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Ed Miliband, english, English culture., English nationalism, independence referendum, scotland

Who are the English? Ask Ed Miliband.

   The shadow of Jeremy Clarkson loomed large over Scotland this week as Ed Miliband launched his latest bid to save the union. The Top Gear motormouth has said that if Scots vote for independence it would be like losing “a somewhat violent but much loved family pet”. Ed said wanted to persuade England that, on the contrary, Scotland’s departure would be a “disaster for Britain”, though he never explained exactly why. Instead he promised that Labour would embrace English nationalism “We have been too nervous to talk of English pride and English character”, he said.
Questioned on Channel 4 News as to what these distinctively English characteristics actually are, Miliband answered, rather hesitantly, that it was things like “mustn’t grumble” stoicism that has made England great, and also what he called the “English NHS”. Now, I would have to concede that Scots do their share of grumbling and moaning – the difference between a ray of sunshine and all that. But I fail to see how the NHS can be declared a uniquely English institution. Last time I looked, the National Health Service was being dismantled under the privatisation policies of the Westminster Coalition. In Scotland, the NHS has been preserved intact as a wholly funded public service. What Miliband meant to say, I think,  is that the NHS is one of those great institutions that kept the Union together in the decades after the Second World War. But by posing it as an answer to the question: what is it to be English? , he missed the point entirely.
But why stray into this territory in the first place? Why not let sleeping bulldogs lie. Well, English Labour MPs, like the former deputy leadership challenger Jon Cruddas, have been arguing that Labour needs to combat the appeal of the British National Party, that has been making inroads into Labour’s council vote, by showing that English nationalism isn’t simply the property of the far right. Why shouldn’t Labour be patriotic too? Miliband also feels he needs to assuage English suspicion that moaning Scots get favourable treatment from Westminster.  However, Ed is not prepared to contemplate any English parliament or any reforms to the West Lothian Question. He still needs that cohort of Scottish Labour MPs if Labour is ever to win a majority..

 Now, I spent much of my working life living and working in London and Westminster and I’d have to say that, in my experience, Jeremy Clarkson pretty much sums up what most English people really do think about Scottish independence, though they might express it less robustly. They don’t feel any animosity towards Scots, and rather respect their rugged and no-nonsense image. But they aren’t going to weep buckets if Scotland, which accounts for only 1/11th of the UK population goes off on its own. Not so much good riddance as thank you and goodbye.
Moreover,  in my experience English people don’t have any problem about their own national identity, despite always being told this by politicians like Ed Miliband. They know perfectly well who they are: they are English and they are British, and for most the two are interchangeable. This was most clearly evident at the Queen’s Jubilee bash last week. You could not have asked for a more definitively English celebration of English national identity. And yet people waved, not the Cross of St George, but the union flag. Why? Because they always have and they don’t see why they should change colours because the Scots don’t really feel a part of it.
So,I fear that in raising all this stuff about English nationalism Ed Miliband is creating a problem that doesn’t really exist. And threatening to undermine the very British identity that he says he wants to save. Last week he warned Scots that if they vote Yes to independence they will “no longer be allowed to call themselves British”. Really? How does he intend to stop them? Make it illegal to sing God Save the Queen at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo every year? Prosecute people for waving the Union Jack north of the border? People are entitled to call themselves British if they live in the British Isles just as  they call themselves English or Scottish.
I don’t believe English people or Scottish people have any problem articulating their various national allegiances. Anyway, Scottish nationalism isn’t a chauvinist movement based on notions of ethnic supremacy or racial exclusivity. It is a constitutional not an emotional or nationalism – with civic objectives not cultural ones.    It’s not about identity but about taxation and representation – more immediately it is about the Scottish parliament winning the power to reshape the Scottish economy by gaining fiscal autonomy. David Cameron seems to get this rather better than Ed. Last week he let it be known that the Chancellor, George Osborne, is now minded to hand over all income tax raising powers to Scotland, provided Scots vote No in the 2014 independence referendum. This is designed to shoot the nationalist fox by giving them what they have asked for.
It is also a trap, of course. Scotland raises considerably less in income tax than is spent here on public services, and handing this power in isolation would force the Scottish government to raise taxes to unacceptable levels or live with an ever growing deficit. As the centre right think tank, Reform Scotland, has argued, tax devolution only makes sense if you include revenues from oil, which is the only way to balance the Scottish books north of the Border. Reform also say that corporation tax needs to be devolved too if the Scottish parliament is to have any influence over investment.
Last week, the Scottish Finance Secretary, John Swinney, announced the setting up of a Scottish Inland Revenue to collect the stamp duty and landfill taxes devolved by the recently-passed Scotland Bill. A pretendy Revenue to go with the pretendy parliament, as Billy Connolly might put it.  But is this the embryonic Scottish treasury that will ultimately collect income tax, and hydrocarbon taxes?  This is what the debate is about, not whether you weep at the sight of the flag.
I think the process is now unstoppable and Scotland will be functionally independent in ten years. But in our shifting kaleidoscopic identity culture, people will still wave their flags of choice and call themselves British or Scottish or Pictish or Polish or whatever. In these islands you can be whoever you want to be, wherever you happen to be. You don’t need Ed Miliband to tell you who you are.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


4 thoughts on “Who are the English? Ask Ed Miliband.

  1. I think you're right that many English people see the terms 'British' and 'English' as interchangeable i.e. they are not so much 'British AND English' as 'British WHICH IS English'. (Although the analogy is far from perfect, this would be akin to Germans considering the terms 'Europe' and 'Germany' to be interchangeable. If they did, I think that what that would be indicative of may be considered a cause for concern for the rest of Europe.)Though many Scots consider themselves Scottish AND British, they never see the terms as interchangeable. This is, of course, because they aren't.This discrepancy between Scotland and England is not explicable by their relative enthusiasm for the union and I consider it to be a symptom of a deep misunderstanding (or, more accurately, unexamined assumption) by many, that the UK is simply Greater England. It is not. Regardless of relative populations, it is a multi-national state. Scotland has suffered for this assumption – not only in terms of cultural sensitivities, but in terms of economic wellbeing and, most important in my opinion, psychologically.We are at a stage where a kind of national cognitive dissonance has been created. We, at the same time as recognising ourselves as Scots, see 'Scots' as 'other' – even alien. Funny wee people with funny wee habits. An embarrassment. Not 'normal' (normal being defined by the dominant middle-class English culture). Wiki states that those in dissonance;-may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment.Is that Scotland? Well, if you add 'shame' and 'humiliation' I think it's a pretty good fit.We seem to me to be perpetually seeking to avoid real or (usually) imagined humiliation. We writhe in a self flagellating orgy of 'shame'. Witness the prevalence of the term 'Scotland's Shame' over the years. Whither 'England's Shame'?Wiki continues;The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.Psychologically we would be much healthier specimens if the very notion of Scotland had been obliterated at the same time as our statehood. It wasn't – we are where we are. Come Autumn 2014 one 'dissonant element' will be reduced in importance. If we choose the union we choose a continued – perhaps accelerating – psychological withering.Here's to your good health.

    Posted by voiceofourown | September 1, 2012, 10:44 am
  2. An image came to mind of Scotland as a muddy wee puddle in the beautifully manicured lawn of England (Britain). A puddle full of life but stagnant.We can choose to make a feature of it, put in oxygenating plants, a nice wee border (which still allows free passage of course), begin to attract some more exotic life – or tempt back some that has left.Or we can sit tight while our puddle slowly soaks away – becoming ever more unsightly and insignificant.

    Posted by voiceofourown | September 1, 2012, 11:01 am
  3. A bloody good question considering the scum in all parties have tried to obliterate us over the last few decades.It would be good to let then find out who we are by throwing their corrupt asses out of our English capital city.

    Posted by phoenix | September 7, 2012, 8:52 am
  4. 'British' is a term beloved by: a/Normans and their successors,as is 'Arthurian'history and anything which feeds the fantasy that the English are 'outsiders'.b/ 'British' is also a word beloved by the 1707 Britstate colonialists who have jealously clung to England as their last remaining and most profitable colony. c/ Those who wish to deny England a voice or a parliament,(those of all three 'proper' parties,thus causing further resentmentin England and making it a certainty that the 'union' will disintegrate.

    Posted by Anonymous | November 6, 2012, 3:09 pm

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