Now is the time for all good folk to come to the aid of the union

`English', when applied to nationality, has always been a mean, narrow, Caucasian little word meaning retreat

Donald Macintyre
Thursday 08 April 1999 23:02

MY ROAD to Damascus began nearly three years ago. The England- Scotland Euro 96 game at Wembley, the first cross-border international for many years, was an eye-opener for me as it was for many London residents of Scottish extraction. My first discovery was that, having arrived without strong opinions, I instinctively supported Scotland, a feeling which grew as Scotland went down two-nil.

The second, much more important, was the real shock at seeing, in the sea of St George's flags, something which I had hitherto thought of as no more than a mystical construct: English nationalism. Suddenly, the possibility of a mutually agreed divorce between the two countries seemed real in a way it had never seemed before. My Damascene moment. Which is what this election will primarily be about. When the government's main challenger is a party committed to an independent Scotland, it is time to take notice.

Let's make the important concession first. Scotland and England are two countries, and always were, before and after the Act of Union. The English have too long ignored that inconvenient fact. But why on earth should that mean that they have to be a separate nation states?

Some Scottish nationalists, ignoring the legion of contrary facts spelt out in an important pamphlet by Gordon Brown and the young MP Douglas Alexander, New Scotland New Britain - such as that spending is 24 per cent more per head in Scotland than in England - like to generate an untermensch, downtrodden-by-the-English, mentality among the Scots. But, in stark contrast to Ireland,and contrary to the fatuous Braveheart myth, Scotland was not coerced into the Union by the absentee English landlords and the jackbooted English regiments. It was a voluntary arrangement which has long suited both countries extremely well.

Let's forget, for the time being, the obvious threat to Britain's international clout. Or the huge potential downside for Scotland's economy. Let's concentrate instead on another fashionable and sentimental fallacy, that somehow it is more left wing to embrace the SNP.

My guess is that Scottish voters, even in the supposedly red bastions of west central Scotland will, just like their English counterparts, find that in the privacy of the ballot box that they rather like Gordon Brown's planned cut in income tax. But there is a much larger point. The SNP, by its very nature, places national identity above social justice. To put it in an old- fashioned way, whatever happened to the politics of class?

You don't actually have to be a Marxist to recognise that Scottish telephone call centre workers have more interests in common with their counterparts in Yorkshire than with the Highland landed aristocracy.

But the other, sinister, spectre subliminally raised by those, particularly in England, who treat the prospect of Scottish independence with indifference is the one just visible in all those St George's flags flaying that match at Wembley two years ago - and on many occasion since.

Most of those who advocate the new English nationalism are Conservatives who fondly imagine that they will control England in perpetuity, freed of all those tiresome Scottish MPs who from time to time give Labour a thumping great parliamentary majority. As it happens, in every election since the war in which Labour has had a parliamentary majority, it has also had a majority in England and Wales.

But much worse is nationalism's poverty of vision. The porousness of the England-Scotland border has greatly enriched England as well as Scotland. Leave the arts, or the sciences, or engineering, or writing out of it, if you will. You have only to look at the many Scots in the Cabinet to see how far political life would be impoverished by sending them all "home". But there is another point - one which paradoxically suggests that the election campaign, may help to restate the benefits of a British identity.

My paternal grandparents were, respectively, from Stornoway and Glasgow and my maternal ones Jews of Eastern European extraction. Born in London, I have always thought it pretentious - and not particularly accurate - to describe myself as Scottish. But I have never thought of myself as remotely English. British suits me fine. This would be a fact of stunning irrelevance if it were not that I suspect this also goes for those of my fellow citizens who are ethnically South Asian or Afro-Caribbean or - say - Cypriot. English has always, when applied to nationality, seemed to me a mean, narrow, Caucasian, little word, which speaks of retreat in place and time.

British does work for multi-culturalism, if only, paradoxically, because of its vestigial links with an imperialism - in which, by the way, the Scots punched well above their weight - which made most of our forefathers, black, white and brown, British subjects whether we liked it or not.

What makes the United States such an exceptional, and for all its faults, wonderfully successful country is the common idea of Americanism which runs, in the words of the Woody Guthrie song, "from California to the New York island", and which helps to unite the most epic ethnic mix on the planet. Or as Brown and Alexander put it "America's national identity absorbs and transcends the diverse ethnicities to that came to its shores." They then add: "In Britain our challenge is different: to succeed not just as a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country but as a multi-national one as well." That works if you ascribe the word British to the two countries north and south of the border. It works not at all if we lose the British and retreat into our Scottishness, or God help us, Englishness. Which is just what the independence freaks on both sides of the border want.

Forget about the huffing and puffing about Alex Salmond's condemnation about the war in Serbia as "unpardonable folly". True it smacks, like his tax pledge, a little of the desperate act he didn't need to commit. Whether it was electorally wise is not the point. He was perfectly entitled to make it. But there is, oddly, a Balkan connection. And no, you don't have to compare Salmond, an astute, open, and impeccably democratic politician, with a Serbian nationalist to make it. But when the hideous deformity which prevented Tito's Yugoslavia from turning seamlessly into a democratic unitary state which might now be in the EU was precisely Slobodan Milosevic's decision to play the nationalist card in Kosovo in 1987 and 1989, it seems a mighty off time to revert to the politics of nationalism and separation. The Liberal Democrats have been playing far too much footsie with the nationalists for comfort.

There are only two choices in this hugely important election in Scotland. Vote for the Union. This means voting Labour - or if you can't bring yourself to do that - vote Conservative.

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