Wednesday, September 03, 2014

A Nation ill at ease with itself

In a couple of weeks time the British residents of Scotland, not all of them Scottish, will have the opportunity to do what Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler failed to do - destroy the United Kingdom. Much of the rather poor debate on Scottish independence has ignored the fact that a "Yes" vote will lead to this outcome. Without Scotland Great Britain will cease to exist. And without Great Britain (the Union of England, Wales and Scotland) the very concept of Britishness goes as well.

My parents generation were born in a country - the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland - which was shortly to be abolished. Am I to have been born in one which will disappear as well? To lose one constituent part of the United Kingdom may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. 

Whilst the wild men of North Britain are taking the the high road to walk away from the rest of us we, Chesterton's "people of England" haven't found our voice. At least not on the break up of our nation. In the same way, but more seriously, that we sanguinely accept that we could leave the European Union we are watching the Scots reject us and we shrug our shoulders. Some on both Right and Left seem rather to welcome a Scottish breakaway. The Right because England would have a permanent Conservative majority in Westminster. And the Left because they envy the Scots opportunity to have permanent governance from the Left, and hope they get it.

If, madly, we (whoever "we" are by then) choose to leave the EU it would be a serious setback, but not fatal. If we later came to our senses we could always apply to rejoin. But Scottish independence would be irreversible - as would the consequential break up of Britain. And if it happens then future historians might link it to other political and social trends across the country at this time. The anarchist writer Alan Moore said about modern Britain “It's cold and it's mean spirited and I don't like it here anymore.” I know what he means.

Just two years after the triumph of "London 2012" - a very British triumph - we are ill at ease with ourselves - indeed we are uncertain who we are. The Olympic opening ceremony celebrated Britain's modernity and diversity. Now we want, or some of us do, to turn the clock back and retreat into the perceived security of a comfortable White, Anglo-Saxon Anglicanism. That is the UKIP message and it strikes a chord with many. "Multiculturalism has failed" they say, and it's the cause of all our woes. Well that message is indeed "cold and mean spirited" - and it is profoundly wrong as well. UKIP and their fellow travellers on the Tory Right and in the BNP  and the EDP use opposition to immigration as code for their hatred of the fact that we are a racially and religiously and culturally diverse society. 

To want to be surrounded exclusively by people like you are yourself is a very human trait, shared by many. It is mostly harmless. But when it leads to the creation on the one hand of "Gated communities" for the rich and on the other ethnically restrictive ghettos for the poor it is potentially dangerous. The debate about "British Values" is a coded debate about the positive value of a White, Anglo-Saxon, Christian, English-speaking culture and, conversely, the demonisation of cultures in which one or more of these things is not present. Similarly the virulent anti-European rhetoric of UKIP and the Tory Right is full of words like "Sovereignty" - as if we somehow have the choice of pulling up our drawbridges and retreating to be the little self-governing island nation we once were. (Actually you have to go back a very long way to find such an England. For centuries we have been the archetypical global adventurer as a people).

The Scottish independence debate and the EU debate are alike in that they both have at their core the question of partnership, on the one hand (the status quo) or of going it alone on the other. The racists of the Right and those who share their objections to diversity but talk more in code are the same. There is, however, one crucial difference. The Scots could choose independence and it would happen. We could choose to leave the European Union - likewise. But multicultural Britain is here to stay. Restrictions on immigration would have only a minor dent on that fact. As far as I am award even UKIP is not proposing ethnic cleansing and forced repatriation. 

Churchill famously said "Jaw Jaw is always preferable to War War". The sense of unease I have about modern Britain is that whilst there is plenty of Jaw Jaw it is ineffective and strident. Everything is polarised into "Yes/No" and you have to nail your colours to the mast. If you are not with me you are against me. Society is divided more than I can ever remember in my lifetime. And these divisions are manifest in the upcoming referendum in Scotland and the one proposed on Europe. Changes in public service, in education and healthcare particularly, are described as ideological by their opponents when many would say that they are, whether ideologically driven or not, only really fine tuning on the margins.

We are not at ease with ourselves and we are as a consequence always ready to blame others for our "misfortunes". The Government (of course). Previous Governments. Immigrants. Europeans. Shirkers. Muslims. Toffs. People who are too politically correct. Racists. The Rich. Welfare cheats. Tax dodgers. The old. The young. And so on ad infinitum....

It's very sad.


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