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21 September 2021

Why Gordon Brown’s “New Britain” doesn’t feel like a home for Scotland

If the English are so tolerant and egalitarian, how did Boris Johnson end up in Downing Street?

By Rory Scothorne

“A new Britain is waiting to be born,” declares Gordon Brown in his recent New Statesman article; a Britain beyond the reach of nationalist propaganda and culture wars, characterised by mutual respect and solidarity across all its nations and regions. I’m not so sure. Brown has survey evidence to prove that the peoples of these isles have broadly shared values. Most of us want more tolerance, equality and diversity. We yearn for a greater sense of local and national belonging. We make small, collectivist sacrifices – such as giving blood – without asking where in the UK our blood is going. 

This may all be true. But these are also the values of the hero in almost any Hollywood film or television thriller. It should not be surprising, in a society of mass cultural consumption with a self-consciously liberal pop culture, that what are portrayed as universal signifiers of human decency are indeed widely popular. You may as well check which bits of Britain cheer when the Death Star blows up. In fact, if you need to check how picky we are about who gets our blood, something might already be wrong.

It’s true that there are elements within Scottish nationalism that like to portray the English as uniquely bloodthirsty and bigoted – I’m partial to a bit of Anglo-baiting myself – but this is all part of the pageantry of national rivalry. Indeed, it has been one of the ways by which Scots have always asserted, usually with tongue in cheek, their distinctiveness within that plural, multinational Union Brown celebrates.

This could be why some of the most fervent Scottish advocates for supporting England’s football team are political nationalists. “Anyone but England”, they argue, is a sign of precisely the kind of inward-looking national immaturity fostered by dependency on Scotland’s larger neighbour. Xenophobia against your football rivals is kitschy and outdated, they suggest, the kind of thing you’d expect from those chair-throwing hooligans down in… well, let’s not name any names. These Anglophile Scottish nationalists are actually proposing a far more profound and implausible separation, freeing us entirely from the petty squabbles and resentments that are bound to exist in any relationship as imbalanced as that between England and its outlands.

For it is a profoundly imbalanced relationship. Scotland has just over 8 per cent of the UK’s population; England has well over 80; poor Wales has less than five. The difficulty of compensating for that – of simply getting noticed over the sheer din of numerical advantage, with all its cultural, economic and political amplifications – is why Scottish efforts to assert ourselves can occasionally come across as hostile and excessive. Some Scottish nationalists are fond of adapting the words of former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau to an American audience in 1969: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant: no matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

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I’ve written about this before – the BBC, for instance, can’t be seriously expected to give Scots equal coverage to the English, given how many more English people pay the licence fee. So instead, we get our own channels, with smaller budgets and narrower horizons to match. This kind of trade-off – between consistent low-budget autonomy and the occasional blaze of big-bucks British recognition – has always been present in debates over independence. “Unionist-nationalists” have traditionally argued that the Union offers Scotland far more power and independence than most countries of its size and capabilities. 

That “junior partner” privilege is hard to disentangle from empire, but it can also work on left-wing grounds – when Scotland voted Labour in huge numbers, it was correspondingly over-represented within the UK’s labour movement and its political wing. So long as Labour could win power UK-wide, this did indeed give Scots a remarkable amount of access to power. Tom Johnston, the Labour secretary of state for Scotland in Winston Churchill’s wartime government, used that access to direct industry and investment into Scotland, and established the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, transforming the Highlands with electricity. Half a century later, it was a Labour government stuffed with Scots that delivered the Scottish Parliament. 

Yet that parliament was supposed to protect us from the elephant, after almost two decades of Conservative governments elected overwhelmingly by English voters. That era saw the discourse of “different values” really take off, as a way of explaining and leveraging electoral divergence. Historians and social scientists have explained that divergence in various ways – different institutions and cultural traditions played a part, but there were also important sociological and political-economic differences. For example, Scotland entered the Thatcher era with more social housing, a bigger public sector and more heavy industry than England, and lacked the large private-sector middle class in the south of England that underpinned Thatcherite populism.

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Yet Brown is on to something: in the decades since then, Scotland and England have converged sociologically and economically far more than they have diverged – the apparent paradox is that the more similar we have become, the more successful nationalism has been. 

But is that such a paradox? It’s not just Scotland that has lost its distinctiveness from England – across the Anglophone world and beyond, all sorts of cultural and economic boundaries have been dissolved and remade, becoming stronger within nation-states rather than between them. The guiding ideology of this globalised liberal culture emphasises choice and self-fashioning – why should that not apply to those dwindling sovereignties too?

Young Scots in particular, who have grown up almost entirely within this worldview, do not see Scotland’s place in the Union in terms of collective security and protection – since when did states do that? – but as a dusty old certainty that is long overdue some proper transgression. This rather shallow, cosmopolitan and neoliberal nationalism feels increasingly dated itself, as sovereignty returns to the scene – but it may yet turn out to be one of the means by which full-fledged, hard-bordered sovereignty is returning, whether its supporters know it or not.

Brown thinks that shared values prove the case for the Union, but what he can’t do is explain why, if we have such similar values, we express them in such different ways. If the English are so tolerant and egalitarian, then it still has to be explained why they believe that Boris Johnson – loathed in Scotland – is an appropriate representative for those values. 

It is obvious that there are far harder differences in play than the subjective world of values – Scotland and England present their publics with very different structures of opportunity in which to express their values politically, especially through their distinctive party, electoral and media systems. It is hard to avoid the conclusion, in fact, that Scotland offers a far better vehicle for the “new Britain” Brown promises than Anglo-Britain can. So perhaps we can find a compromise: if this new Britain is what everyone wants, why don’t we put Scotland in charge of it until England’s institutions are ready to catch up? If not – why not?

[See also: Scottish independence would force Britain to confront its post-imperial decline]