselves: “By revolution we become more ourselves, not less.”

Trouble is, the Scottish National Party doesn’t do “more ourselves”. It does monarchy and pound sterling, and it does European Union and “vibrant culture”, but it does not waste a syllable on being Scottish. True, Salmond wants Scotland to be “more successful” and Fiona Hyslop, the SNP culture secretary, wants Scots to be “world leaders” in something she calls “creative ambition”, but amid so much talk of culture and democracy, the SNP has no stomach for national identity.

At the most crucial moment in its 80-year history the party sidesteps its own people, and Orwell would have noticed. His “English People” might give the clue to how he might have intervened – starting perhaps with “Scotland at First Glance” (“the real Scotland is not the Scotland of the guidebooks”) and ending with “The Future of the Scottish People” and a native tradition of the public good in a union that allowed civil society to flourish.

Even though it is true that national identities come after historic settlements, and not before, it is odd that the SNP talks so little about either. For all that, in spite of the rhetorical opportunities national identity would have offered a party with huge cultural and artistic backing, the SNP was wise to avoid any argument about who the Scottish people are or were. Are because politicians are notoriously bad at discussing national identity (learn from Gordon Brown’s and Michael Gove’s tedious forays into the debate about “British values”), and were because any negative comparison of who the Scottish people were (and chose to be) in the Union with what they might be (and might choose to be) again, independently, would not look good.

The first rule of nationalism is that the nation is good today as it was good before. Salmond’s refusal to appeal to identity may make him seem like a cabbage patch politician – looking only as far as he can see – yet, as a gambling man with a taste for the horses, he has proved to be a shrewd operator. He weighed national identity and went for the shorter odds of good government.

The SNP limits itself to the case for smaller, better government, and Orwell would have approved. He was a small-state republican at heart, and a scaled-down, near-at-hand Holyrood would have appealed over a bloated and out-of-touch Westminster. Aye, well, maybe. The cost (£414m) and construction of the Scottish Parliament building were not necessarily a good example of smaller is better (but at least the architect was Catalan).

I once spoke at a conference of Scottish schoolteachers in Glasgow where they were talking with the education minister on first-name terms about schools both parties appeared to know quite well. Orwell spent his life writing about everyday things and he would have warmed to the scale of what the SNP stands for. I suspect the No campaign’s stake in big threats from outsiders – on currency, on EU membership, on Nato – has won it more votes than friends.

Unfortunately, the SNP upsizes in Brussels what it downsizes in Edinburgh. It would have taken all of Orwell’s talent for paradox to understand why a party committed to good government and self-determination at home was so keen to remain a member of a vast bureaucracy led by federalists abroad. Yet one is obliged to ask: where else can small countries turn?

A lot of unhappy European voters might like to know the answer to this, not least the SNP’s favourite Scandinavian state, Norway – the country that most resembles Scotland in size and resources but that has also twice rejected EU membership on the very same grounds that the SNP favours it. When talking about the social investment model, Salmond is in favour of Norway. When talking about Annerledes­landet (Norway as a country set apart and one of a kind) and the right-wing Fremskrittspartiet, he isn’t.

Then there’s deindustrialisation, the ele­phant in the room of all British politics. It was not just the extent, but the speed – in little over a generation, a whole way of being British collapsed. Time for a story: when I was a kid growing up on Tyneside we used to get the Scottish Sunday Post and the day wasn’t complete until I’d read its two comic strips: The Broons, about a large working-class family that liked a good laugh, usually at itself, and Oor Wullie, about a little boy in dungarees who always started his tale as he ended it, sitting on a bucket. Now I knew these characters were Scottish (“braw”, “muckle”, Wee Eck and all that) and I knew they were occasionally weird (why did Fat Bob look like Oor Wullie’s mam, and what on earth was a “but ’n’ ben”?). But I also knew that in a comic-strip world what they were, we were, right down to the shipyards, the family feasts and an entire clothes line of aunties and uncles just like Daphne and Maggie and Hen and Joe.

Where are the shipyards now? How does Maggie like working as a carer? What are the twins going to do when they leave school? This wasn’t Lord Snooty or Dan Dare calling: this was Dundee, but it could have been Shields or Hebburn – and, in terms of what has happened since, it still could be.

Tom Nairn once called for a Scotland where the last minister of the Kirk had been strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post. Jings, crivvens, help ma boab! There’s an anarchist in Glebe Street.

After a poor start the Scots did well by union – at least as well as the Welsh and the English. London was always the senior partner, of course, but the original terms were so clear they had to be changed and the Anglo-Scottish relationship was not colonial, because the Scottish people were never, in Tariq Ali’s ridiculously numbing phrase, a “subaltern layer”. Can subalterns speak?

Scottish elites forged empires and made fortunes. The Scottish middle class voted solidly unionist from their solidly granite suburbs. Scottish workers helped build a labour movement that one day would lay claim to Union itself. Out of the last great British political settlement (1880-1920) stemmed the identities that Orwell knew so well; identities that are now in disrepair.

As Scots go to the polls on 18 September, we have to conclude that the referendum is about not just Scotland, but all these islands. Is the SNP part of a new settlement, or is it a throwback to the old? Is it still the case that what is good for England is also good for Scotland, or is it the other way round? Would Scottish independence help the English? Which English? Whatever the answer, a Yes vote would be followed by years of savage negotiation as the new state tries to cut itself from the old over the closure of nuclear bases, over the future of Scottish defence contracts, over debts and assets and taxes, over the SNP’s soft line on immigration (58 per cent of Scots against), over British institutions such as the BBC and the NHS and European ones such as Nato and the EU and, last but not least, over the prospect of the next general election returning a Labour government dependent on Scottish MPs, halfway through Scotland removing itself from the electoral calculation. There will be no shortage of rogues in these discussions. Pity the poor Scots.

Pity the poor English, too. There once was a Labour MP (PPE, Oxford and the Treasury, followed by various metropolitan good-cause/career vantage points) who thought she was making a speech about a village in her own northern constituency but in fact was making a speech about a village of the same name somewhere else. After nine years representing the one, she didn’t know it from the other. Still stuck with a metropolitan political class that sees the rest of the country as fodder for its own ambition; still stuck with a global capital that controls the flow of all resources and information; still stuck with a sort of scuzzy journalism that likes to come up from London for the day to reflect on the death of half the country, the half that frightens it – we should pity the poor rest of the English. Foolish enough to believe that England belongs to them, too, they feel they are being cut out of the picture.

Alex Salmond has waged a good campaign, make no mistake, and that he has done so without invoking a time when Fingal lived and Ossian sang is creditworthy. Even so, it is as dangerous for a people’s politician to neglect the people’s myths as it is dangerous for an independence party to avoid looking beyond independence. Everybody wants better government; nothing new in that. And who doesn’t want to be like Norway?

The SNP had better look out. After the authenticity of national identity is proved by the authenticity of the vote for it, what then? An independent Scotland will diminish the historic necessity of the SNP and, freed from their English shackles, it’s not impossible to imagine a resurgence of Scottish Toryism and Scottish Labourism – both of which have deeper cultural roots than the nationalists. Immigration and the EU are areas where you can see both parties punishing the SNP for its open-door policies, while Scottish Labour and English Labour, no longer tied at the hip, might find the freedom to be themselves invigorating. English Labour, for one, might be forced to think seriously about that curious, ornery, radical regional yet one-nation Englishness, of the sort that Orwell tried to deal with in “The Lion and the Unicorn”.

Yet I don’t think the Scots will vote Yes. They’re too canny to take Salmond’s odds. It’s possible that not even Salmond takes his own odds. He might be calling for independence but betting on devo max – surely the easiest way to get what Scotland needs. That said, if Orwell was alive today (horrible cliché), I think he would have written Homage to Caledonia, in order to reveal the unionist in him finally giving way to the rebel in him by calling on the Scots to take back what the English have so recently lost – a sense of control over who they are and what they want. It wouldn’t be homage exactly; more two cheers. 

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press, £25) and the co-editor, with Philip Dodd, of “Englishness: Politics and Culture” (Bloomsbury, £21.99)

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder