A new Britain is waiting to be born. It is economically progressive; egalitarian on race, religion, sex and gender;culturally centrist on law and order, defence and our history and traditions. It has a far stronger sense of place, not only keen to celebrate our local as well as national identities but insistent that local communities be empowered with the control and the resources to make levelling-up a reality.
But this new post-austerity, post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain now needs to find its voice and is desperately in need of modern institutions, reconstructed to reflect the values we hold dear.
It is impatient with culture wars. The millions who condemned the booing of the English football team and protested the unjust vilification of Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho, were revealing overwhelming support for the more diverse and inclusive England that culture warriors hate. And when Gareth Southgate called for a less polarised country committed to eradicating racial and other inequalities, he was, as a new opinion survey published by Our Scottish Future confirms, speaking for England. As many as 76 per cent agree that England‘s diversity as a country is important or very important to making them proud of being English. Eighty two per cent think that an equal voice for everyone irrespective of race, religion or gender is important or very important in making them proud to be English and 83 per cent think tolerance is important or very important in making them proud of being English.
It seems that, after 18 months of the pandemic, people want to bang the door shut on a decade of division sewn by austerity, referendums and culture wars. What is also surfacing is a longing for belonging, not least for an England with a far stronger sense of place in which talking back control means making more decisions closer to home. For the first time since the 19th century, the distinctive voices of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol, and Birmingham and the regions are valued more than those of national politicians, and no one is now talking them down as “provincial”. This is wholly consistent with another strongly held sentiment: that Westminster and Whitehall should show more respect to people who, as another survey shows, feel “neglected”, “forgotten”, “ignored” and patronised as second-class citizens. The polling is clear: people want to feel more invested in Britain but Britain must invest in them.
All this has implications for the future of the United Kingdom. It challenges nationalists in Scotland and Wales who will now find it more difficult to claim that Scots have little in common with the England of Southgate and Rashford. Indeed, it contradicts their central argument for the break-up of Britain: that we cannot be Scottish and British or Welsh and British at the same time. Most of us can feel comfortably at home with plural identities and found no difficulty waving the flags of St. Andrew, St. George and St David in June in support of Scottish, English and Welsh teams and then, come August, transitioning smoothly and naturally to supporting the Union Jack-waving GB Olympics and Paralympics teams Across England, Scotland and Wales, there are highly similar levels of support for saying equality, tolerance and diversity are important to making us proud of our country. There is the same level of support for the NHS, good jobs and climate change as the issues that matter. In their values and choice of priorities, Scotland and England and Wales are moving closer together, not further apart.
For years we have been told that a more strongly-felt Englishness, Scottishness and Welshness would weaken Britishness and foreshadow the end of the Union. That is wrong. Attempts by some Unionists to subsume Englishness, Scottishness and Welshness in an all-consuming Britishness will not succeed. Diversity is not a threat, but a multinational state’s USP. Unity does not require uniformity and solidarity does not demand the elimination of regional and national differences. To be British does not mean having one identity. Citizens can be comfortably Muslim, English and British. Only a minority now believe that the main characteristic of being British is that you were born in Britain. It is possible to be born in Canada of Romanian and Chinese parents and be, like Emma Raducanu, a new British sporting icon. Within these islands, to rephrase Tennyson, all that we have met are a part of each of us.
That is why Boris Johnson’s “muscular unionism” simply plays into the hands of Nicola Sturgeon and her plans to provoke a constitutional crisis next year. Describing the UK as “one nation”, he is abandoning the bigger idea – and better reality – that we are a “family of nations”. He wants to badge new Scottish roads and bridges as British, as if hoisting more Union Jacks will make people decide they are only British and not also Scottish or Welsh. Once the champion of more powers for London, he now sees devolution outside London as “a disaster” and – ironically for an avowedly small-state Conservative Party – its Internal Market Act and Shared Prosperity Fund override devolution in favour of bolstering a centralised unitary state run out of London SW1.
At a time when every country’s independence is now constrained by their interdependence, muscular unionism harks back to an unrealistic view of an indivisible, unlimited sovereignty accountable to no-one but itself. It is a mirror image of the Scottish nationalist playbook, for they also have a one-dimensional and absolutist us-versus-them view of the world. You have to make a choice: Scottish or British – you cannot be both.
The mistake all narrow nationalists make is assuming the very same people who, like me, want more control of decisions closer to home have also decided they do not want to co-operate with their closest neighbours. But take the NHS: it is administered separately across four nations; but when asked what is “national” about the NHS, the designation most choose is “British”. Indeed, by five to one, Scots agree that vaccination shows the benefits of UK-wide cooperation.
Over 75 per cent want more cooperation, not less, and this sentiment appears rooted in a basic solidarity and willingness to share. When an Englishman volunteers an organ donation – heart, liver or lung – he does not stipulate that his donation is to save English lives only. When a Welsh or Scottish woman gives blood she doesn’t demand an assurance it must not go to an English patient, but instead, to whoever is most in need, wherever in the UK. And we do feel the pain of others: when the people of Manchester were hit by a terrorist attack and Plymouth by a mass shooting, the whole of the UK grieved together.
Looking ahead, when we now have to address not just pandemics but the other challenges of the 2020s – climate change, financial instability and gross inequalities – are nationalists not now, for the first time in years, on the defensive? Is it not time to ask them why they don’t want to cooperate with neighbours who share their values, and ask who benefits when cooperation fails?
I believe that, as Covid and culture wars recede, the idea of a new Britain has more resonance and credibility than the talk of a new Britain in 1997. It will be a Britain whose unity evolves out of our diversity and is built on a shared belief in equal rights guaranteed to all, with personal responsibility the duty of all. The next step, upon which the Starmer constitutional review I chair is inviting evidence, is to reconstruct our institutions to reflect that better Britain and, not least in the light of our recent Afghanistan nightmare, re-imagine our country as a force for good. The message is clear: seize the moment to build a new Britain – or risk losing it altogether.
This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor