Editor's Note: England, Scotland, Britain?
An independent Scotland would be viable but why break up Britain?
Has Scotland disappointed the Queen? That question was posed by the Today programme on the morning after the bank holiday jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace, to which I had the good fortune to receive an invitation. There had been fewer street parties in Scotland and fewer public displays of ostentatious monarchism. In reply, Tom Devine, the SNP’s favourite historian, spoke of how the Scots were less demonstrative than the English and of how the younger members of the royal family seemed more “anglicised” than their parents and grandparents, less romantically attached to the Highlands and Islands. William is a graduate of St Andrews – it was where he met Kate Middleton, who would become his wife, after all – but that university was long ago colonised by the English landed and trust-fund classes, and their very presence in such large numbers amid the cloisters of that ancient institution continues to antagonise Scots as it would have done the young Alex Salmond when he was an undergraduate there.
Part of the Union
The SNP leader is wise to have delayed his referendum on independence. If it were held in this year of the Diamond Jubilee, he would lose, and he knows it. As a gradualist, he understands that while a majority of Scots would welcome more devolution, and even full fiscal autonomy as Catalonia has been agitating for within Spain, independence is considered a leap too far. With a population of five million, with oil and gas reserves and a GDP per capita that is only slightly below the UK average, Scotland is a viable independent nation. But why wilfully break up Britain, which is one of the most successful multinational states in history and encourages a form of benign nationalism?
Salmond keeps on shifting position: from wanting to join the eurozone, he now says that he would want an independent Scotland to remain part of what he calls the “sterling zone”. He would retain the Queen as head of state, and he might soon renounce the SNP’s historic commitment to unilateralism and the removal of Trident from Scottish waters, as well as seek to join Nato. The Queen, the pound, the BBC, the National Health Service, even nuclear weapons – what kind of independence is this that the SNP leader seeks and could it not be achieved just as fully within a reconfigured British state, without the trauma of separation and the hostilities it would provoke?
Pale as the thistle
What I like about Britishness is that it offers an umbrella under which we can shelter if we wish in all our diversity and difference. Today, when capital and people are so mobile and we are used to sharing sovereignties in supranational institutions such as the European Union, we have become much more comfortable with miscegenation and with compound or hyphenated identities: black British, Asian British, Welsh, British and European, and so on. Scottishness is also a civic identity rather than a blood-and-soil nationalism of the Braveheart (or Balkan) variety as some would caricature it. But Scotland has not experienced anything like the level of immigration that transformed the ethnic demographics of England. Can you name a black footballer who has represented Scotland? Can you think of a major black Scottish writer or artist or broadcaster? Visit Scotland and you have a sense of an overwhelmingly white country, even if it is being slowly changed by the arrival of economic migrants from within the EU.
Loose and baggy monster
I have black friends born in England who are happy to describe themselves as “black British” but who feel less comfortable about calling themselves English. This may be generational, because for them England and Englishness are problematically associated with the racism and exclusion they experienced as children. It’s true that a new kind of English civic identity – liberal, tolerant, inclusive, a little too bashfully patriotic – is being continuously made and remade, but it is an identity that remains coterminous with Britishness, and with being part of a multinational, multi-ethnic, religiously plural state that has a popular monarch as its head. Our sense of ourselves as a unified people is as a result much weaker than in many other, more homogeneous European countries, especially as the forces that forged the British nation – Protestantism, empire, war with continental Europe, the welfare state – have weakened. Still, part of the attraction of Britishness, and I felt it again during the protracted jubilee celebrations, is its very ambiguity.
Oh, what fun we had!
Watching Madness play two numbers on the roof of Buckingham Palace I was reminded that pop is essentially a form of late adolescence and early adulthood. Here they were, Suggs, Chas Smash and the other self-styled Nutty Boys, recycling songs they first performed as teenage ragamuffins from Camden Town at the end of the Seventies. The truth about most pop stars – Madness are no exception – is that by the time they reach their mid-to-late twenties their best work is behind them. They don’t seem to get any better. It’s as if they are frozen in a kind of perpetual present: they know the fans want to hear only the songs they wrote when everyone was young together, and if they have any sense they happily oblige, because what would be the alternative when new songs = empty venues?
He’s got the funk
Sitting close to me at the concert was Simon Schama, the hyperactive TV historian and polymath. For the first third of the concert he seemed distinctly uninterested. He sat reading whatever was on his Kindle while all around people were standing and waving small Union flags. Then something inside Schama began to stir. His green-shoed feet began to tap. He looked up once or twice from his Kindle. When the pianist Lang Lang began to play, Schama stood up and said to me: “He’s actually rather fucking good. Not just a pretty boy.” By the time Kylie Minogue strutted on to the stage, in all her camp splendour, Schama was up on his feet and dancing wildly in the aisles. And that was where he stayed, dancing, until the eruption of fireworks from the palace roof signalled a return to normality.