The paradox of Labour’s proposals for a new constitutional settlement is that, in seeking to “unbind” Britain, Keir Starmer believes the country can be held together. The prospect of greater unity lies then not in disunity exactly but in the weakening of the overcentralised British state: more devolution to the nations and regions of the untied kingdom.
Will this vision of a great unbinding amount to much? The misrule at Westminster since the vote for Brexit is a parable of a country that has no sense of national mission. “Have the British still got it in them [to reverse decline]?” Tory grandees used to ask in the late 1970s as the country was gripped by stagflation and industrial unrest. A similar question but in a different context could be asked today: do the British people have it in them to keep the kingdom united? Liz Truss’s response to the SNP’s demand for a second independence referendum was to dismiss the First Minister of Scotland as an “attention seeker” during a leadership debate and then, once in No 10, to ignore her. But a problem does not disappear simply because you wish it would. Truss’s ignorance on Scottish independence – as on so much else – was symptomatic of a deeper crisis in governance at Westminster.
The original New Labour devolution reforms sought to provide a workable solution to the asymmetric power of England within the United Kingdom while also containing the movement for Scottish independence. Not much serious thought was given back then to the aspirations of the English, whose identity was submerged within Britishness. If the Scots and Welsh, in their desire for self-determination, defined themselves against England, the English, when the time came, defined themselves against Europe – in effect, against the EU superstate in Brussels.
Where are we now? In politics there are always unintended consequences, which is why pragmatism and scepticism are essential. George Robertson, the former Labour shadow Scottish secretary, boasted that devolution would kill nationalism “stone dead”. In the event, it fired its ambitions. At the 1997 general election, New Labour won 56 of the 72 Scottish Westminster seats (the Tories, opposed to a Scottish parliament, won none); at the 2019 election Labour won only one of the 59 Scottish seats. The nationalists were hegemonic. Labour was being repeatedly routed in one of its old heartlands. The country called Great Britain that had created the conditions for the rise of a national party of the labour interest no longer existed.
What exists today is a fragmented and fractious multinational polity. But a plural society needs more than plural politics and plural identities; it needs a shared commitment to a common good, and that remains elusive. Who are the British and what do they want? It’s not a question anyone can answer satisfactorily at a time of rising English and Scottish nationalism.
I spent some of the pandemic thinking about the disunity of these islands and what would constitute a new politics of the common good because I was writing a book, Who Are We Now? (Picador), about the social atmosphere of England over the past 25 years. I thought again about what’s at stake as I watched Drawn to War, Margy Kinmonth’s film about the artist Eric Ravilious. In the film the writer Alan Bennett considers the appeal of Ravilious’s restrained and subtle watercolours of English landscapes as well as his work as an official war artist (he died aged 39 in 1942 when an air-sea rescue plane in which he was flying disappeared over Iceland). “It is hard to say what it is to be English,” Bennett says, “but Ravilious is part of it.” For Grayson Perry, also interviewed, Ravilious’s work is a “touchstone of English tone”.
For a period, in the early 1930s, Ravilious shared rooms with Edward Bawden at Brick House in the north-west Essex village of Great Bardfield. They’d met as students at the Royal College of Art. One recent afternoon I drove to Great Bardfield, where various artists lived from the 1930s to the late 1950s, including John Aldridge, whose oil paintings my colleague Michael Prodger wrote about in our issue of 25 March 2022. In a 1989 interview (republished in Looking at Life in an English Village, Robjn Cantus’s fine new book about the Bardfield scene), Bawden described what had attracted him there. “It was wonderful in those days. It was a real village, it had three or four tailors and three or four bakers and so on; the food didn’t come from Braintree, it was made on the spot.” The tailors and bakers have long gone but Great Bardfield continues as a real village. It has two pubs and an independent bookshop, run by Janet Dyson, herself an author of an excellent book about the Bardfield artists. Chatting to Janet that afternoon I was delighted to discover she was a New Statesman subscriber. “I use your pages to help choose the books for my shop,” she told me.
The village of Great Bardfield represents something of what I like about the social atmosphere of deep England. An English character that was always changing, always contested, never settled and yet somehow remaining the same was for Orwell the essence of national identity. Is this enduring sense of changing changelessness enough to hold the battered kingdom together today? No one knows. As Alan Bennett says in Drawn to War, reciting lines by WH Auden as he described the ominous mood of Ravilious’s picture Tea at Furlongs: “Something is going to fall like rain. And it won’t be flowers.”
May I wish all our readers a happy Christmas and peaceful New Year.
[See also: Even in a season of goodwill, I look back in anger at the Tory mess that was 2022]
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special