In 1941, with the continent ablaze, George Orwell wrote confidently that the English were likely to be immune from violent militarism of the kind reigning supreme in Germany and Italy. The English were hypocritical about the use of violence to maintain their overseas empire, but their ingrained cultural loathing of the ‘jackboot’ would in all probability spare them the horrors of a totalitarian regime like that of contemporary Germany.
One wonders what Orwell would have made of those oft-quoted poll results from 2019, which stated that the majority of Brexiteers in England were not only happy to lose Northern Ireland and Scotland in order to ‘get Brexit done’, but also expected, and accepted, the prospect of violence against members of the public and politicians to achieve the same goal. Brexit became the tortured crucible of a new, disruptive force in British politics: English nationalism.
What is English nationalism now? Politically and culturally, we have learned to associate it with Brexit, racism, imperial nostalgia and a performed pugnacity towards our European neighbours. Most lately, we have learned to associate it with the UK government itself. Scottish nationalism, conversely, has largely succeeded in convincing large sections of the Scottish population that it represents something altogether more inclusive, accepting and progressive (read: cuddly).
We are confronted, then, with two nationalisms currently in the process of remaking our island. Conventional liberal logic sees the English variant as a backward-looking, rage-fuelled reaction from those ‘left-behind’ parts of England that feel alienated by immigration, European integration and devolution for the Celtic fringe. The Scottish variant is a shining example of a liberally-minded, civic nationalism that offers to turn Scotland into a Scandi-paradise.
This is a false dichotomy: nevertheless it has become entrenched in public consciousness. As such, it ensures the survival of a dynamic that continues to rob both English and Scots of the prospect of competitive elections. There is no feasible prospect of ending SNP rule in Scotland or Tory rule in England in anything like the foreseeable future. Both these countries are now one-party states.
24 March 2018 'March for Europe' - a pro-EU, anti-Brexit march in Edinburgh, Scotland. Credit: Complexli
What is the nature of the interaction between these political forces? Even a cursory look at recent UK election history will show you that as long as the Tories continue to win in England, the SNP will maintain their hegemony in Scotland by dominating the anti-Tory vote here.
Similarly, the strength of Scottish nationalism provides the perfect foil for a resurgent English nationalism: a force motivated, at least in part, by resentment that the Scots have simultaneously been given greater autonomy and greater subsidies from Westminster than most parts of England. Boris Johnson is the enemy that Nicola Sturgeon needs; and she is the enemy that he needs. Remember those Tory billboards in 2015, with Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket? Whipping up English resentment is a game that the Tories have learned to play well. Without it, Brexit may never have happened at all.
At this point it might be appropriate to remind readers that nationalism is always like this. An imagined community always has oppositional, as well as associational aspects. To forge a community you need common ties between members; you also need a firm idea of what those members are united in not being. Scottish nationalist leaders over recent decades should be given credit for ensuring that the oppositional elements of their movement were defined in ideological, rather than in cultural or ethnic terms.
"To be a Scottish nationalist is to not be a Thatcherite. At least for now, it has nothing to do with the colour of your skin."
To be a Scottish nationalist is to not be a Thatcherite. At least for now, it has nothing to do with the colour of your skin. Sadly, that simply can’t be said for English nationalism. To this extent (and for the time being) there is clear water between these political forces.
How are we to break this dichotomy? I hope you will agree that competitive elections are what the people of both nations deserve. Defined, for our purposes, as enjoying a feasible prospect that the party of government might actually change. Two nationalisms that survive, and take strength from their mutual opposition are most threatened when their respective constituencies realise how much they actually have in common. We need to recognise the ways in which these nationalisms interact, and crucially intersect. Empire is the hardest—and for that reason the most important—place to start.
"At every conceivable level, Scots played a disproportionately large role in Britain’s imperial adventures."
Each in its own way, both of these nationalisms represent an imperial amnesia. Both have their origin in the unravelling of empire: a process that has slowly changed Britain over decades, and whose full implications are still unclear. ‘Britain’ is an entity, and ‘British’ an identity that for many is irrevocably tarnished with imperial associations. The union was itself underwritten by Empire, and so was the hybrid identity that it necessitated.
Scottish access to England’s overseas markets was a crucial motivating factor behind the union of 1707; the riches and martial ‘glories’ of Empire were a major factor in the consolidation of Scotland’s ‘British’ relationship for centuries. The prospect of overseas power projection rooted in a stronger, shared security was vital to Scottish theorising ‘British’ union from the 16th century onwards.
What connects us now? The imperial tie is gone, and the Scots are not to be blamed for wondering “why are we still here?”. And not far behind comes the second, more important question: “what were we doing here in the first place?”. Lastly and most disturbingly: “are we … (also) … the baddies?”. For many, Scottish nationalism provides an easy, uncomplicated answer to all three. We shouldn’t still be here, we didn’t ever enjoy being here, and by calling ourselves Scottish rather than British, we can definitively say that we are not the baddies. There is an unmistakable cowardice to these answers.
Admittedly, Scottish nationalists start from a better place than the angsty and ignorant relationship that English nationalists have with Britain’s imperial past. English nationalism denies the atrocities of Empire; as such, it begins with a bullish refusal to stare facts in the face.
But by shedding the ‘British’ cloak now that it no longer suits them (and refusing to remember how well it did suit them for so long) Scottish nationalists are not much better. At every conceivable level, Scots played a disproportionately large role in Britain’s imperial adventures. The historical scholarship of Tom Devine in particular has done valuable work in shedding light on this aspect of Scotland’s past.
"Repeated surveys have shown that Scots do not hold significantly different views on issues like taxation than the English—they simply believe that they do."
Britain’s imperial legacy is a messy, complicated and tragic affair. Only two things can be said with any certainty. Firstly we have to recognise that it is a shared, British legacy. Secondly, nothing will be gained from running away from our past. Both the Scots and the English need to stare facts in the face. We will likely be appalled by what we see, but the occasion calls us to do something better than our usual trick: running away.
Empire is only one sense in which this false dichotomy between a progressive Scottish nationalism and a regressive English nationalism needs to be complicated, and re-examined. Perhaps even more dangerous is the widespread, easy assumption that Scots are inherently more progressive than the English. There may be elements of truth in this—but there are also too many blindspots to let the claim go unanswered. For one thing, that poll from 2019 showed that a majority (60%) of Brexiteers in Scotland were also willing to see violence against MPs to get their way over Brexit. In fact, so were a majority of Remainers in England, Scotland and Wales.
Repeated surveys have shown that Scots do not hold significantly different views on issues like taxation than the English—they simply believe that they do. The latest report from the British Social Attitudes Survey recorded exactly the same proportion of English and Scots respondents as claiming that the distribution of income in Britain was ‘unfair’: 52% of respondents said that this was the case, in both countries.
Recall the promise of extra funding for the NHS on that big, shiny red bus in 2016? English nationalism is just as willing to pay lip-service to the welfare state. And just as useless at doing anything practical to save it.
Ultimately, neither of these nationalisms will be able to deliver the material things that their supporters actually want. Before our politics become irretrievably bogged down in nationalism, we can only hope that voters on both sides of this division wake up and realise how much they have in common with their opponents