We need to talk about English nationalism. Those of us who support Scottish independence are usually wary about anything that could be perceived as “England blaming”. We get hammered so constantly and repeatedly in the media and by opponents of independence as English haters, even though many of us have English family, even though many of us are English ourselves, that we’ve developed an aversion to mentioning anything that might be spun as yet another example of the supposed anti-English racism which the media would have many believe is the only driving force for Scottish independence.
This isn’t about blaming ordinary English people for Scotland’s ills. The problems of Scotland and this country’s role in a British state that is an expression of English nationalism are due to the complicity of generations of Scottish people. Independence is above all the acknowledgement that Scotland must be responsible for its own problems and must find its own solutions to them.
But as long as we remain a part of the UK we do need to talk about England’s problem with its own nationalism. England is the largest and the most dominant nation in this farce of a pretendy union in which Scotland is currently enmeshed. The UK is an expression of English nationalism dressed up as Britishness. It’s English nationalism which has driven and defined Brexit, and it’s English nationalism which is taking Scotland off the Brexit cliff. The UK, for all that we are constantly told it is a union of partner nations, has no mechanisms, no constitutional provisions, no legal safeguards, to protect Scotland from the malign effects of rampant English nationalism. In Scotland we are hostages to English nationalists.
There is much that is good and great about England. There are many things to admire and cherish. It’s a country with a long and respected tradition of radical politics, of liberal values, of toleration and acceptance of difference. And it shouldn’t need to be said that not all English people are consumed by the xenophobia and little Englandism that defines the hard Brexit pursued by this Conservative government.
England is deeply divided on the question of Brexit, and its divisions are profound, bitter, and all-consuming. Even if by some miracle Brexit can be avoided, or the softest possible Brexit agreed, the issue will still continue to divide and define the shape of English politics for decades to come. And that’s the point, because Scotland may be divided on many things, above all the issue of independence, but Scotland is not divided by Brexit like England is. Scotland does have a significant minority which supports Brexit, but unlike in England it is a minority. It is a minority of a similar size to opponents of the EU found in other EU member states where there is no question of leaving the EU and where leaving the EU does not figure in mainstream political discussion. Yet Scotland is now being dragged out of the EU. It’s being dragged out because of English nationalism.
Brexit is happening because English nationalism has never reconciled itself to a position of equality with other nations. England has always been something apart. English nationalism glories in the myth of an island nation, even though these islands are shared with nations other than England. Even though Ireland is an independent sovereign state, English nationalists are still incredulous that Ireland seeks to work in its own best interests and doesn’t surrender to what’s best for their narrow vision of England.
In the dreamscape of the right wing English nationalists who have seized control of the British government, their country is special and not to be subject to the rules that other lesser nations must obey. Yet for the foreseeable future Scotland’s politics and Scotland’s economic prospects will be defined and determined – and more seriously damaged and destroyed – by an English nationalist debate that tells Scotland that it must sacrifice its links to other countries in order to remain subordinate within the UK.
English nationalism is the elephant in the room for opponents of Scottish independence within Scotland. They have no idea how Scotland can be protected from it. Despite Brexit, many of them still refuse to acknowledge that Scotland needs to be protected from it or that it even exists. Even those for whom it does appear on the edges of their conscious awareness, they have no answers to it.
What mechanisms can, realistically, be introduced into the British state in order to ensure that the UK really is a union in fact and not in name? The truth is that there are none, because any such mechanisms would imply a limit being placed upon the English nationalism which has always been the unspoken dominant and defining force within the UK. British nationalism is merely English nationalism with Celtic cheerleaders. British nationalism is English nationalism with a pipe band. British nationalism is the avatar of English nationalism that tells itself that it’s not nationalist at all. It is fundamentally and at its core a species of denial of reality. No wonder that Brexit has proven to be such a mess, when British nationalism is itself an exercise in self-delusion.
Any constitutional mechanisms which would transform the UK into a real union of nations would require the assent of English nationalists and a majority within England. We’ve already seen the constant appearances and disappearances of the federalism fairy ineffectually waving a magic wand which has as much effect as a souvenir bought in a Harry Potter theme park. British nationalists in Scotland propose federalism, but it’s not going to happen because that means placing limits on the absolute power enjoyed by a Prime Minister with a majority in the Commons.
It’s better if you are an opponent of Scottish independence to pretend that there is no issue, that it doesn’t exist, and to concentrate instead on the legal issues faced by a former First Minister, or whatever SNPbad story is the headline du jour. The constant SNPbaddery that defines the British nationalist press in Scotland is a symptom of the powerlessness of British nationalists in Scotland to have any influence over the British state.
As we approach another vote on the issue of Scottish independence, the issue of English nationalism and protecting Scotland from it is a question that we cannot allow opponents of independence to get away with. It is incumbent upon those who want Scotland to remain a part of the UK to demonstrate a clear and realistic plan for ensuring that Scotland’s voice will be heard, that Scotland will not be ignored and sidelined as it has been sidelined during the Brexit negotiations, and that there are constitutional measures in place within the UK to ensure that the four different nations of this so-called union have equal representation and influence at the topmost levels of the British state. Because if they cannot, or will not, do that, then there is nothing in the UK to distinguish it from an expression of English nationalism. That’s the lesson of Brexit.
This may be the perfect union of the Scottish Conservatives, a Scotland that is a prisoner of English nationalists like Jacob Rees Mogg, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson. Well it’s very far from perfect for those of us who see the English nationalist elephant in the room. Scotland either becomes independent, or we remain trapped as cheerleaders for an English nationalism wrapped in a union fleg, feeding its delusion that it’s not nationalist at all.
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