Monday, 15 September 2014

Sins of the fatherland

My birthday this year will coincide with the referendum on Scottish independence. So forgive me if I make this momentous event a little more about me then perhaps I should.
I've stayed silent throughout most of the debate. Not because I have any delusions that my ill-formed and ill-informed ideas might have any influence on the outcome of the vote. The stage is already crowded with English people heckling Scots on how they should vote. More because I am conflicted about this debate. And mostly, because, as an English person, this debate has been uncomfortable.
It is difficult for people from outside the British Isles to understand that this debate could be so fraught. We are a small island. The Act of Union was signed before the USA became an independent country, before France was a Republic. Throughout Europe, countries have merged and broken apart countless times in the same time span that the United Kingdom has been persisted. Heck, Ireland has undergone more changes in that time period. It would seem strange therefore, that a Union that has persisted so long could conceal a desire for independence strong enough to break it now. Yet, here we are, with a vote that looks like it will be as narrow as the independence referenda in Quebec, despite the fact the differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada are more obvious.
It is not my place to legislate on the validity of the Scottish feelings of independence, to argue about which parts of Scottish culture are true and authentic, which are reflections of recent political differences, and which are recent fabrications. I will say that nationalist sentiments of all stripes are mostly mythology of some sort. That is why historians have so little patience for them. I'm half French, half English. I have more than enough of that baggage to deal with.
This is, of course, where my discomfort begins. For, with the best will in the world, it is almost impossible, as an English person - worse, as a Londoner - not to feel slightly hurt by much of the rhetoric coming out of Scotland. The most optimistic, hopeful writings about Scottish independence, that avoid saying that everything will be better if we just ditch the English, still contain the implicit message that, well, England is doing a lot of things wrong. The worst, well, they fit into a long narrative of painting the English as the devil.
My first response to this was to highlight the unfairness of the political critique. Scotland is not unique having suffered under Tory rule; so has much of Northern England. Without Scotland in the Union, it will become harder for left-wing Labour governments to form a majority, thus condemning England to more years of post Thatcherite crisis economics. The fact that the Labour party has consistently failed to convince the Scots that it has their interests at heart is one problem with this narrative. The other is that it is not mine. I do not come from one of those parts of the UK ravaged by Tory rule. In fact, I come from the one part of the country that has consistently done well since the recession. When I talk about Wales or the North of England to argue a case for Scottish solidarity, am I not simply using that history as an argument to avoid, well, looking at the content of the Scottish critique of ruling class Englishness? Most crucially, when I point to mine and my friends in London's desire for a more equitable government, our disgust with the Tory policies, our hope for a better future, am I not, in fact, trying to hide my own complicity with the dominant narrative? After all, none of us have left London. None of us would seriously consider redistributing the art budget more equitably ("but the Royal Opera is so wonderful it would be such a shame to lose it"). As has been pointed out, it is difficult to take the critique of Scottish nationalism seriously, when what is being propped up against it, in all seriousness, is a jingoistic take on British history that would make Churchill blush with embarrassment. 
As I mentioned before, I am half French, half English. Until the middle of the twentieth century, both those countries subjugated half the world. French colonialism was horrible, and despite better PR, British colonialism was no better. For complex reasons owing to my French parent's background, I am somewhat on the periphery of the French power establishment (protestant background, and from a region of France often deemed insufficiently French). Yet my Englishness, with my central London upbringing, my accent that sounds like what you here from the green baize of Parliament, my private schooling, and my Cambridge degree, is pretty damned Establishment. And the Establishment has managed to portray itself as very close to the caricature it claims the Scots have leveled at it. In the end, my discomfort in the face of Scottish independence is more to do with the disturbing possibility that I may in fact have some of the traits of the cold, callous, dismissive, and arrogant Englishman of those narratives.

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