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22 September 2021

Letter of the week: Britain’s break-ups

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By New Statesman

Gordon Brown’s optimistic agenda for an egalitarian United Kingdom made up of nations and regions free from nasty nationalism misses a crucial point (Politics, 17 September). Brexit Britain is now itself a disruptive nationalist entity. It turned its back on partnership in the EU and then demonstrated a cavalier contempt for binding obligations in Ireland – not to mention the latest breach of faith with our French Nato allies.

Brown’s critique of “narrow nationalists” who “do not want to cooperate with their closest neighbours” is in fact a disturbing description of what Britain has become. In this context, today’s Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalist parties are paragons of international partnership.

Labour cannot avoid the subject of Europe forever, because Britain’s future obviously lies with our closest neighbours. Meanwhile, if the SNP were to be clever enough to find a way to join Northern Ireland in the single market, or even rejoin the EU, perhaps Scotland could begin to help nationalist England back into the family of European nations?

John Home Robertson, former Labour MP, Paxton, Scottish Borders

[see also: The Britain of Emma Raducanu shows why nationalists are losing the argument]

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The Scottish Question

In 2014, shortly before voting No in the Scottish independence referendum, I read Gordon Brown’s My Scotland, Our Britain with admiration. It was a book that articulated brilliantly what it was that I, an Anglo-Scot who had lived most of my life in England before moving to Scotland, so treasured about the Union.

Seven years on, as a post-Brexit convert to independence, I still admire Brown for his convictions but wonder at some of the straw men against which he builds his case (Politics, 17 September). Does he really believe that anyone’s central argument for the break-up of Britain is that we cannot be Scottish and British at the same time? That a desire for independence signals a desire not to cooperate with England? That this is about no more than “narrow nationalism”? Or is it just easier to come up with this stuff because the truth is more challenging?

Brexit is not only a catastrophe for Scotland but an abuse of England’s dominant status, which renders meaningless any grand words about cooperation. Scotland hasn’t voted for a Tory government since the 1950s. Under Boris Johnson and any of his likely successors, our very democracy is under threat. It is entirely coherent to rejoice in the England of Emma Raducanu, Marcus Rashford and Gareth Southgate, and still to believe that Scotland would be better off going its own way.

If Scotland does become independent, it will be in all our interests – both sides of the border – to see a relationship of trust, goodwill and the closest possible cooperation between London and Edinburgh. That shouldn’t, in principle, be difficult. But it won’t be helped by the likes of Gordon Brown implying that independence is predominantly about anti-Englishness.

Richard Haviland, Drumnadrochit, Inverness-shire

Gordon Brown’s Panglossian take on our prospects is unlikely to convince many of his target audience north of the border, resting as it must on an assumption that the Labour Party will be in a position to bring about his promised new era of sweetness and light any time soon.

This, sadly, is as realistic as his fatuous belief that the “culture wars” are about to end. Clearly they are just getting properly under way, with Labour in the thick of it.

On the other hand, these notions seem realistic compared with the quaint idea that anyone who wears an England football shirt for a living could do anything to make SNP supporters see the error of their ways. Good luck with that.

Conor Magill, London E1

Congratulations on your transition to the new look. As a reader returning after a long break, I have marvelled at how the magazine has changed since around 1980. I tell everyone who’ll listen about the quality of your writing. I was in thrall reading Jeremy Cliffe’s article on Angela Merkel (“The Fateful Chancellor”, 17 September). But then I turned the page to Gordon Brown’s column, where he tries to squeeze life into a failed argument.

In this part of the world, many people hold a view that I don’t see reflected in the magazine. Mind you, the presence of a section called “This England” should give a clue.

Robert Johnstone, Inverness

Over the line

I was glad to see tennis in the limelight in the latest issue after Emma Raducanu’s amazing US Open win, but dismayed about one aspect of Jonathan Liew’s column on the subject (Newsmaker, 17 September). While he lambasts the “social media abuse” suffered by professional players, just a few lines earlier he describes Heather Watson as “neither good nor interesting”. This is a player who has been British number one and the 38th best player in the world. At a moment when sportspeople in general and tennis players in particular are urging the media to pay closer attention to the mental health implications of what they produce, I was surprised to find the New Statesman publish such a flippant and dismissive comment about a player’s career and personality.

Edward Clay, Birmingham

Jonathan Liew dismisses a world-class tennis player and former British number one as “neither good nor interesting”. Presumably he was too busy being both good and interesting to pay any heed to the recent discussion surrounding the mental health of athletes in the face of baseless media sledging.

Emma Parkinson, Bath

[see also: Why there is melancholy in Emma Raducanu’s New York fairy tale]

Abortion matters

I would like to thank Rachel Cunliffe for her column on abortion rights (Out of the Ordinary, 10 September). The loss of abortion rights in Texas (and also in Poland) is of enormous concern. I fear, however, that the issue is not so much that men don’t understand women’s bodies, or that they don’t care about the harm caused – it’s more that some men desire to control women whatever the cost.

Sarah Johannessen, Hertford

Tax technicality

Your Chart of the Week about the UK tax system does not give the true picture (The Notebook, 17 September). The 9 per cent graduate repayments are not specifically a “tax”, since students are not compelled to take out a loan. At the same time, when many “repayments” are simply being used to meet absurdly high interest rates, it is no wonder that taxpayers will have to cover around half the cost of all student loans.

Peter Clarke, Cambridge

The gender debate

While Sophie McBain admits that Helen Joyce’s Trans is impressively researched and well-argued (“How to talk about trans rights”, 17 September), it was as though she and I had read different books. I missed the “conspiratorial” bits and the “harsh and insensitive” tone. I think part of the problem in this debate is that when one side states fairly uncontroversial scientific and sociological opinions, the other feels they are being attacked. We need to get past this and not shut down conversation.

Toby Barrett, Worcester

Why the SNP win

Reading Ruth Davidson’s column (Another Voice, 17 September) I could not help wondering why, after 14 years in government, the SNP had another overwhelming victory in the Scottish Parliamentary elections just four months ago if things are as bad as she says. Of 73 first-past-the-post seats, the SNP won 62, the Tories five, the Lib Dems four and Labour two. In the 2019 general election the SNP won 48 seats, the Tories six, the Lib Dems four and Labour just two.

In a future article I look forward to Davidson explaining why the sorry state of Scotland results in Nicola Sturgeon enjoying a high level of support and the opposition parties bumping along the bottom.

Davidson is a young and likeable politician. When Scotland becomes independent, whether in three, five or ten years, the SNP, having achieved its purpose, will split in two and Scotland will be governed, hopefully, by coalitions of the centre left and centre right. She could be a strong candidate for leadership of the centre right.

David McCarthy, Kinross

Queue for your supper

The cartoon depicting the Top Five British Queues (Outside the Box, 17 September) reminds me of a story my mother, who was born in 1930, used to tell. Her mother gave her a little bit of money to carry around with her during the war. She was told that if she ever saw a queue outside a shop she was to join it and purchase whatever was available. With supermarket shelves becoming emptier by the day, we may see this behaviour back again.

Graham Don, Market Overton, Rutland

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[see also: The big problem with the SNP’s plan to measure Scotland’s success by “well-being”]

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This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play