Filling in the census recently, I hesitated before choosing British over English from the menu of national identities. The correct answer is both. Team GB for the Olympics, England for the World Cup. After that, it gets hard to separate the different cultural elements that connect me to the country in which I was born but that my immigrant parents chose. In the chemistry of belonging, Britishness is a compound, not a mixture.
I resented the strain of Brexit demagoguery that sought to narrow patriotic affiliation, excluding those of us who felt an attachment to Europe. I have Scottish friends who dread the prospect of a second independence referendum because their preference for staying in the UK will be cast as deficient national pride.
If that plebiscite were held, and won by nationalists, two countries would be hatched – a post-union Scotland and a truncated Britain. Neither would be entirely new in the long view of history but both would be unfamiliar, and only one of them would have voted for its altered status.
That is not an argument for some kind of all-UK ballot. The whole point of self-determination is that Scotland decides its fate without having to seek permission. England’s numerical supremacy, generating Westminster regimes with no Scottish mandates, has been recent history’s most generous supplier of arguments for independence.
Brexit is prominent in that category, since two-thirds of Scots were against it. Being outside the EU also makes the practical business of setting up an independent Scotland much more complicated and expensive, but for the time being that argument is not getting equivalent traction. An aggravating factor is the radicalism of a Brexit model imposed by a prime minister whose reckless, arrogant style is its own catalogue of reasons to escape the rule of English Tories.
The policies of one government should not be decisive in settling constitutional matters. Boris Johnson’s misrule is temporary; rupture from England would be permanent. But, in practice, the case for the union is obscured when the whole political foreground is taken up by Johnson in his pomp.
Unionism is not the property of the Conservative party. That should hardly need saying, but Labour’s claim to be a party for the whole of Britain is diminished when it looks so far from taking control at Westminster. Commons majorities of 80 are not generally overturned in a single election. The task is made more challenging still by fragmentation in Labour’s vote share. The core is split on axes of geography, demographics and culture – older, working-class, former industrial heartlands and younger, more affluent, metropolitan centres. Appeals to one audience repel the other and efforts to straddle the divide alienate both – as happened with Labour’s tortured equivocation over Brexit.
Of course it is more complicated than that. A more subtle (but still gloomy) account of the problem is contained in Hearts and Minds, a collection of essays by Labour MPs, published this week by the Fabian Society. The analysis mostly absolves Keir Starmer of blame for his party’s weak poll performance, given how deep the rot goes and how few opportunities he has had to address it during the pandemic. But when the audience is readier to listen it will not be easy, preaching a political gospel that stirs hearts in Hartlepool as well as Hampstead.
Fusing disparate voting blocs into a winning whole is possible. The Tories won Workington and Winchester in 2019. The former was 61% for leave in 2016; the latter was 60% for remain. Johnson’s majority is not fashioned only from Brexit, but it is very English.
Labour is the main party of government in Wales. It also dominates devolved politics in London, Manchester and Liverpool. But Starmer will not be prime minister unless his party enjoys a simultaneous surge in Scotland and England. That is a unionist ambition even if it is not yet branded as such.
The Fabian pamphlet briefly mentions Labour’s Scottish mission, only to set it aside as a discrete (and by implication, even more perplexing) problem. But the party’s mass expulsion from formerly safe Scottish seats was, in many respects, a harbinger of what awaited it in areas captured by Johnson years later. There was a “tartan wall” in Scotland, like the English “red wall”, and they crumbled for similar reasons: voters resented being taken for granted by a party deemed complacent by years of local monopoly and culturally remote from the people it represented.
The shift away from Labour was faster and more decisive in Scotland because nationalism offered an alternative allegiance without the requirement to overcome visceral hatred of Tories. And since opposition to independence is led by Tory governments, Labour is trapped, tactically and emotionally, between historic attachment to the union and the compulsion to be against whatever Johnson is for.
That dilemma is not confined to Scottish Labour. There are English voters whose strongest political allegiance in recent years has been rage against Brexit. And while they would also grieve separation from Scotland, they can see why independence appeals to their neighbours as a remedy to Tory rule (especially with Nicola Sturgeon so adept at playing the role of steady-handed physician).
English opinions will not decide a Scottish referendum, but the vitality of non-Tory opposition in England affects the climate in which the issue is debated. It is hard to sell a democratic partnership of nations from a stall that only stocks Conservative governments. Unionism needs a Labour revival in England. As if Starmer’s burden were not heavy enough already, the existence of the British state in its current form depends on him as much as it does on Johnson. Maybe more. There is a mode of Britishness that is cultural, not political; an identity of shared belonging to one island. But without the credible prospect of regime change at Westminster, staying in Britain will always sound, in Scotland, like submission to Tory England.