Just as Scotland is beginning to tire of the latest flurry of nationalist speculation, based on a couple of rather optimistic opinion polls, England has rediscovered perfidious Caledonia. Last week, the London press was been full of challenges to Scotland to go for autonomy - if you think you’re hard enough.
Here’s Simon Jerkins in the Guardian: “I would not lose any sleep if the Scots voted to repeal the 1707 Act...it would do Scotland nothing but good to learn that public money does not grow on English trees.”
According to David Aaronovitch in the Times, the English “might moan about the passport man getting on the train near Berwick, but - with traditional complacency - would otherwise soon get over it”. Prospect magazine has been running a lively debate about the merits of independence since it ran a cover story last month about the apostasy of the Scottish Tory historian, Michael Fry, who has promised to vote SNP in May. The consensus is that it’s only a matter of time.
Conservative columnists like Michael Portillo, in the Sunday Times, and Max Hastings (everywhere) have long been arguing that the Scots need to be taught a lesson by having the subsidy tap turned off at source. That England could survive and thrive without Scotland - now that the oil has mostly run out - since it only constitutes a twelfth of the population.
This is becoming something close to a post-unionist consensus now among the commentariat. Curiously, it was left to a Scottish journalists, John Lloyd of the FT, to make the case for the union in the Guardian’s internet forum “Comment is Free”. A lone voice against the chorus of opinion formers dissing the UK.
So much for the great crusade to defend the Union, launched by the Labour cabinet last weekend. Tony Blair raised the Union Jack and no one saluted. Simon Jenkins compared the posse of Labour ministers in Oban to: ”a bunch of Spanish hidalgos racing back from he flesh pots of Madrid to quell a revolt in their home province”. English newspapers seemed utterly unmoved by the warnings from the Home Secretary John Reid, that independence would leave the country vulnerable to terrorist attack and a flood of illegal immigrants.
But why has the Union fallen out of favour so dramatically in England? Do all those organs of opinion really want to see a break up of Britain? It is of course wrong to make sweeping generalisations about a country’s attitudes, when there has been no real national debate about the question at hand. It may be that there are millions of closet unionists south of the Border who are only waiting their moment to speak out.
However, I have been acutely conscious in my recent conversations with metropolitan editors and commentators a resentment, an irritation with Scotland right now which is as unmistakable as it is puzzling. After all, it is not my perception that Scotland is going through one of its anti-English phases. Yet I keep being told that the Scots just won’t stop moaning and attacking the English. That we ask for more and more subsidies and then complain that London is responsible for all our problems. That we “run” the cabinet and are over-represented in Westminster. Yet, Scottish public spending is in relative decline and Scottish MPs were reduced by one sixth after devolution .
This has little to do with the Barnett Formula or the West Lothian Question. It’s personal. Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian last week that: “Gordon Brown, probably the next Prime Minister, wears his distaste for England on his sleeve, and English voters sense it.” That was an astonishing thing to say, when the Chancellor has been going to such lengths to stress his love for the Union and his support for England in sporting events the World Cup. He even says his favourite sporting moment is that Paul Gascoigne goal against Scotland.
There is a note of condescension, impatience even contempt creeping into a lot of media commentary on Scotland which is becoming more than a little disturbing. This hostility is reflected in rather more Anglo Saxon terms in many emails and internet comments, many racist and unprintable, on my pieces. When will the Scots learn to stop complaining. Why don’t you just Jock Off!
I have been wondering where all this is coming from and I am beginning to think if may be a displaced resentment about the way in which race has transformed English culture and society. There is a widespread but largely suppressed concern about the consequences of mass immigration in England. The editor of Prospect, David Goodhart, has bee calling for “progressive nationalism”, a return to British values and an unwinding of multiculturalism. Goodhart has warned that unlimited immigration could undermine the welfare state by destroying the social contract that underpins it.
Now, for even suggesting that there should be a debate about immigration Goodhart has been widely vilified on the Left for being racist. A “liberal Powellite” is how he was described by the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Philips. Ironic that, since Phillips has recently been attacked as a BNP fellow traveller by the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone. Phillips had said that Britain is “sleep-walking to segregation” because of miss-placed multiculturalism and the failure to integrate immigrant communities.
It has become all but impossible to speak about identity in British political culture without being accused of racism. “There is a danger”, says Phillips, “that increasingly we are so afraid to speak to each other about our differences that nobody can say what they mean.” Well, there is one ethnic group about whom English people can say what they mean: the Scots.
When commentators talk of Scots running England, the Scottish “Raj”, “whinging Jocks” etc.. they can indulge in a identity politics without worrying that they are going to be accused of supporting the BNP. During last Summer’s footie wars, the Observer ran a front page headline which read: ”Brown under fresh pressure over Scottish roots”. If Brown had been black or Asian that story would would never have been printed.
This ethnic hostility is rife on the internet where foul-mouthed abuse of the Scots is quite acceptable even on liberal websites. For once they can speak their minds. It is an opportunity for English people to get it off their chests - have a rant at non English people for a change.
And to celebrate their own values. For one of the problems about criticising multiculturalism, and calling for a return to British values, is deciding what these values actually are. George Orwell’s warm beer, cricket and spinsters on bicycles usually figure on the inventory of Britishness. But these are essentially English values rather than Scottish ones. It is not easy to have a Scottish “cricket test”.
Now, I’m not for one second denying that Scots aren’t guilty of this kind of communal hostility themselves. There is far too much anti-English feeling Scotland which is excused as banter, but is - in its own way - racist. That’s not the point.
This crisis of English identity may be one of the factors behind the withdrawal of English support for the Union. This is having a blow-back in Scotland. Indeed, it may be that, this time round, English nationalism is becoming a more important dynamic of constitutional change than Scottish nationalism. That like the Czech Republic before the Velvet Divorce from Slovakia, the momentum for dissolution is coming from the senior partner in the union.
The 300th anniversary of the Act of Union next year is going to be very interesting.